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  • Writer's pictureJohn H Keess

On Laptops, Classrooms, and Ineffective Efficiency

If you are taking one of my classes, you know by now that I do not allow laptops in my classroom. To be more specific, my electronics and note-taking instruments policy is as follows:


1 - Phones squared away

2 - No laptops

3 - Tablets allowed if they are being used as a substitute for paper - i.e. flat on a desk and used with a stylus

5 - Accommodations or exceptions are possible, but you will need to come and talk to me about it.


I dislike arbitrary rules more than most people do, so I will use this blog post to explain the rationale behind this policy. My reasons can be grouped into two levels. On a technical level, the arguments against laptops, and specifically typing, in class are stronger than the case for allowing laptops in class. On a philosophical level, the argument that laptops can make note-taking more “efficient” undermines the point of learning history at the university level, because developing an historical sense of things cannot be rushed.

Besides detailing the rationale for my laptop policy, this post also includes some recommendations for effective note-taking and study techniques.


The Case Against Laptops


But what about my learning style!


Most students who object to my laptop policy take one of two lines: either that laptops allow for “better” note taking because typing is faster than writing or that laptops better align with their learning style.


I’ll begin by engaging the softest target first: laptops don’t better suit your learning style because, objectively, there really isn’t such a thing as a learning style. The concept of learning styles originated with school administrators , not as a serious, evidence-based analysis of learning [1]. And despite gaining a lot of popularity with the education studies crowd, not one of the dozens proposed models of learning style models has been validated through controlled studies [2].  Although individuals have different preferences for approaching material and different aptitudes in different kinds of thinking and tasks, these preferences and aptitudes do not mean that an individual can translate them into a universal way of assimilating or mastering different kinds of knowledge [3]. For example, take someone with a high degree of visual-spatial aptitude might be great at learning how to operate mechanical things - let’s call them Bloggins. Bloggins might prefer doing things with their hands as opposed to reading about them in a book. 


A history professor teaching an Introduction to Military History class might want to use VARK, the most common model of learning styles, to inform their pedagogy and make room for Bloggins to apply their visual-spatial capability to learning about military history and identifies them as a “kinesthetic” and “visual” learner. As part of this open-minded approach, the professor allows - and indeed encourages - Bloggins to bring their laptop to class so they can look up pictures of hoplon shields when studying Hellenistic warfare or a GIF of the pneumatic recoil mechanism on a French 75mm artillery piece when learning about the First World War. Fair enough! Bloggins knows a lot about the construction of shields and the operation of quick-firing artillery. 


The problem is that the course isn’t about the construction of shields or the operation of quick-firing artillery. It’s a course about how societies build and apply military force, and the relationship between the society, the state, and the conduct of war. Knowing everything these is to know about an Athenian hoplon won’t give you any insight into the Athenian expedition to Syracuse, and knowing all about the soixante-quinze won’t provide any insight into the German decision to invade Belgium. Bloggins loved the class but flunked the exam. Boo, hiss.


If all of this sounds a bit snobbish, try to imagine the inverse. You’re in a Boeing 737 about to take off on a long-haul flight. The mechanic who certified the fuel system has great abstract reasoning, so their supervisor allowed them to write a brilliant essay on the importance of fuel systems instead of the usual course of instruction which requires an apprentice mechanic to show they can disassemble and reassemble the key components of the system. How comfortable would you be taking off?


Fair enough, learning styles are a poor way to understand how we learn. So what should we do, besides sitting through lectures?


Learning is a complex process, and the psychologists and neuroscientists studying learning have some pretty healthy debates amongst themselves on the mechanisms of knowledge acquisition, retention and recall. That said, there is enough consensus out there on the basics for educators to design a useful pedagogy. At a basic level, we know that engaging with subject material in different ways over time works better than other methods [4]


If another student, let’s call them Moggins, has a professor who encourages them to do their assigned readings before class, teaches them how to engage with their readings instead of trying to just memorise them, and comes to class with good notes then hits on certain points in class, Moggins is going to have a much easier time of things. Let’s imagine that Moggins is learning about the Seven Years’ War for the first time. Because they are encouraged to engage with the assigned readings, when Moggins comes to a part of the assigned readings on British commerce they don’t quite understand, they take the time to look up what a letter of marque is and find a good map of major British naval operations during that conflict. Armed with these materials, they come to class and are able to really get it when their professor details how the hapless Admiral Byng was publicly executed on his flagship after losing Minorca in 1757. Suddenly they have more questions about how the British admiralty issued instructions to naval commanders - and whammo, by asking this question, even if only to themselves, their brain is hard at work building the connections which lead to real interpretation and understanding.


