Originally published in The Underground October 2016 edition. Edited by Nana Frimpong
As technology starts playing a bigger role in our daily lives, older and slower media are being replaced by their digital counterparts. Instead of going to the bank to pay for a bill, you can do so online or through your mobile device. Instead of meeting someone in person, you can swipe right on Tinder. A similar situation is occurring in universities, where notes written by pen and paper are being replaced by typing. Using a laptop to take notes would seem to be the logical choice, considering the average student can type 33 words-per-minute, compared to the 22 words-per-minute of students who write their notes.
However, research by psychologists at Princeton and UCLA have found that students who handwrite notes tend to score better on tests and exams than those who type out their notes. These results prompted Rutgers Law School professor Stuart Green to propose a ban on using laptops during classes, preferring that students focus on the material being taught. Green isn’t alone in his thinking.
Professor Waheed Hussain, a professor of philosophy at UTSC, has been enforcing a no-laptop in lectures policy since 2009. Understandably, some students get upset about the restriction on their precious devices, but Hussain believes it’s for the best. “It’s important to shut everything out and focus on material which can be very demanding, and you can’t do that if you have one foot in the classroom and one foot in the lives of the Kardashians,” he says. “You’re never again going to be in a room where 500 people are really listening to you and your ideas; it’s a unique and important opportunity, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly,” he adds.
The internet can be a tempting misstress, and its negative impact on our brains has been well documented. According to a recent study, the average attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to eight since 2000 — indicative of an attention span worse than a goldfish, if you ask me.
Writing with pen and paper requires more focus than using a laptop and copying lecture notes word-for-word. “Students who were taking longhand notes were forced to be more selective and that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them,” explained Princeton’s Pam A. Mueller in an interview with NPR.
Not everyone is convinced that hand-writing notes is the way to go however. Haykuhi Avdalyan, a fifth-year human biology student at UTSC says she uses her laptop as an aid to access information. “Laptops are meant to make our lives easier by allowing us to take notes, download lecture slides, find references from the books, [and] Google facts,” she argues. “By not allowing students to take notes in class, professors actually hinder the learning process.”
For some students, writing notes by hand is too cumbersome; for others, it’s too difficult to decipher their own handwriting; however, for students that face challenges that are more significant, having access to laptops in lectures is a must. Some students have even dropped a course because the professor would not allow the use of laptops. Not being able to use laptops in lecture raises barriers that can affect people with various mental or physical disabilities, both visible and invisible.
The Students for Barrier-Free Access (SBA) is a non-profit student group that represents disabled students at the University of Toronto. In an email interview with advocacy/volunteer coordinator Nadia Kanani, and Gelareh Alaei, the SBA co-chair, they explained that different students have different learning and note-taking methods. “It is essential that post-secondary be accessible to people with all kinds of learning styles, rather than asking them to conform to one style of learning,” they wrote. UTSC’s AccessAbility Services provides students with disabilities various accommodations so they can get the help they require. For example, a student with a visual impairment will require typed notes that can be read using a screen magnifier or screen-reading software.
However, not all students who need AccessAbility Services register for them. This can happen because the student is unaware of the services offered, they don’t have the required documentation (learning-disability assessments can cost up to $2000), and/or other reasons not listed here.
Some students argue that because they pay such high fees for their education, they should be able to take notes however they see fit. Hussain rejects the notion that using social media in lectures is innocuous, claiming that internet use in lectures is “insulting, and damages the environment of the class.” He adds, “You can pay money to go and see a movie, but that doesn’t mean you get to jump up and down and do a dance in the middle of the theatre.”
Professors can accommodate to the needs of students as long as it is necessary and isn’t hindering to the flow of the lecture; however, students need to be mindful about having laptops and phones out during lectures, especially when it’s not being used for classroom purposes, as it can cause more damage to the students around them.