Student laptop use in the Higher Education classroom

Literature Review : Student Laptop Use in the Higher Education Classroom

Dr. Jerusha Lederman


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Literature Review : Student Laptop Use in the Higher Education Classroom by Jerusha Lederman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License


This is a literary review of a selection of scholarly publications pertaining to laptop use in Higher Education (HE) classrooms.  The body of literature examined spans a period from approximately 1998 – present.   This informal report is intended as a starting point from which further research into the topic of student laptop use in the HE classroom can be predicated.  Accordingly, this work provides a general background regarding student behaviours with respect to laptop usage in HE classrooms, potential advantages and disadvantages of the same and addresses the possibility of faculty including laptop technology as part of the active learning process.

In a nutshell, this review presents:

  • An overview of selected key publications that discuss the pros and cons of student laptop use in HE classrooms,
  • A general overview of primary research studies that have been conducted to date, examining the use of laptops as learning enhancement tools  along with a summary of methodologies and techniques used,
  • An analysis of findings emanating from the research reviewed; and finally,
  • A brief commentary on the gaps in the research reviewed and suggestions for future research directions on this subject.



In an increasingly digital age,  student laptops are often present in the HE classroom (Sana, Weston & Cepeda, 2013).   In fact, in 2011, it was estimated that approximately 90% of HE students owned personal laptops (Dahlstrom et al, 2011). The issue of whether student laptops should be allowed into Higher Education (HE) classrooms and lecture halls has been the subject of debate.  Laptops have been considered as potentially being the single most useful tool in HE (Kay & Lauricella, 2015).  Certain studies have shown, however, that despite being beneficial, their use can constitute a serious distraction for students (Kladko, 2005;  Schwartz, 2003; Szaniszlo, 2006; Young, 2006).

Purpose of the Review

There are many articles that speak to  the broad topic covered by this review.   The purpose of  this review is to provide a synopsis of key research to date on this issue with an analysis of the findings.  Additionally, this article provides commentary on gaps that are apparent in the research outlined with a view to facilitating further research and to assist faculty in considering and pursuing additional studies in this area.

Scope of Research

Selection of publications to review was made based on their direct relevance to the general topic of usage of student laptops in HE classrooms.  I included the latest research studies since one of the objectives of this paper is to be a starting point for future research.  I also chose papers that not only reported on the advantageous use of student laptops in the HE classroom but also those papers that noted disadvantages in order to present both sides of the issue.  My sources were primarily taken from high impact educational journals with the focus being on those researchers who were most prolific and cited widely as experts in the field.

I have included one paper (Rockman et al., 1998) that deals with a study of use of laptops in a K-12 setting because the methodologies used were both quantitative and qualitative involving surveys, shadowing and interviews.   This study is also important as it is one of the earliest dealing with portable personal computers as an educational classroom tool and incorporating non-laptop using control groups into the study results.

Methodologies and techniques documented in several publications included polling surveys, statistical analysis of responses and experiments undertaken in the HE classroom in varying subject areas across a diverse student population.  Based on evidence gathered by these methods, findings can be simplified in a general manner as follows:  student laptops in the HE classroom can function as engaging and effective active learning tools when deliberately incorporated into an instructor’s lesson plan (Samson, 2010; Kay and Lauricella, 2011; Lauricella and Kay, 2015).  Conversely, use of student laptops can constitute a draw back in that many see laptop use as a distraction. Specifically, some students do not pay attention and tend to use laptops for non-academic reasons during lectures and may distract other students within view of the laptop from paying attention to the lecture (Grace-Martin & Gay, 2001; Sana, Weston and Cepeda, 2013).  Consequently, lectures turn into a laptop vs. professor contest for students’ attention  (Fried, 2008; Hembrooke & Gay, 2003).

The media has been actively reporting on a backlash against student laptop use in the classroom primarily led by faculty members at institutes of higher learning.   This began early in the millennium with The Wall Street Journal (McWilliams, 2005) reporting that faculty from well established institutions such as Harvard attempted to enforce laptop bans in the classroom in order to minimize distraction to students.  Kay & Lauricella (2011) comment that total bans on technology in the classroom suggest to students that professors believe that they are not responsible enough to be entrusted with responsibility for their own learning.   Another  view is that bans that are excessive may limit faculty who want to use technology as a learning enhancement tool (Kay & Lauricella, 2011).   Given the current state of the available research on the subject, it appears that at the institutional level, some universities are leaving it up to faculty members to develop their own policy on how laptops may or may not be used during lectures (eg. University of Washington Law School, University of Michigan, N.D.).

Background on founding research

In 1998, Rockman et al., a research organization based in California,  conducted a pilot program sponsored by Microsoft and Toshiba.  The purpose of the pilot program was to establish that by every student having a notebook computer in the classroom and at home, there would be significant educational benefits that facilitated learning, “anytime, anywhere.”

