Computer use in college classes reduces final-exam grades


Computer use in college classes reduces final-exam grades
New study finds that technology can be more of a distraction than a learning tool

August 17, 2017—The vast majority of college students carry laptops or tablets from class to class. But in between notetaking and consulting references, students are also often sending personal emails or posting on social media. Can laptops in the classroom be harmful to student success? In a new article for Education Next, Susan Payne Carter of the United States Military Academy, Major Kyle Greenberg of the Army’s Human Resources Command, and Major Michael S. Walker of the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense report that allowing computer use in the classroom, even with strict limitations, significantly reduces students’ average final-exam performance.

In a randomized controlled trial conducted at the United States Military Academy (West Point), the authors find that unrestricted laptop use reduces students’ exam scores by 0.18 standard deviations relative to students for whom laptop use was prohibited; tablets reduce scores by 0.17 standard deviations (see figure). In other words, a student in a classroom that prohibits computers is on equal footing with a peer who is in a class that allows computers and whose GPA is one third of a standard deviation higher—nearly the difference between a B+ and A- average. When analyzing subgroups by gender, race, entrance exam scores, and entering GPAs, the researchers find that no group benefits from computer access in the classroom.

To conduct the study, researchers took advantage of West Point’s core curriculum Economics course, which utilizes randomized schedule assignment; a standardized syllabus and assessments; and the institution’s mandatory attendance policy. Their sample included 50 classrooms and 726 students over two semesters during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. Students were randomly assigned to one of three classroom environments: technology-free (control group); at-will laptop or tablet use; or restricted tablet use, in which only tablets remaining flat on the desk surface were permitted.

Technology on campus can be a crucial tool for collaboration and knowledge-building. But, when it comes to the classroom, “evidence is mounting that potential distractions from laptops can hinder student learning,” the researchers warn. “As we head into a new school year, educators at all levels may want to think twice before allowing students to open their laptops.”

To receive an embargoed copy of “Should Professors Ban Laptops? How classroom computer use affects student learning” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, August 22 on and will appear in the Fall 2017 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 30, 2017.

About the Authors: Susan Payne Carter is an assistant professor of economics at the United States Military Academy. Major Kyle Greenberg is a research analyst at the Army’s Human Resources Command. Major Michael S. Walker is a research analyst at the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. A more detailed account of this investigation can be found in the February 2017 issue of the Economics of Education Review. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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