I’m sympathetic to Clayton Littlejohn’s laptop ban discussed here and inspired by Kevin Timpe.

Last semester, I noticed a significant increase in the number of students bringing laptops to class. I know these hurt performance (see Clayton’s post for the empirical data).

I toyed with the notion of banning laptops, but I know there are some students who can and do only bring their laptops to class for notes. So I came up with the following idea, and I’m going to test it out this semester.

The basic idea is to require students to upload their notes on the days they bring the laptop to class. Here’s what I’m pasting into all of my syllabi.

Laptop Policy
I will make note of each laptop user when I take attendance. If you bring your laptop to class, then you are required to upload your notes to the course dropbox (or email them to me if the dropbox is unavailable) – immediately after class. Failure to do so will result in an absence.

Why the Policy?
Recent studies suggest that students who bring laptops to class  perform worse (on average) than their non-laptop using peers, and are much less likely to pay attention in class. Laptops can also be a distraction for other students.

One increasingly popular option is to ban laptops in the classroom, but I want a laptop policy that accommodates the students who can efficiently use a laptop in class for note taking.

Students who are genuinely using laptops to take a large amount of notes, so many that it would be laborious to transcribe handwritten notes to a computer outside of class, should be allowed to use their laptops in class.

This requirement has the virtue of not prohibiting laptops for students who are genuinely using the laptops for course purposes.

Bonus: It also helps me be a better teacher. I’ll get a nice sample of what students take down as notes – this helps me ascertain whether what I think is important is getting across to students.

So, that’s the new policy. I’m testing it out this semester. We’ll see how it goes.

19 Responses to “New Laptop Policy in My Classes”

  1. thom blake

    One reason I used a computer in class was to look up things as we were talking about them to settle questions or understand an unfamiliar word/concept. It seems as though that sort of participation would count as ‘absent’ in your class.

  2. Andrew Cullison

    That’s a good point Thom.

    If they were only using the computer to look up terms and concepts, then they would count as absent. If they were occasionally looking things up (while also doing some note taking), then they would submit notes and would not count as absent.

    A related note: I would actually prefer students to ask those questions in front of the class anyway. That’s part of the point of having class with a professor. If a student is unclear about a term or concept, then chances are other students in the class are unclear about that term or concept as well and it would be good to have it clarified for the whole class.

  3. Boone

    In the future you might think of making this policy into an opportunity to encourage collaborative notes. Jason Jones gave a really interesting account of how he has his students use wikis to create “canonical class notes”. If you use a piece of software like PBwiki, you can track which student did which revisions (and when), which might allow for the sort of accountability you talk about here. Moreover, it gets them thinking about how others in the class interpret the readings and the lectures. I think it would take some adaptation to work well in a philosophy class, where the collectively-arrived-at interpretation of the lecture is by no means guaranteed to be the intended or the best interpretation. But certainly there’s some value in having students work through these things together.

  4. Andrew Cullison


    That’s not a bad idea. I might have to look into that in the future.

  5. Jon Nalewajek

    I think this is a great policy, however, my objection would be to the “laptop = student takes more notes” part. The main reason I like to type my notes is because I type much faster than I write. I think it is much easier to focus on what the professor is saying, than trying to focus on what I am writing and what the professor is saying (if I am listening to something when I am writing, I sometimes randomly write words that I hear on accident). I don’t necessarily take more notes because I have a laptop, but I find that I can type notes more quickly, and therefore have more time to focus on what the professor is saying.

    I think a perfect example would be math classes. I always wrote my notes in my math classes because I found it way to difficult to type in math notation. However, there would be times when I would be trying to catch up with the professor, and would have no idea why an equation would yield a certain result because I was focusing too much on trying to write it all down. And depending on the class, once you got behind in notes, you were behind for the entire class period.

    I definitely agree laptops can be a huge distraction, but I think that students that do use them for ONLY taking notes can do equally as well, if not better than students that write their notes. Last semester was the first semester I took notes on my laptop in all of my classes, and the results were great.

