The Inefficiencies of Using Electronic Devices Inside (and Outside) Class

The Inefficiencies of Using Electronic Devices Inside (and Outside) Class
I. The Need to Avoid “Mindless Transcription”1

By: Dr. Angus Munro

In a previous article in the UC Bulletin (Munro, 2013), it was proposed that the student use of laptops during classes should be discouraged. The reasoning rested on the idea that the use of laptops basically made the students less efficient in getting the most out of the class. Thus, Munro (2013) noted that laptops were inefficient for proper note-taking, because of problems of (i) drawing diagrams, etc., as well as (ii) doing flow-charts to capture what the faculty is saying in as few words as possible. Thus the user does not get the opportunity to further develop a solid soft skill. This has since been emphasised by the results of a study involving a large number of undergraduate students at Princeton University and UCLA in the US (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

The present paper will review evidence for the limitations in the usefulness of a laptop as a note-taking tool. As such, it is one of a series which look at various aspects as a basis for establishing an effective set of policies by the University of Cambodia in order to maximise our students’ chances to develop essential hard2 and soft3 skills. Thus a second paper in this series will also consider laptops, but in the broader context of the temptation to multi-task. Another will consider the issue of effective note-taking and its subsequent re-working to produce a meaningful source information whilst reinforcing the learning process.
Laptop Notes – Hi-Tech but Low-Brow?

The inspiration for Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study was their personal experiences after having forgotten their laptops: they found that attending classes (as a teaching assistant) or faculty meetings was more rewarding, with more gained.4

To set the scene, one intriguing study (to me at least)5 reported that tests on twelve people6 who were not touch-typists after a median of 10 years experience using computer keyboards found that their typing speed was more than five words/minute faster than their hand-writing speed, regardless of whether the task was doing a passage from memory or the slower process of copying one.7

The first experiment in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study asked 65 Princeton students to watch one of five 15-minute TED talks8 on interesting but not generally known topics, and to take notes as they normally would do (either by hand or using a laptop which was not connected to the internet)9. Then, after doing three distractor tasks (including a taxing working memory task) over a 30 minute interval, they had to answer questions about the lecture.

1. As diagnosed in two top US universities: Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).
2. Skills specific to a particular course: for example, one on IT or on accounting.
3. General skills which are not specific to a particular situation and thus are transferable: for example, thinking capabilities (including creative, logical and critical); positive behavioural attitudes (responsibility, self-discipline and teamwork); and a willingness to learn.
5. I trained as a dial-twiddler and fish (brain-)surgeon, not a pianist – beyond two-finger typing is beyond my cerebellum.
6. Note that the sample size is small: I have only been able to access the abstract, so cannot determine whether the study is meaningful without seeing the data.
7. the paper itself (written by two Xerox employees and published in 1988) is behind a pay-wall.
9. 34 and 31 replicates respectively:

Some of these were factual-recall questions (e.g., “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?”): laptop note-takers performed as well as those using hand-writ- ing.
• Others were conceptual-application questions (e.g., “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”): laptop note-takers did significantly worse (Figure 1).
• An analysis of the students’ note-taking revealed that laptop-users took down about twice as many words, often verbatim from the lecture (Study 1 in Figure 2).10
• Further analysis indicated that the more that was taken down verbatim, the poorer the stu- dent’s performance: something which was explored in their later experiments.

Their second experiment, with 151 mainly female UCLA students repeated the first, except that a proportion of those using laptops were explicitly told not to take verbatim notes.
• Whilst the results were more variable, the main difference from the first experiment was that those laptop users who had been told not to take verbatim notes were intermediate in their scores on conceptual-application questions.
• This was despite the fact that they had ignored the request not to take such notes.
A third experiment, again at UCLA with another batch of 109 mainly female students, involved their observation of four recorded readings of prose passages; participants were advised that they would be tested one week later, with half of each group having the opportunity to review their notes before the test.
• Again, as with two previous studies (Figure 2), there was a significant difference in note-tak- ing between those using longhand and those using laptops.
• When tested using factual and four other categories of questions, students who took longhand notes and had the opportunity review their notes did much better than the other three groups for factual questions and overall responses, in particular.
• This has obvious implications for students’ revision for exams.

Figure 1 Mean (+ standard error) z-scored performance for the two different types of questions in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s first experiment. Students using longhand scored better than the average for conceptual-application questions, whilst those using laptops did worse (*, P < 0.05).