Prior to the Rockman study, there was an original concept of “anytime, everywhere” access to computers which emanated from Mark Weiser, Chief Technologist at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.   In 1991, Weiser authored a visionary paper, outlining a new paradigm of computing called “ubiquitous computing:” a movement of society away from mainframes to smaller personal, portable, relatively inexpensive, networked computing devices.  Weiser’s vision was a starting point for consideration of how personal computers could be utilized in everyday life.  In the HE sector, the term “ubiquitous computing”  has been used subsequently to be synonymous with an HE campus where all faculty and students have similarly configured laptops with internet access and all buildings have wifi access (Brown and Petitto, 2003;  Fried, 2008).  This promoted recognition that universities needed to look at the question of student laptop usage in classrooms closely.

The Rockman et al. study involved laptops being distributed to elementary and high school students for use in the classroom and at home.   The research methodology was complex and among other things, included surveys for both teacher and student, shadow studies of students with laptops and a comparison group of non-laptop students.   Survey results were compiled from more than 144 teachers and 450 students.   Results of the overall study showed that:

  • students engage in more collaborative work with peers when using laptops,
  • teachers and students find that laptops when used with direction for project work stimulate twice the participation in projects (i.e. Experiential Education(EE)),
  • students and teachers take on increasingly different roles: teachers become facilitators as opposed to lecturers,  students become collaborators and self directed learners.
  • While both laptop using and non laptop using students were able to tackle a problem, researching with laptops encouraged critical thinking and Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) vs. purely logic based, deductive reasoning arguments. Non-laptop users  tended to see everything in terms of the big picture and followed a train of thought.  Laptop use tended to engage in argument based reasoning, relating to real life as opposed to just descriptively reporting on where they thought something should go.

It should be noted that the Rockman shadow studies involved a very small sample of students and teachers (totaling about 12).  The shadow studies and interviews were supplemented by a much larger body of students and teachers.   Nonetheless, the findings may not be totally applicable or transferrable to an HE setting particularly given the sample subjects and the educational environment which is different from the university environment.  Moreover, while methodologies used in the Rockman study were multifaceted, there was a bias in the research because the study was sponsored by Microsoft and Toshiba who, through Rockman, clearly stated their intention to demonstrate that there were great educational benefits to using laptops in a school setting.

Nonetheless, the findings  from the Rockman study are important in that they suggest that when used with explicit direction, laptops enhance active learning.     A major difference between laptop use in K-12 and HE is that in the  Rockman study,  students were directed on how to use laptops whereas many HE faculty do not build laptop based exercises into their lectures.   Consequently, in an HE setting faculty would need to  tailor their lesson material to laptop usage in the HE classroom.   It is likely this could be a highly beneficial form of Experiential Education (EE.)

Current selected research noting advantages of laptop use in the HE classroom

Since the Rockman study with its findings of definitive advantages for laptop use in the K-12 classroom, there have been research studies performed in the HE setting that essentially agree with the Rockman conclusions.  Several researchers suggest that HE students can use laptops effectively in the classroom provided that the traditional lecture-based format is replaced with a more active approach to teaching (Barab & Luehmann, 2002; Barak, Lipson, & Lerman, 2006; Gay, Stefanone, Grace-Martin, & Hembrooke, 2001, Samson, 2010.) Certain studies (Barak, Lipson and Lerman, 2006;  Kay and Lauricella, 2011; Lindorth and Bergquist, 2010; Mackinnon and Vibert, 2002; Samson, 2010; Skolnik and Puzo, 2008; Weaver and Nilson, 2005) which included ‘pro-laptop’ findings commonly recognized the following ways through which students found laptops in the HE classroom to be a learning enhancement tool:

  1. Greater, easier and immediate classroom access to academic resources through the internet enabling students to obtain information which allowed them to investigate topics, formulate ideas and through simulation, explore, visualize and concretize abstract concepts (Barak et al, 2006; Kay & Lauricella, 2011).
  2. By some instructors integrating student laptops as an active learning tool, the use of new in-class, subject based software (Barak et al, 2006; Kolar et al., 2002; Skolnik & Puzo, 2008) was introduced. Incorporation of laptops also facilitated small group online problem solving exercises which emulated real world situations (Chompu-inwai & Doolen, 2006; Kolar et al., 2002.)  Use of laptops in class also allowed for students to access additional resources (Lindorth and Bergquist, 2010), multimedia such as video podcasts and online surveys and case studies (Kay & Lauricella, 2011.)
  3. Increased productivity due to better student focus in the classroom (Kay & Lauricella, 2011) including improved notetaking (Arend, 2005;  Efaw, Hampton, Martinez & Smith, 2004; Kay & Lauricella, 2011; Lindorth & Bergquist, 2010; Skolnik & Puzo, 2008) with better organized data collection (Kay & Lauricella, 2011). In fact, one study (Efaw et al., 2005) reported increased grades on seven in-class exams due to the instructors integrating laptop computers into their learning strategies.  The average score of the laptop using student group was 86.8% compared to the average 83.5% score of the non-laptop using students who were taught using traditional instructional and note taking strategies.
  4. Higher level of beneficial peer collaboration (Kay & Lauricella, 2011; Kolar et al., 2002; Lindorth & Bergquist, 2010; Nicol & MacLeod, 2005).  This included instant communication among peers through online messaging to clarify concepts covered in class (Kay & Lauricella, 2011; Lindorth & Bergquist, 2010; Mackinnon & Vibert, 2002).


