Education

These lecturers are sick of the distraction

Laptops banned

Anyone taking classes with Janneke Weijermars or Marcel Brus would do well not to forget pen and paper. They and other lecturers have banned laptops from their classrooms. ‘Students thank me for it every year.’
18 March om 15:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 March 2024
om 15:12 uur.
March 18 at 15:51 PM.
Last modified on March 20, 2024
at 15:12 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Julianne Veltman

18 March om 15:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 20 March 2024
om 15:12 uur.
Avatar photo

By Julianne Veltman

March 18 at 15:51 PM.
Last modified on March 20, 2024
at 15:12 PM.

‘Can I ask you something?’ 

Assistant professor of modern Dutch literature Janneke Weijermars was setting up her lecture in one of the big halls. She looked up into the face of one of her students.

‘I hope you don’t mind if we sit in the front’, they said, apologetically. ‘Otherwise, we’re stuck behind all these screens that people are using for other things.’ 

Weijermars looked behind them to see several students unpacking their bags in the front row. 

‘I was shocked’, she says. ‘These students were disciplined enough to come sit in the front. But there are plenty of students who do sit in the back and get distracted either directly or indirectly.’

Chatting and videos

Laptops have become a staple in classrooms. Students rarely take notes by hand anymore; they prefer to type them. It’s neater and makes them easier to share with their fellow students. While that’s all fine, the laptops also make it easier for students to chat online, watch videos, or catch up with their favourite sports team.

Student of international and European law Nina Kubicova, for instance, likes looking at the bright blue Ryanair website. ‘I’m always looking for cheap tickets home’, she confesses. 

Sometimes I have this craving to see what Turkmenistan looks like

Caspar Lemmens (19), who studies international relations, says that Google Maps is his favourite distraction during class. ‘Sometimes I just have this sudden craving to see what Turkmenistan looks like.’

Weijermars also remembers an incident when a group of students suddenly cheered.  ‘I was like, what’s going on?’ It turned out they got a notification that Sven Kramer had won a gold medal in the 5K race.

She decided it was time for a change. She wanted to create an environment in which students would be able to pay attention. These days, her students will have to take notes on paper in most of her classes.

Limited attention

Professor of public international law Marcel Brus also switched to banning laptops in his classroom five years ago. He used to just look at a wall of laptops whenever he entered a room. 

Some of his students would obediently copy everything he said, while others were busy checking out Facebook or Instagram, he says. ‘Especially when you’re in the back of the room, all you see are all these different moving images. It’s incredibly distracting.’

Professor of cognitive neuroscience Monicque Lorist confirms that people can only pay attention to a limited number of things. ‘A driver is perfectly capable of having a conversation with their passenger, for instance. But when they approach a busy intersection, they automatically pause the conversation in order to pay attention.’

Information

This same principle applies to using a laptop in the classroom, says professor of cognitive and neuroscience Hedderik van Rijn. All the chats, emails, and chess games distract from what the lecturer is saying. ‘It’s kind of like the students’ heads are just constantly filled with blaring fire trucks.’ 

The students’ heads are constantly filled with blaring fire trucks

Because of that vortex of notifications and possibilities, they miss out on information. ‘People are capable of listening to one kind of information while reading another, but this makes it much more difficult to parse the meaning of what they’re hearing’, says Lorist. ‘Their attention has shifted to potentially important and new information.’

Besides, she says, research has shown that people better retain information if they write it down. ‘Taking notes or writing a summary by hand means you have to actively interpret it, so you’re engaging with the information more intensely. If you have a laptop, you tend to just copy whatever the lecturer is saying.’

Staredown

Nevertheless, some students have a hard time parting with it, professor of media, culture and society Marianne Franklin found out. She asked her students to put away their laptops during a seminar because she wanted their full attention for a seven-minute video she was showing them. 

Some of them refused, which led to a staredown. Franklin simply waited until everyone had put their laptops away. Even though she ‘won’, her evaluations afterwards were filled with hateful remarks, like ‘How dare she?’ or ‘Who is she to ask us that?’

‘I was so surprised’, she says. ‘This was supposed to be about me? One person even said I came across as aggressive when I was waiting for her to put her laptop away.’ 

Better discussions

But in the end, laptop-free classes do work. Brus notices that his students are no longer being distracted by screens screaming for their attention with noise and notifications. ‘Teaching is simply better without laptops. We can actually connect with each other when we’re not all hiding behind our screens.’

Weijermars says the discussions she has with her students are better, more fun. Lorist has noticed that her students absorb more information and engage more actively with the material. ‘There’s a lot more happening on a laptop than there is on a notepad.’

When I take notes on my laptop, it’s like I don’t go to class at all

In the end, most students are also happy with the change. ‘When I take notes on my laptop, it’s like I don’t go to class at all. I can’t remember a single thing’, says Dutch language and literature student Kim den Hartog. 

Weijermars’ laptop-free classes have made all the difference. She was better able to focus, and studying for exams was easier and faster. ‘I’ve started leaving my laptop at home for other classes, too.’

Liberal arts and sciences student Adam Bahelka has also noticed the benefits. He now prefers a pen over his keyboard. ‘If only because it keeps me awake during class.’

Programming

However, it’s not always feasible to ban laptops. Brus realised a good classroom is essential when he was teaching a class in Pathé. ‘It was awful’, he complains. ‘Those low chairs meant students could use their laptops without me seeing them.’ 

The material must also lend itself to be taught without laptops. After all, a programming class is practically impossible without them. ‘In fact, we actively ask students to bring them.’ 

Some students simply aren’t willing to let lecturers tell them what to do. ‘Students should be able to decide for themselves. It’s their responsibility’, says psychology student Nao Rumohr.

Responsibility

But Niels de Jonge, master student of Dutch studies, disagrees. ‘If students can’t stop themselves from chatting on their laptops, they clearly can’t handle the responsibility.’ 

He thinks a no-laptop policy is a good idea. ‘I think the university should just make it a rule everywhere’, he says. 

But no matter how much Weijermars prefers laptop-free lecturing, she says every lecturer at the university has autonomy to do as they see fit. ‘I wouldn’t enforce it on anyone, but I do heartily recommend it. And students thank me for it every year.’

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