Figure 2 Mean (+ standard error) of word counts (A) and the percentage of verbatim text (B) in the three experiments; ***, P < 0.001 (from Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

Mueller and Oppenheimer concluded that taking hand-written notes requires a person to do more processing of incoming information: to select the important points and thus more readily see these in the context of the emerging ‘big picture’. This enhances conceptual understanding, through the necessary promotion of analytic and synthetic processes in order to better paraphrase this information. In contrast, the findings with students using a laptop were interpreted as indicative of less higher-level encoding of the incoming information by the brain. Thus they conclude that:

“even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning. … For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.” (emphasis added)

Such conclusions are obviously subject-dependent: they relate specifically to note-taking (see Conclusions).
• However, they provide an interesting twist on the issue of spoon-feeding through hand-outs, etc.
• Thus here we have what would appear to be students effectively spoon-feeding themselves – through ‘mindless transcription’, to use one of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s derogatory terms.

The Dangers of Relying on Secondary Sources
Mueller and Oppenheimer’s results were widely reported in the popular press, typically as superficial overviews without any insight into the specifics. More detail was provided in some news reports, apparently based on interviews with one or both of the authors.
i. Such interviews can be useful, since they force one or more of the authors to state explicitly (“put their mouth where their money was”) what they consider their results to indicate (for various reasons, they may have been more non- committal in the paper itself).

Fortunately, copies of their paper are available outside the publisher’s paywall.11 A comparison of the data included in their paper with the information in otherwise excellent reports on two professional scientific news-reporting sites indicates some disparities (emphasis added).
i. One stated that “[d]espite these instructions, students using laptops showed the same level of verbatim content and were no better in synthesizing material than students who received no such warning.”12
ii. Another stated that “[s]urprisingly, the researchers saw similar results even when they explicitly instructed the students to avoid taking verbatim notes, suggesting that the urge to do so when typing is hard to overcome.”13

These both refer to Mueller and Oppenheimer’s second experiment, where the original authors instead concluded that “the effect of the intervention on performance is ambiguous, [and] any potential impact is unrelated to the mechanisms explored in this article.”

1. If you want to ‘get the big picture’, don’t rely on someone else’s (mis-) inter- pretations: go to the source.14
2. There are often alternative sources (e.g. an author’s home-page) to avoid hav- ing to pay extortionate access fees (although publishers have recently started to clamp down on this).15
3. In the absence of primary sources, there is the need to be discriminating about the use of secondary sources: identify the most detailed, and try to determine whether they reflect a properly balanced overview of the original source.

Overall, Mueller and Oppenheimer’s findings would seem to refute previous observational studies where students reported that the use of laptops improved note-taking (reviewed by Kay and Lauricella, 2011).
• In the case of Kay and Lauricella’s own study, the responses relate to students’ subjective judgements, at the end of the course before the final exam.
• It is not clear what objective basis (e.g. mid-term exams and other forms of prior assessment) they might have had to justify their perspectives.
• There was no attempt to relate the survey findings to final outcomes (it is not clear whether the survey was anonymous or not).

11. Otherwise, one would have to pay $35 for 24 hours access: the paper does not state how the study was funded (students at UCLA were paid to participate), but the study made use of state university facilities and presumably at least one of the authors was paid by a public source.
13. ehension.html
14. Journalists want a nice simple story: unfortunately(?), life is rarely like that.
15. Munro, in preparation.