From several studies (Fried, 2008; Kay & Lauricella, 2011; Kay & Lauricella, 2015; Mayes & de Freitas, 2007), it was seen that the personal pedagogy of the instructor and the learning strategies employed (i.e. active vs. passive) had a great impact on the efficacy of student laptops in HE classrooms as learning tools.   The literature suggests that certain pedagogies are supportive of technology enhanced learning.  Specifically, if the instructor employs the following learning modalities listed in Table 1, the ensuing classroom “lends” itself to digital active learning.


Table 1: 4 Pedagogies supportive of the digital age (Kay & Lauricella, 2015, Mayes and de Freitas, 2007)

Theory of Learning Originator Philosophy Computer skills
Associative Gagne, 1985

Wilson & Meyers, 2000

Accumulating understanding, knowledge and skills in a step by step manner Lecture :  following slides

Lecture: note taking

Constructive (individual) Bruner, 1960

Newell, 1980

Piaget, 1970

Developing personal comprehension of subject through active discovery performed independently Web search for location research materials

Organizing of digital files

Using software programs

Constructive (social) Laurillard, 2002

Vygotsky, 1978


Developing comprehension through group discussion and dialogue Communications software, chat, etc.

Web forums


Situative Lave & Wenger, 1991 Learning through practice and community oriented tasks Use of realistic web simulation tools and software

Adapted from Kay & Lauricella, 2015


In spite of general advantages noted, some selected studies revealed that there was a correlation between the subject matter of the course and student benefits with respect to using laptops in class.   For example, Computer Science students who browsed the web for on-topic material did consistently better grade-wise compared to Communications students who also browsed the web for on-topic course material (Grace-Martin & Gay, 2001;  Kay & Lauricella, 2011.)  Another study by Gardner et al. showed that the use of laptops in the classroom had a positive effect on science subjects whereas the use of laptops had no such positive effect for English or mathematics courses (Gardner, Morrison, Jarman, Reilly & McNally, 1994).

The benefits that students gained in using laptops in the classroom were affected by how proficient students were in using laptops (Chompu-inwai & Dooley, 2006; Grace-Martin & Gay, 2001).  Additionally, the level of ability of a student’s computer skills determined how beneficial use of the laptop in the classroom really was.  Those with good computer skills benefitted more than those with poor computer skills (Efaw et al., 2004).  In a study by Efaw and colleagues at West Point, 32% of students who elected not to use laptops in class did so because they were not skilled in typing and found that their learning was better when they could physically write down.   However, in the same study,  the researchers note that a great benefit to encouraging use of laptops in the classroom is that it promotes computer skills which are becoming more and more important in the workplace and for employability (Efaw et al., 2004).

With respect to gender differences in using computers in the classroom, studies done over the years suggest that gender played a role in students’ attitude and proficiency. Most of the research done in this area was conducted with teens and adults.  Male students were found to have stronger computer skills and were accordingly more accepting on the use of computers in the classroom (Whitley, 1997). Later studies (Barker and Aspray, 2006; Kay, 2006) confirmed this finding with males having stronger computer skills than females.  In a 2007 review of the gender issue pertaining to laptop use in the HE classroom,  Kay suggests that more research can be done on the gender gap in younger students as the gender discrepancy increases with age and there are strategies that can be used in lower level grades to try to equalize the attitudes and proficiencies of both male and female students (Kay, 2007).

Current selected research noting disadvantages re laptop use in the HE classroom

Key disadvantages in allowing laptops to be used by students in HE classrooms can be summarized as follows:

  • Main distractions: students do not pay attention and tend to use laptops for non-academic reasons such as surfing the web for non-academic purposes (Barak et al, 2006; Fried, 2008; Grace-Martin & Gay, 2001; Hembrooke & Gay, 2003; Kay & Lauricella, 2011; Skolnik & Puzo, 2008) and using social media, g. Facebook, instant messaging and emails.   According to Kay (2010), social networking took place almost as frequently as surfing the web.  60% of students communicated socially with peers through these media.  These activities were noted by students as diverting them from classroom activities (Kay, 2010).  Consequently, lectures turn into a laptop vs. professor contest for students’ attention (Fried, 2008; Kladko, 2005; Schwartz, 2003; Szaniszlo, 2006; Young, 2006).

