As recent high school graduates prepare for their migration to college in the fall, one item is sure to top most students’ shopping wish lists: a laptop computer. Laptops are ubiquitous on university campuses, and are viewed by most students as absolute must-have items, right alongside laundry detergent, towels, and coffee pots.

Without question, personal laptops can enhance the college experience by facilitating engagement with online course material, providing access to sources for research, maximizing internship searches, and even improving communication with friends and parents. Many students also opt to bring their laptops to class so that they can take notes, view online lecture slides, and search the web for course-related material. This practice, it turns out, may be a mistake.

New research by scientists at Michigan State University suggests that laptops do not enhance classroom learning, and in fact students would be better off leaving their laptops in the dorm during class. Although computer use during class may create the illusion of enhanced engagement with course content, it more often reflects engagement with social media, YouTube videos, instant messaging, and other nonacademic content. This self-inflicted distraction comes at a cost, as students are spending up to one-third of valuable (and costly) class time zoned out, and the longer they are online the more their grades tend to suffer.

To understand how students are using computers during class and the impact it has on learning, Susan Ravizza and colleagues took the unique approach of asking students to voluntarily login to a proxy server at the start of each class, with the understanding that their internet use (including the sites they visited) would be tracked. Participants were required to login for at least half of the 15 class periods, though they were not required to use the internet in any way once they logged in to the server. Researchers were able to track the internet use and academic performance of 84 students across the semester.

Ravizza and colleagues evaluated the time that students spent online, the specific sites they visited, and the number of different requests sent to the server each session. They also asked students to estimate their own time online during class and to judge how time online affected their learning. Finally, the researchers obtained measures of intelligence (here, ACT scores), final exam performance, and self-reported interest and motivation.

Together, these led to a number of important insights into computer use in the classroom. First, participants spent almost 40 minutes out of every 100-minute class period using the internet for nonacademic purposes, including social media, checking email, shopping, reading the news, chatting, watching videos, and playing games. This nonacademic use was negatively associated with final exam scores, such that students with higher use tended to score lower on the exam. Social media sites were the most-frequently visited sites during class, and importantly these sites, along with online video sites, proved to be the most disruptive with respect to academic outcomes.

In contrast with their heavy nonacademic internet use, students spent less than 5 minutes on average using the internet for class-related purposes (e.g., accessing the syllabus, reviewing course-related slides or supplemental materials, searching for content related to the lecture). Given the relatively small amount of time students spent on academic internet use, it is not surprising that academic internet use was unrelated to course performance. Thus students who brought their laptops to class to view online course-related materials did not actually spend much time doing so, and furthermore showed no benefit of having access to those materials in class.

Why do students spend so much class time online? The finding that surfing the web and diminished learning go hand in hand is fairly intuitive, so Ravizza and colleagues sought to understand why students chose to do it. One possibility is that although internet use is related to poor academic performance, it is a symptom rather than a cause, in the same way that low energy is a symptom of obesity and not a causal factor in heart disease. If students disengage with a lecture when they are disinterested or bored and instead check social media, then boredom and not internet use may be the source of lower exam scores. Indeed in other studies, Facebook and internet use increased when people were bored with an ongoing task, and students reported that they texted in class as a result of boredom.

In this case, however, boredom was not the answer – at least not entirely. Students who reported lower interest in the class did tend to have lower exam scores, but this relationship did not account for the relationship between internet use and exam performance. Similar findings held for motivation and intelligence. For example, students with high versus low ACT scores were equally likely to browse the web during class, and were similarly affected by that browsing on their final exams. Thus although interest, motivation, and intelligence all contributed to course performance, analyses showed that internet use negatively influenced exam performance over and above these factors.

Perhaps students are woefully unaware of their internet use. Other research shows that people perceive fun tasks as taking less time than dull tasks, and so it is possible that time spent enjoying social media or video sites is misperceived as short. In line with this idea are data from studies showing that students may underestimate their actual internet use. Surprisingly however, Ravizza and colleagues found that their participants were fairly accurate in estimating the time they spent on the internet. They also found that participants had a good sense of whether their internet use had a disruptive effect on their academic performance. Students who rated their internet use as having “no effect” on their learning tended to use the internet less and showed no relationship between internet use and exam performance; in contrast, those who rated their internet use as having a “disruptive effect” tended to use the internet more, had lower exam scores, and showed a negative relationship between internet use and exam performance.  

It is possible that the internet use during class reflects habit or even an inability to inhibit the disruptive behavior. Use of social networking sites can be addictive for some, and the amount of time students spent online in this study suggests their attachment to technology was significant. In addition to the nearly 40 minutes students spent surfing the web, they also reported using their phones to text for an additional 27 minutes. It’s a wonder they learned anything at all!

Regardless of the reason for internet use during class, it is clear that students are not experiencing the oft-touted benefits of laptop use in class. They spend minimal time accessing supplemental course material or surfing the web for content related to the ongoing lecture, and these activities do not appear to enhance course performance. Although students may use the internet to download slides and take notes, related research shows that taking notes by hand is more effective than doing so with a laptop. Thus, there seems to be little upside to laptop use in class, while there is clearly a downside. Students are distracting themselves for significant periods of class time by using laptops to surf social media sites, visit chat rooms, watch videos, and play games, and these activities harm the learning process. Furthermore, related research suggests that multitasking laptop users also distract their classmates, as peers with a direct view of those laptops suffer academically. Perhaps it is time for students to consider going “old school,” and adding one more item to their shopping wish lists: a good old fashioned spiral notebook.