Back when I was in college, the typical laptop weighed about 9,000 pounds. So most students actually took a notebook and pen to class.
(Millennials: By “notebook,” I mean a binder of actual paper, made from trees. By “pen,” I mean a handheld device that looks like a stylus but actually records information by transferring ink to paper.)
What an advantage that gave us.
At least, that’s one takeaway from an important new book called Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, whose coauthor professor Henry Roediger I recently heard interviewed on a radio show. His findings give us more good reasons — as if we needed them — to singletask our learning and to use more focus, less tech.
As Roediger explains, the typical university student today takes notes in class using a laptop — furiously typing as much as she can of what the professor says (in between posting Facebook updates like, “Soooo borrrrred. lol.”).
Here’s the counterintuitive finding from Roediger and his coauthors: When we take notes on a computer, we learn and retain far less than when we hand-write our notes.
That’s because we can type far faster than we can write by hand, so note-taking on a laptop is essentially dictation. We don’t have to stop to process what the lecturer is saying, because we can type almost every word of it.
When we write by hand, though, we can write only so much. That forces us to listen more intently and process what the professor is saying, so we can jot only the essential words and still keep up.
A second and more intuitive reason it’s difficult to learn by laptop in the classroom is that the laptop also offers a zillion ways to distract the student — email, Twitter, eBay, CNN.
I often listen to mp3s of college lectures on iTunes U. (I know: Nerd alert!) I remember listening to a course on public relations taught by a professor named Sam Dyer. What struck me was that professor Dyer actually made a point of telling his class to keep at least one browser window open during class, so they could easily navigate to whatever site he wanted them to view as he lectured.
What Dyer was acknowledging, of course, was that he knew his students were at best splitting their attention between his class and whatever other personal business they had going on their computers. He was teaching the best he could to a room of tech-savvy multitaskers.
Dyer’s courses on media relations and business writing are terrific. But I wonder how much his students actually get from them, and how much they’re missing because they don’t have the advantage of attending his lectures in the pre-internet-everywhere era.
Now, am I suggesting that all of the previous generation’s students learned more in class and got better educations than those in school today? Of course not. We often let ourselves be undermined by the technology available to us, too — the tape recorder, for example.
In fact, one hilarious story that made the rounds at UCLA, where I went to school, illustrates the ridiculous lengths students and teachers would go to avoid attending class altogether. According to legend, a professor at our school recorded all of his lectures on audiotape. For each class session, he’d walk in, say hello to the students, press play on his tape player, set it down on the front table and leave. After a while, of course, the students got wise. They would wait for a minute after the professor left the room, pull out their own recording devices, set them on the front table and leave too.
So if you happened by this class and peeked in the window, you’d see a completely empty room with 100 tape recorders on the front table — 1 on play, and 99 on record.
The More Focus, Less Tech Approach Applies to Lifelong Learning
Students in my day had little choice in class but to listen to the professor (or cover our ears). We had far fewer distractions than students do today. So we had a natural advantage.
Today, anyone attending a class has to make a conscious decision not to be undermined by all of the electronic distractions easily available on the very devices that students are expected to use in class.
But you can do it. Close everything not essential to your learning. No text, no Safari, no Twitter. Just whatever site your professor wants you viewing and your note-taking app — preferably Microsoft Word, or something equally boring.
This advice also applies to us in our professional lives or in any learning environment. If you’re attending a meeting or conference or industry panel, stay on task. If you’re using your laptop, close all apps you won’t need for that event. Better still — leave the laptop in your bag and take out your notebook (the paper kind) and pen (the non-stylus kind).
Learning in any setting requires us to be rested, alert and fully attentive to the material. Those of us who attended school in the High Middle Ages had the advantage of learning in a pre-internet environment.
For learners today, getting the most from class or any learning setting is going to take some effort and self-control. But as professor Roediger and his Make It Stick coauthors discovered, the benefits of old-school, no-laptop learning are significant — including far greater understanding and retention of the material. Yes, it’ll be be difficult not to check email for an entire meeting/class/conference/whatever.
Difficult, but worth it.