In some instances, students in HE classrooms using laptops retained less lecture content than those not using laptops (Hembrooke & Gay, 2003).   In this vein, certain evidence showed that the more students used laptops in the classroom, the less attention they paid to the lecture, the less they understood course material and consequently, the lower the grade they achieved (Fried, 2008.)

  • Multitasking: According to Lang’s Limited Process Capacity (LPC) model of the brain, humans are only capable of focusing attention in so many directions at once before becoming inefficient (Lang, 2000).  Multitasking studies done with students groups in different courses showed universally that those students who engaged in multiple simultaneous activities such as web surfing, instant messaging, emailing and leaving a variety of non-academic related windows open generally had overall lower scores than students who used their laptops in an academically on task manner (Kraushaar & Novak, 2010;  Ellis, Daniels & Jauregui, 2010).   In one study, spyware was used to monitor “distractive windows” left open by students with the finding that students had these windows open 42% of the class time and interestingly, did not accurately report the amount of multitasking they had undertaken during class (Kraushaar et al., 2010).

Students’ non-academic and academic activities on laptops inside and outside the HE classroom along with their frequency were quantified in a 2010 study by Lauricella & Kay.  They developed the “Laptop Efficiency Scale” (LES).   Subsequently, in 2015 Kay and Lauricella used the LES with a specific student population to report on popularity and frequency of academic and non-academic activities by the students in class.   I am including Table 2 to provide a list of the most popular academic and non academic activities along with frequency ranking as reported by Kay and Lauricella, 2015.

Specifically with respect to multitasking, the LES relied on polls and questionnaires to ascertain how much multitasking was occurring.  Given the reliance on student participation and response, it would seem that there is a margin for error on the conclusion re multitasking particularly in light of the finding by Kraushaar et al. (2010) that students under reported their multitasking activities in surveys undertaken.   Short of installing tracking software as was done by Kraushaar et al., student reported data on multitasking may be  somewhat questionable.


Table 2: Most popular academic and non-academic uses of laptops during class,  adapted from Kay & Lauricella, 2015.

# Frequency ranking of exhibited student laptop behavior (most – least frequent) inside & outside the classroom Academic Uses Non-Academic Uses
1 On task oriented software programs Instant messaging / chat
2 Review of posted notes / files Web search (personal)
3 Review of lecturer’s powerpoint presentation Facebook
4 Web search and research queries (academic) Personal email
5 Communication about course material with peers Gaming
6 Note taking Watching podcasts
7 Use of interactive tools, eg. applets to visualize sophisticated concepts Watching longer duration movies
8 Online survey participation / Clicker-type interaction Twitter

Analysis of selected research and gaps

From the selected research on this broad topic, it is clear that many studies and reviews have been done in this area by professionals over a span of approximately two decades.  The research has produced conclusive findings and results that are helpful to the HE community.  Researchers employed many methodologies similar to those used in the Rockman et al. study in 1998.  These methodologies included focus groups, surveys and shadow studies.   One of the major differences in the studies that I reviewed subsequent to Rockman et al. was that the researchers did not start off with a presupposition that laptops were beneficial to student learning.  The research widely shows that there are concrete benefits to students using laptops in the HE classroom.

The benefits as outlined in the section entitled  “Current selected research noting advantages re laptop use in the HE  classroom“  can be summarized generally as increased learning, better grades and encouragement of better computer skills and abilities.  As previously listed in this review, researchers generally agreed on four major advantages of using student laptops in the HE classroom.  Even though these studies were done independently at different institutions with varying student population samples, there does not seem to be much controversy among researchers on what the advantages and disadvantages are in the long run.

Gaps in the research related to insufficient HE studies with respect to the impact of gender around the use of laptops in classrooms and the use of laptops by disabled students.  Future research, therefore can be undertaken in these areas although issues of privacy and student consent will no doubt arise.  Additionally, as indicated by Kay (2011), further research needs to be done on what steps may be involved in faculty members moving to integrate student laptop use into their classes.   This will involve issues of pedagogy, new software applications and new technologies, concerns that not all students may own laptops and the impetus to adopt this new form of teaching and learning.


This review was undertaken to provide a broadly based summary of the most relevant research of use of student laptops in the HE classroom.   The conclusion is that there are definite benefits and definite disadvantages noted fairly consistently in all the selected research papers.   The end result is that for laptop usage to be successful in HE classrooms, faculty have to agree that for their particular courses there has to be a benefit and they can develop strategies to incorporate this technology as an effective active learning tool.   Steps will have to be taken to ensure that the disadvantages of allowing laptops in classrooms are addressed and minimized without infringing on student independence, self direction and motivation.



References and Additional Resources


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