What does all of this mean? It means that no matter the aptitude of the student in different areas, everyone learning about a new topic benefits from engaging with the material in different ways with different learning aids, and everyone benefits from revisiting material at different points. No matter who you are, you can’t study military history in any meaningful way without a map or two.


But typing is faster than writing!


Yes, typing is faster than writing things down. Why wouldn’t you want to write down everything the professor is saying faster?


For some very good reasons - the most important of which is to understand that learning and recording are not the same things. Think of it this way. Look at all these people taking a photo of the Mona Lisa. Do you think anyone in this photo walked away with a greater understanding of Renaissance painting technique or Da Vinci’s application of his anatomical studies into his art? I doubt it.



We live in a time of mass recording  - the spirit of the age seems to be “pics or it didn’t happen.” Yet obviously there is plenty that does happen without recording, or that cannot be recorded. Recall your first kiss, or the time you had to say goodbye to a loved one, or the time you lost your first fight, your first parachute jump, or any other intensely personal event. Something in you changed. Even if video exists of each of these events these recordings of the event are different from your knowledge of the event. And it’s probably better we don’t have a recording of my sloppy first landing anyways.


This philosophy of knowing applies to anything you study. I love history, and I love primary sources. Yet there is a certain understanding of war and history I gained from reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace -  a certain historical sense. It’s this historical sense we hope to build in you during your undergraduate education. I am under no illusion that everyone who takes my Canadian Military History class will remember the finer points of Flower-class corvettes. But I do hope you’ll be able to ask better historical questions. And that requires knowledge, not recordings.


The science on typing versus hand-writing notes is interesting. Early studies which indicated that handwriting notes led to better knowledge retention than typing notes have not been successfully replicated [5] . But the typing-handwriting distinction misses the key point - note taking itself is not necessarily linked to learning. In the most recent replication of the early handwriting studies, students were not given any material in advance and were asked to answer a simple quiz after furiously taking notes, then reviewing notes, after a lecture. But memorisation to complete a quiz is very different from the distinction between learning and note-taking - and we have very good evidence that these are psychologically distinct activities.


Besides, the part of your brain responsible for recording events is different from the part of your brain that learns things. Although the question Both observational and brain-imaging studies have demonstrated that note-taking is not the same as recall.


Distraction Machines


Besides the fact  that laptops and other electronic devices are poor aids to really learning, they are literally distraction machines. They’re engineered to provide a quick click to some cheap dopamine at the first sign of mental discomfort or boredom. And yes, a lot of learning requires a bit of boredom and mental discomfort.


I will do my best to give you breaks and I am more than happy to help you with study and focus techniques, but it’s better for everyone if I am not competing with Bond-villain corporations for your attention [6]. 


Studying and Note-Taking for Knowledge


Now that I have made a case against laptops, I feel I owe you a case for a different kind of note-taking. None of my suggestions are original, but I think they are worth explaining to you. I recommend a simple, three-part process.


1- Compile notes before class as a framework. Imagine studying a new topic like building a house. You will need both a good foundation and good framing before putting anything else on it. After all, if your framing is bad the doors won’t fit and the skills of the plumbers and electricians will be wasted on a building that won’t last long anyways. For history courses, I recommend you come to class with, at a minimum, a timeline of key events, some Cornell-style notes on your assigned readings, and a quick-reference guide for new concepts. For example, if you are about to take a class on Canadian confederation, it’s probably helpful to have a “cheat sheet” of the major political factions in the Province of Canada.


When it comes to military history, maps are essential. Even if you don’t know which campaign maps to bring with you, a simple topographic map will be extremely useful. For all the sophisticated years of studying military history your professor can bring to a classroom, “armies march better through flat ground than mountain passes” explains a significant chunk of what we do.


In terms of gathering the information for this class prep package, I recommend the following:


  • Start by doing your readings. I choose your readings specifically to give you a background in the course material. There are a variety of different note-taking techniques you can use to take notes. I like to combine the Cornell system with a timeline and map, but you have to figure out what works best for you.

