The hour is 11 o’clock on a Tuesday when Professor Etienne Augé starts to speak before a packed hall of students. It’s like any other routine lecture at the university, except for one detail: Not a single student has a laptop sitting before them.

The laptop has become a staple of the university lecture hall, replacing notebooks all together for many students. But in courses taught by Augé, the laptop is a forbidden item.

“All of us, not just students, get tempted to check our smartphones and laptops,” Augé told EM. “I realized that getting rid of these devices was an easy way to remove that temptation and to regain focus. If students think this is fascist, they don’t have to come to the lectures. I have nothing against Facebook, but there’s a time for Facebook and a time for studies.”

Distractions, distractions, distractions

Augé banned smartphones and laptops from his classes four years ago, and he claims it has benefitted his students. The latest research backs up his ideology, suggesting that students who take notes on a laptop score between .27 and .38 grade points lower than students who take notes by hand on a four-point grade point average scale. Could it be the distractions?

“We can undoubtedly say that laptops lead to many things other than good study behaviour,” said Chris Aalberts, a researcher and lecturer of political communication. “Facebook, e-mail, etc. Those things become more important than taking notes. The problem is that the attention spans of almost everyone is already quite short, and laptops are not making that any better.”

Absorbing information

The countless diversions that await students on the other tabs of their computer screens certainly play a role in detracting attention, but it doesn’t entirely explain why taking notes on a laptop has a diminishing effect on grades. The problem lies in the supreme functionality of the laptop, which allows students to literally transcribe everything that is being said by the lecturer at the speed of a stenographer. Researchers found that this rapid-fire style of taking notes makes it more difficult for students to absorb information.

On the other hand, the slow nature of taking notes the traditional way makes it impossible to write down the lecture verbatim. The student is forced to be more selective with what they write down, helping the brain process key bits of information better.

“I tend to take notes with pen and paper, and I feel that I pay much better attention that way,” said Emina Mulagic, a media and communications student who attends lectures by Augé. “If I was a lecturer, I would want my students to do the same. I think as a lecturer it would feel like you’re talking to a wall if everyone is on their computer.”

Still, not everyone agrees with Mulagic.

“If I wasn’t allowed to use my laptop in class, I’d feel violated,” said Irmak Akal, a Masters student in housing and urban development. “I do everything on my laptop, including note-taking.”

What to do?

While research may be convincing enough to make an argument for implementing a university-wide ban on laptops in lecture halls, it seems that technology has become far too engrained in the everyday habits of students to turn back to traditional methods of taking notes. On top of that, the need for a laptop in the lecture of one faculty may differ from another.

“It’s up to the individual lecturers and schools to decide how to deal with laptops in lecture rooms,” said Huib Pols, the Rector Magnificus of the Erasmus University. “There is no official policy on this issue. Most important is that students take good notice of what is being said, either by writing it down paper or by using a laptop. That’s the personal choice of students.”

Augé, the original professor to outlaw laptops, agrees with the Rector’s stance on laptops. “I’m not trying to start a revolution here. I’m just doing what’s best for my class.”