Distraction Lowers Grades

Computers and LectureDistraction is a problem. It’s only anecdotal evidence but I’m seeing more distracted drivers. Their heads drop while they check their phones at the stop light. The light changes and they don’t move. No one honks because everyone else is checking their phones too. Exaggeration? Perhaps but a new study in Canada suggests that distraction in the classroom is a problem too. According to a story in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail not only does computer use adversely affect the ability of computer users to concentrate in class (resulting in lower test scores) but it also distracts those students taking notes by hand. The lure of the screen is too much. “Something exciting is happening in the world. Sometime is trying to contact me, I just know it.”

Students who took notes by hand did better in class.

The HB has been covering this since 2007.

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ps. I had trouble finishing this post because I was bombed by text messages from my family. Mea culpa.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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11 comments

  1. So, is all this social/media input necessary? I’m reminded of the conservative columnist William Safire back in the 1980s. He refused to have a ‘beeper’ or pager when all his journalist colleagues did and he was taking heat for not getting with the times. “Safire, you may miss out on something important!”. He didn’t want the demand of that electronic intrusion. It wasn’t necessary. The KISS principle is worth keeping as a guide for life…

  2. It’s also distracting in church to have the person behind you or to your the side to be tapping away on the I-Pad. I have had to move my kids over to the other side of me because of their neck craning to see the others I Phones and I Pads in church.

  3. It isn’t just the screen, though in a talk you gave you made an excellent observation of how kids often don’t see what’s outside of the screen, it is the kind of and need for connections that our technology provides that is the problem. Our technology provides constant connections but of a more shallow type where we have more control over our image and we can easily filter out what we don’t like. Thus these connections have become less human which fits many in society because that is being dehumanized.

    An excellent book on the pervasive effect of technology on our lives is called Alone Together by Sherry Turkle. Turkle is a sociologist from MIT.

  4. It took me most of my adult life to learn that multitasking, as commonly understood, does not exist. Multitasking is doing two or more things poorly at the same time.

  5. I recall an interview with T. David Gordon, where he recounted his request of one of his college classes NOT to bring their college-issued laptops to class. The Dean overruled him before the day was over.

  6. This was a problem in my undergraduate study. When people right in front of you are on Pinterest or instant messaging it’s hard to take solid notes and listen to the professor. I ended up sitting in front of class with my notebook, and I was a rarity.

  7. I’ve gone back and forth on this, Dr. Clark. As you know, I love pens and penmanship. In respect to you, I tried earnestly to forsake digital in your class. I lasted three weeks. I found two challenges when taking notes by hand:

    1.) I experience severe pain in my wrist after extended writing sessions (30 minutes or more). I put up with it for tests, but computers are far more comfortable.

    2.) My methodology of note taking seems better suited to word processors — During lectures I take down anything I didn’t already know. Second, after class, I have my computer read my notes aloud several times at increased speed. Third, I review the previous week’s notes before the next class; anything I don’t recall is preserved; the rest is deleted. I continue this process toward the mid-term and final, listening to and deleting portions that have become familiar until I have a highly reduced set of notes. All that remains are things like, “Facientibus quod in se est, non denegat gratiam.” (BTW, that’s from memory.) It’s hard to imagine I could do this by hand, and the best part is that I have the original, complete set of notes to review in later years.

    I think people learn about as much as they are interested and motivated to learn. Computers in the classroom reveal where competing interests lie, and for some, paper is the only way to focus.

  8. A law school professor of mine had a creative way of dealing with laptops in the classroom. He only permitted three students to bring a laptop to class. The three computer users were chosen on the first day of class from a group of volunteers who had self-identified as the type of student who would essentially create a manuscript of each lecture by typing out everything said during class. The note takers had to email their ‘manuscripts’ to the entire class by the end of the day. If the professor thought that a particular lecture had been misunderstood by the students, then he would review and even edit the lecture notes.

    I liked the system.

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