  6. Peter

    I truly appreciate that laptops can lead to problems in the class. I have to fight with my brain to focus my attention when it would rather focus on someone’s colourful and constantly-changing screen. Laptops, like televisions and moving shadows, command our attention and in a classroom that sort of distraction is counterproductive. It’s frustrating and it’s annoying to have to fight with my own awareness like that, but c’est la vie. It’s my struggle and it’s my grades on the line. Therein lies my motivation for fighting the good fight, for taking a seat that looks over the fewest screens, for being courteous with my own laptop usage, for coming to class prepared to engage with the instructor and the material. All this makes it a very satisfying struggle.

    But I bring a laptop to class. Most often, I use it just to record the class (with permission obtained, of course). Sometimes I take limited notes. Sometimes I turn to it to look something up that may or may not be directly related to what’s happening in the class, but which is at least related somehow within my own thoughts. My laptop is a multitool, good for many things aside from taking notes. Your policy would place a burden on me to justify my laptop use in a way that may not be related to how I actually used my laptop.

    Indeed, some of these alternative uses are what spawn the problem in the first place. FaceBook, email, chatting, videos, games … additional to the many relevant uses are a plethora of irrelevant uses. I’m not sure what an appropriate solution is, but I see the problem as a matter of substandard professionalism and courtesy on the part of students.

    I would not benefit from such a policy, and for those who would, your policy deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to function in the classroom more appropriately. If some student does poorly because they couldn’t keep their eyes on the prize, all the better for me. And for them.

  7. Andrew Cullison

    Hi Peter,
    It sounds like your main point is similar to Thom’s – namely that there may be some legitimate non-note taking uses for laptops. I have already agreed that this is a cost of the policy.

    Your other main point seems to be that the policy doesn’t allow students to figure out for themselves how best to use class time. Another cost of the proposal.

    However, on balance these costs must be adequately weighed against other considerations. It’s not clear to me that when weighed against other considerations these costs win out.

    I have been thinking more about your the first cost you mention. As Thom mentioned a student might have good reason to look up things on the internet. One option would be to simply require that students document some of their web browsing. (e.g, In their notes type the term they’re going to look up and copy and paste any links they go when they did a search on that term – that should be a pretty quick and easy thing to do – so if students didn’t have a lot of notes they could at least verify that they were looking into course related material)

    Regarding the second concern. While I think it is important for students to learn how to manage their own time – and courses ought to promote that as best they can. But that aim shouldn’t always trump other course goals – and this seems to be one of those cases. I’ve got some more thoughts, but I’ve got to run right now. I may post about those later today.

    Thanks for the comment.

  8. Peter

    “In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise. Considerations to aid his judgement and exhortations to strengthen his will may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others; but he himself is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.” (Mill, J.S., On Liberty, Chapter IV)

    This passage nicely sums up the concern I have with any policy that outright bans laptops in the classroom. By all means, encourage your students to adopt better classroom habits. Make the front rows a laptop-free zone so that students who wish a seat free from the distractions of others have that choice available. Make them read the literature that you would otherwise use to inform your ban policy. Be creative in exercising your authority. Establish the best classroom environment possible in which students can make sound and informed behavioural choices. But don’t mandate the actions of students to conform to what you think is best for them, no matter how right you are or think you are. The costs of that policy are high indeed.

  9. Andrew Cullison

    Hi Peter,

    I actually don’t like the idea of an outright ban on laptops. That’s the reason for my policy. I couldn’t tell from your last comment if that’s what you thought my policy was or not.

    All I require is that the student provide me with evidence that the laptop was being used for purposes that were germane to the course (e.g. uploading the notes they have taken), and as I mentioned I’m starting to think that there are suitable ways for students to provide evidence that they were legitimately using the laptop for course purposes even if they weren’t taking a lot of notes.