  •  If there are parts of the reading that don’t make sense to you, dig into it a bit. There are a few tools you can use:



Work as a team. We are shaped by our environment, and we are all swimming in a sea of cheap dopamine. Most of us are finding it harder to concentrate for longer periods of time. Like working out, setting up a regular study group provides the kind of external accountability that makes life easier for your midbrain and will make it easier to build pre-lecture packages. I recommend the following set-up for study groups:


  • Find a collaboration area in the library or a classroom. Get out of your living space. It’s bad sleep hygiene and distracting. Best to set a location at a regular time for a regular period. I recommend setting about an hour and a half per week aside.

  • Do the reading. Note down key dates and areas you don’t quite get. Use a timer to designate reading time as a no-electronics time.


  • With the reading done, use a whiteboard to chalkboard to throw up dates and list things you don’t follow. This will give you a simple timeline and areas to follow up on.

  • Divvy up the follow-on tasks - someone on maps, someone else on a topic no-one understood, etc. Google Drive or other shared online platforms should make this stuff easy to share.


2 - Take notes in class. If you go to class prepared, you should be ready to engage with the lecture by adding to the notes you have, pointing out where the lecturer disagrees with the reading, asking questions, and listening to the questions of others.


From a selfish point of view, I would appreciate it if you challenged me or asked hard questions. I’d much rather engage with you than read my lecture notes aloud. It’s probably more fun for you anyways. And who knows? You might even learn something.


3 - Review notes. Before an exam, I recommend making study notes based off your course notes. By this point, your understanding of the course material should look like a big web. If you focus on the key points in that web, the outlying areas will mostly fall into place. If you understand how different historical facts, like, say, the development of Napoleonic corps system, and the development of modern military staffs - relate to each other, it will be much easier to prepare for an exam than trying to brute-force memorise the names of Napoleon's marshals. If you find parts of that web are fuzzy - well, then you know what to focus on.


The Case for Inefficiency


At first glance, this is much less efficient than just typing things out. I hope I have made the case that efficiently solving the wrong problem is a false economy - a waste of your time. If I haven’t made the case, I will let time-management expert Oliver Burkeman do it with more eloquence than I can hope for. I encourage you to read the below selection from Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, or even better read or listen to the whole book:


If you’ve spent much time in a city where the honking of car horns is out of control—New York, say, or Mumbai—you’ll know the special irritation of that sound, which derives from the fact that it isn’t merely a disruption of the peace and quiet, but overwhelmingly a pointless disruption, too: it reduces everyone else’s quality of life without improving the honker’s. In my corner of Brooklyn, the evening rush hour honking begins around 4:00 p.m. and continues until around eight; and in that stretch of time, there can’t be more than a handful of honks in the entire borough that serve a practical purpose, like alerting someone to danger or rousing a driver who’s failed to notice the light has changed. The message of all the other honks is simply “Hurry up!” And yet every driver is stuck in the same traffic, with the same desire to make progress, and the same inability to do so; no sane honker can seriously believe that his honk will make the critical difference and get things moving at last. The pointless honk is thus symptomatic of another important way in which we’re unwilling to acknowledge our limitations when it comes to our time: it’s a howl of rage at the fact that the honker can’t prod the world around him into moving as fast as he’d like it to.

That we suffer when we adopt this sort of dictatorial attitude toward the rest of reality is one of the central insights of the ancient Chinese religion of Taoism. The Tao Te Ching is full of images of suppleness and yielding: the wise man (the reader is constantly being informed) is like a tree that bends instead of breaking in the wind, or water that flows around obstacles in its path. Things just are the way they are, such metaphors suggest, no matter how vigorously you might wish they weren’t—and your only hope of exercising any real influence over the world is to work with that fact, instead of against it. Yet the phenomenon of pointless honking, and of impatience more generally, suggests that most of us are pretty bad Taoists. We tend to feel as though it’s our right to have things move at the speed we desire, and the result is that we make ourselves miserable—not just because we spend so much time feeling frustrated, but because chivying the world to move faster is frequently counter-productive anyway. For example, traffic research long ago established that impatient driving behavior tends to slow you down. (The practice of inching toward the car in front while waiting at a red light, a classic habit of the restless motorist, is wholly self-defeating—because once things start moving again, you have to accelerate more slowly than you otherwise would, so as to avoid rear-ending the vehicle ahead.) And the same goes for many of our other efforts to force reality’s pace. Working too hastily means you’ll make more errors, which you’ll then be obliged to go back to correct; hurrying a toddler to get dressed, in order to leave the house, is all but guaranteed to make the process last much longer.

