Laptops and knitting in class

Twitter is burning up with discussion of Sue Dynarski’s November 22 NYT column on laptop use in class. Dynarski summarizes some of the research on how laptops affect students in classes heavy in formal presentations (such as many economics classes) and explains why she generally bans electronic device use in her classes as a result. Loads of discussion has focused on the needs of students with disabilities,1 current/former student descriptions of how they (benefitted from) taking notes in certain ways, and discussions of how general classroom policies such as on notetaking affects the relationships between faculty and students.

A few thoughts specifically about the column and related discussion:

  1. Teachers should pay attention to research on teaching.2 What one does with the research is a judgment call, but in the same way that I’d like my doctor, dentist, etc., to pay attention what research says about how they should do their jobs, I have an obligation to do my students a solid and make teaching decisions consciously where I know there is research in the area.
  2. There is not a huge amount of research on the topic, and this is a case (like most) where faculty will need to make choices with a relative handful of studies available. Research in classrooms is hard to conduct, there are strong disincentives in research universities to studying your own teaching practices,3 and there are many topics one could research in college teaching.
  3. Many things go into the quality of a faculty-class relationship; a laptop ban or the lack of one isn’t the key ingredient. If you have a laptop ban and you persuade your students across a course in multiple ways that you have their best interests at heart, there will be no harm to the relationship. Same if you do not have a laptop ban. On the other hand, if you insult students, give them no feedback, and are disorganized through a term, you will have a lousy relationship with the class no matter what you say about electronic device use.
  4. The research cited in the column was in the context of formal presentation, such as the research at West Point on introductory economics classes. In that type of class, a key focus is on students’ learning foundational concepts that someone formally presents. If you dislike Dynarski’s approach and your teaching is light on formal presentations, do you disagree more with the ban on laptops or the idea of a class that relies on formal presentations? And are your teaching choices made because of the content of what you teach or your philosophy towards teacher-class relationships?

The larger question is how to engage students in focused learning. The research on laptop use is just a special case of that larger question, about a specific tool/distraction in the context of formal presentations. If you have a small class where you can spot students daydreaming and get them engaged, good for you.4 If you teach larger classes and can structure the environment to help students learn, good for you. If a teacher is not figuring out how to do that, not paying attention to whether students are paying attention, that is a fundamental problem.

My own notetaking has varied over the years. I graduated from high school in 1983, before I had a computer, so I learned notetaking by hand, in classes and in high school debate. In a debate environment, it’s critical to track each argument, and I was in the fast-talking policy debate event, so I learned the handwriting equivalent of scribbling headlines as fast as I could.5 Like many middling high school debaters, my primary cognitive task in the middle of an hour round was figuring out what arguments I already had on hand that could rebut whatever my opponents said. Being creative and seeing the big picture was the advantage held by my much-better partner, Jeff Sklansky.6 On the other hand, while that level of notetaking skill and cognitive engagement may have been middle-level in policy debate, it was great stuff for following lectures in a class. Divide a page into two columns. Left column is for topics/summaries, right is for details or my thoughts. Maybe a page or two per lecture, a pretty low commitment for making sure I didn’t completely omit key material. The classes with things like proofs required more detailed notes, just a little more effort. And the one time I was a TA and realized later I had misscored an individual student’s essay, it was when I did not scale up my notetaking for a professor’s lecture, where I was responsible for assessing student knowledge.7

As I became a history major, I realized I was taking fewer and fewer notes in class (or at least history classes), as more focus was on discussion and the experience of making and assessing historical arguments. More than 30 years later I still remember much of Susan Stuard’s class on early modern Europe, where I don’t think I took more than a few pages of notes in the entire semester.8 Some part of that was the density of prior knowledge and my growing commitment to becoming an historian, but it was also the nature of a discussion course in my major and where I realized that a good part of my use of notetaking was keeping my hands busy during discussion.

And so I ended up as a student in Jane Caplan’s seminar on modern German history, knitting through the spring class. I don’t remember how I made the decision, but the first time I came to class with my knitting gear, she gave me a five-second look (not a stare), and didn’t say anything. I always had a piece of paper and a pen on the table, and I probably scribbled something a handful of times each class, more when she gave a formal presentation. Knitting gave my hands something to do, I stayed focused on the discussion, and a friend got a (sort-of) sweater by the end of the semester.

I haven’t knitted since at least 1993, but I still adjust my notetaking to the circumstances. And I am pretty sure that when colleagues or I check our phones in gigantic meetings, part of it may be anxiety about what we may be missing, part of it may be a poor way of addressing boredom, and a substantial part of it is just finding something to do with our hands. Over the next few days I will be meeting one-on-one with five doctoral students. I will have my computer on, because these are online students and we connect online. I will be taking notes electronically but my notes on student conversations for this program are spare: I just keep a running list of draft agenda items, discussion topics, and what we need to discuss in/what needs to happen by the next meeting. The research Sue Dynarski cites does not apply to these conversations, and I wonder how many of those who are upset with the column are conflating the context of the research with their feelings about formal presentations. Notetaking should serve the needs of student learning, and I (and my colleagues) should keep my eye on the big picture.


  1. Dynarski does make exceptions to her general policy []
  2. I include college/university faculty as teachers. []
  3. Colleges of education are the exception here. []
  4. “Get them engaged” can be defined loosely; see Clifford Stoll’s description of how one faculty member responded to his daydreaming in Silicon Snake Oil. []
  5. A small number of debaters learned shorthand to help them. []
  6. We both ended up getting history PhDs, and he’s now at the University of Illinois Chicago. []
  7. I made plenty of other mistakes as a TA, and to each of my former students at Penn, I owe you a coffee for all my errors and for your contributions to my being a better teacher now. Drop me a line, okay? []
  8. I wrote more about the course back in 2013, in a blog entry about critical thinking. []