    Also, as I mentioned in the previous comment, I have yet to outline some of the course goals that I think the distraction of the laptops (not used for course purposes) conflict with, and they’re not the sort of paternalism I think you have in mind. They have more to do with the idea that grades reflect an assessment of mastery of the material (part of which is likelihood of retention beyond the course) – and laptops not used for course purposes (given the recent literature) are now something that I think it’s worth looking into for those reasons.

  10. Kevin Timpe

    FYI, I have my first student this term who is hoping to be allowed to use a laptop, despite the ban in my syllabus. I’ve asked her to give it a try for 1-2 weeks without her laptop and then we can discuss the bad again.

  11. Kevin Timpe

    Ban, not bad.

  12. Gareth

    I like the idea of being accountable for what you do on a laptop during lectures but not the ban as implemented by Kevin Timpe for personal reasons: I have a condition which makes holding a pen and writing very painful so to go with the ban would be a very bad idea, also giving it a try for a fortnight would not only cause the pain but make me lose notes and energy during the critical foundations of the course putting me at a very unfair disadvantage when catching up (of course, then there’s the psychology of revising those weeks and the pain memories coming back)

    Maybe either impose a compromise like the owner of the blog has done or if you like the ban idea, please be sympathetic to medical reasons, they do exist!

  13. Andrew Cullison


    Thanks for your comment. That’s a really good point, and I’m sorry about your hand.

  14. Jill

    This policy seems completely unfair. You pay to go to college and yet most of the professors are completely boring, outdated lectures,etc. If you want the kids to pay attention, become more interesting and act like a real teacher instead of bore.

  15. Andrew Cullison


    I don’t understand the unfairness complaint. What’s unfair about it?

  16. Ann

    How did this policy work out? I am considering something similar.

  17. Andrew Cullison


    The policy is working out really well.

  18. Shannon Jeffreys

    Would you suggest this as a compromise offer for a student to offer to a professor?

    I’m starting to run into professors that do not allow for anything but pencil and paper. I can get around this with a doctors note (arthritis) and a trip to a student affairs work but I just prefer to work with the professor as this takes time to happen. I’ve offered everything short of removing my wireless card out of my computer,

    • Andy

      Absolutely. If a student has a genuine learning need that requires accomodations, I would certainly allow it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


April 3rd, 2014

Ethics and Technology Panel This Week

I’m participated in a panel yesterday Fredonia on Ethics and Technology. The title of my presentation was “Grounding a Moral […]

March 27th, 2014

Gunshot victims to be suspended between life and death

This is unreal. Doctors in Pittsburgh will try to save the lives of 10 patients by placing them in a […]

March 26th, 2014

Diversity and Inclusiveness: Amy Ferrer over at newAPPS

The executive director of the American Philosophical Association is doing a series of guest posts this week over at newAPPS […]

March 20th, 2014

Thinking about moral realism may lead to better moral behavior.

This is really interesting. A recent article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that being primed to think about […]

March 14th, 2014

APA Now Accepting Nominees for Leadership Positions

The APA now has an online nomination system. There are vacancies on all twenty APA committees. You can access the […]

February 27th, 2014

A Discovery Based Account of Intellectual Property Rights

One of the issues, that’s most interested me so far in the Ethics and Technology class I’m teaching is how […]

February 26th, 2014

How the MPAA inadvertently gave American Artists Leverage Against Hollywood

This is a very interesting read. For the most part it is an over-view of the global subsidy war between nations. Here’s […]

February 25th, 2014

Spritz – New Technology Aims to Boost Reading Speed to 500 words a minute

I just learned about Spritz today. It’s starts out to be pretty mind-blowing. The technology is designed to feed text […]

February 6th, 2014

Gettier Case in The Simpsons

If we assume that Bart (at some point) justifiably believed that the lemon-shaped rock was a lemon, then he had […]

February 4th, 2014

The Case of the Copyright Hoarder

I’m teaching an Ethics and Technology class this semester. I came up with a thought experiment today that I’m going […]