Bui et al. (2012) did an experimental study somewhat similar to that of Mueller and Oppenheimer, in which their first experiment compared students taking notes by longhand or on computer, with the outcome being determined by what Mueller and Oppenheimer considered to be factual-type questions.
• Students (80 in their experiment 1) were apparently assigned to use a particular medium, rather than being allowed to use their normal method of note-taking.
• One extra dimension was added by asking half of the students using each medium to ‘tran - scribe’ their notes (i.e. record as much of the taped 11-minute lecture as possible); whilst the other half had to take ‘organised’ notes (i.e. to “paraphrase and organise their notes as much as possible”).
• The notes were then taken from the participants and they were tested immediately after the lecture (another major difference from Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study).
Overall, the results of Bui et al.’s first experiment indicated that, based on the proportion of ‘idea units’16 recorded and recalled from the test lecture, transcribers using a computer outperformed the other three groups (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Summary table of the results of Bui et al.’s first experiment: mean percentages of ‘idea units’ (standard deviation) (from Bui et al., 2012).
• Potentially alarming (for me, at least) was how many of the main ideas and important
were not recalled (data for unimportant details are more encouraging, at least for ‘free recall’): unfortunately, the questionnaire data are not provided, so that it is impossible to in- terpret whether it would be possible to score 100% on main ideas (for example).
• Also, they would not seem to have a measure of organisation of the notes, but instead just scored the numbers of ‘idea units’: did the students follow instructions (cf. Mueller and Op- penheimer’s second experiment)?
• There were no differences between the two longhand groups in the numbers of ‘idea units’ recorded (28%): was this because both groups were in fact following an ‘organised’ strategy (cf. Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conclusions)?
• The difference in the number of ‘idea units’ recorded (and then recalled immediately after - wards) between groups using computers presumably reflects attempts by the ‘organised’ group to paint the bigger picture, although no data are provided to support this (see above).
• The difference of the ‘computer-transcribers’ relative to the other three groups17 may reflect the increased higher cognitive processing required by the latter.

The fact that this was not seen in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s much larger study may reflect the latter’s time-lag in testing.

One alternative might be that all testees were previously laptop-users.

Another is that it may suggest that, to adopt Mueller and Oppenheimer’s terminology, the students in that group had regressed to a state of even more ‘mindless transcrip- tion’ than their usual.

16. 125 facts, of which eight were ‘main points’, 15 ‘important details’ and 16 ‘unimportant details’.
17. Not replicated by Beck et al. (2014).

Bui et al. (2012) did two further experiments with various computer-using groups, but their results (including data from tests of working memory and processing speed capacities) fail to give any further real insights.
• For example: in their third experiment, they inexplicably18 only allowed the relevant groups to review their notes for five minutes immediately after the original lecture-presentation, rather than just before the follow-up test 24 hours later.
The above as an attempt to give a balanced evaluation of the possible limitations of the routine use of a laptop as a means of note-taking.
• It is fully recognised that this may be skewed by lack of access to other major studies which are behind corporate pay-walls.
To build upon Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conclusions (assuming these will be confirmed by further studies)19, students should think about transcribing their hand-written20 notes into a ‘formal’ format, as will be considered further in a follow-up article on Note-Taking (Munro, in preparation).
Students who use laptops for note-taking need to seriously think about whether they are doing so for the right reasons.
• This is even more so for those who imagine that they can effectively multi-task (see Munro, in preparation).
At present, it is up to individual lecturers at the University of Cambodia to decide whether students in their lectures can use laptops or not. Hopefully this article:
• will provide them with background information to reach a decision; and
• will provide back-up support for their decision, if they decide on a ban.
Such decisions on the part of both the lecturer and the students must be further considered in the light of the potential distracting influences of laptops and other electronic devices through encouraging ‘multi-tasking’ this will be considered in subsequent papers.
Beck, K.M., J.S. Hartley, S.L. Hustedde and T.C. Felsberg (2014) Note Taking Effectiveness in the Modern Classroom. The Compass
Bui, D. C., J. Myerson and S. Hale (2012) Note-Taking With Computers: Exploring Alternative Strategies for Improved Recall. J. Educ. Psych.
Kay, R.H., and S. Lauricella (2011) Exploring the Benefits and Challenges of Using Laptop Comput- ers in Higher Education Classrooms: A Formative Analysis. Canadian Journal of Learning and Tech- nology
Mueller, P.A., and D.M. Oppenheimer (2014) The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Long- hand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science
Munro, A. D. (2013) The use of laptops in class. UC Bulletin 15, 34.
18. One must assume it was because the experimenters wanted the notes for analysis – but then they could have made copies for the testees.
19. An obvious downstream issue is the question of why students selected laptops: could it reflect a different attitude (e.g. complacency and/or self-confidence, because they can afford or otherwise have a ‘more sophisticated’ piece of hardware, which skews their judgement on learning-related issues – hence the results for Experiment 2)? Regardless, the end-result is likely to be the same: poor performance.
20. Apart from anything else, taking hand-written notes during a lecture can be regarded as developing the soft skill of being able to work effectively under pressure to process inputs (just as exams should do likewise for processing outputs, assuming that the questions are not designed to promote a ‘vomiting reflex’).


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