Escape Velocity
. . .

This is another mystery, though, that’s illuminated when you understand it as a form of resistance to our built-in human limitations. The reason that technological progress exacerbates our feelings of impatience is that each new advance seems to bring us closer to the point of transcending our limits; it seems to promise that this time, finally, we might be able to make things go fast enough for us to feel completely in control of our unfolding time. And so every reminder that in fact we can’t achieve such a level of control starts to feel more unpleasant as a result. Once you can heat your dinner in the microwave in sixty seconds, it begins to seem genuinely realistic that you might be able to do so instantaneously, in zero seconds—and thus all the more maddeningly frustrating that you still have to wait an entire minute instead. (You’ll have noticed how frequently the office microwave still has seven or eight seconds left on the clock from the last person who used it, a precise record of the moment at which the impatience became too much for them to bear.)
. . .
There may be no more vivid demonstration of this ratcheting sense of discomfort, of wanting to hasten the speed of reality, than what’s happened to the experience of reading. Over the last decade or so, more and more people have begun to report an overpowering feeling, whenever they pick up a book, that gets labeled “restlessness” or “distraction”—but which is actually best understood as a form of impatience, a revulsion at the fact that the act of reading takes longer than they’d like. “I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs,” laments Hugh McGuire, the founder of the public domain audiobook service LibriVox and (at least until recently) a lifelong reader of literary fiction. “Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs.” He describes what’s shifted in the formerly delicious experience of sliding into bed with a book: “A sentence. Two sentences. Maybe three. And then…I needed just a little something else. Something to tide me over. Something to scratch the itch at the back of my mind—just a quick look at email on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny tweet from William Gibson; to find, and follow, a link to a good, really good, article in the New Yorker…”

People complain that they no longer have “time to read,” but the reality, as the novelist Tim Parks has pointed out, is rarely that they literally can’t locate an empty half hour in the course of the day. What they mean is that when they do find a morsel of time, and use it to try to read, they find they’re too impatient to give themselves over to the task. “It is not simply that one is interrupted,” writes Parks. “It is that one is actually inclined to interruption.” It’s not so much that we’re too busy, or too distractible, but that we’re unwilling to accept the truth that reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule. You can’t hurry it very much before the experience begins to lose its meaning; it refuses to consent, you might say, to our desire to exert control over how our time unfolds. In other words, and in common with far more aspects of reality than we’re comfortable acknowledging, reading something properly just takes the time it takes. [7]



[1] Carol Westby, “The Myth of Learning Styles,” Word of Mouth, 31, No.2 (2019): 4-7.

[2] Joshua Cuevas, “Is learning styles-based education instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles,” Theory and Research in Education, 13, No.3 (2015): 308-333; Daniel T. Willingham, Elizabeth M. Hughes and David G. Dobblyi, “The Scientific Status of LEarning Styles Theories,” Teaching of Psychology, 42, No.3 (2015): 266-271.


[3] Beth A. Rogowsky, Barbara M. Calhoun and Paula Tallal, “Matching Learning Styles to Instructional Method: Effects on Comprehension,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, No.1, 64-78.


[4] John Sunlosky et al, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, No.1 (2013): 4-58.


[5] Heather L. Urry et al., “Don’’t Ditch the Laptop Just Yet: A Direct Replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) Study Plus Mini Meta Analyses Across Similar Studies,” Psychological Science, 32, No.3, 326-339.


[6]  Faria Sana, Tina Weston, and Nichloas J. Cepeda, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” Computers and Education, 62 (2013): 24-31; Natasha Gupta and Julia D. Irwin, “In-Class Distractions: The role of Facebook and primary learning,” Computers in Human Behaviour, 55(2016): 1165-1178; Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael S. Walker, “The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy,” Economics of Education Review, 56 (2017):118-132.


[7] Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks : Time Management for Mortals (New York: Penguin Canada, 2021). Ebook, Ch.10.

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