At the start of the new school year in France, a smartphone ban came into effect in primary schools and the first year of secondary education. In this education tip, we transfer this topic to higher education in Belgium, where there is also a debate about whether to ban laptops and smartphones in our (higher) education. Numerous opinion pieces have addressed the issue in recent years.

Below, we provide some considerations and arguments based on research and discussions with teachers in higher education for you to consider when deciding whether to ban laptops and smartphones in your teaching. So, the aim of this tip is not to convince you of one or other standpoint, but rather to give you food for thought to make up your mind. Because, dear reader, the final decision, in the absence of a blanket ban, lies with you.

The ‘wall of laptops’

Teachers get little pleasure from teaching to a wall of laptops. Connecting with students is difficult, communication is hard and, in general, the atmosphere in the lecture hall is worse. Coupled with this is that when students hide behind laptops, you get less input from facial expressions and body language. And this is the input you can use to gauge if students are keeping up with the lesson.

Worldly education

The world of education cannot be a world separate from the rest of society, a society where ICT is likely to be everywhere. What’s more, students entering the job market will need ICT for part of their professional activities. Banning ICT (laptops and smartphones) in education is therefore not a good idea!

Three further points can be made here:

  1. Some teachers, mindful of the reality of ICT being everywhere, are sensitising and making their students 'ICT-aware'. They do this by going through in the first lesson(s) the possible effects of multitasking, note-taking with and use of laptops in class and the impact on study results (e.g. Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014; Sana, Weston, Cepeda, 2013). Then it’s up to the student to make the decision whether to use their laptop or not. We look at the effects of laptop and smartphone use in more detail later in this tip.
  2. Sensitising is one thing. Training students and preparing them for a labour market where ICT has a strong presence is another thing altogether. Training means more than just allowing the laptop/smartphone and sensitising. In higher education, for instance, more and more steps are being taken to include ICT literacy, media literacy, etc in the curriculum. UAntwerp, for example, has offered the university-wide course 'Media and digital society' since the 2019-2020 academic year. The basic aim of the course is to make students aware of the mechanisms of media in digitalised society and the risks of biased opinion formation and polarisation. By familiarising students with these mechanisms, they become better prepared to see the opportunities and risks in their own domain for the dissemination and application of (scientific) knowledge and information, as well as the development of ICT applications.


In this section, we come to the first possible effect of laptop and smartphone use: students may get  distracted. Multitasking can have a negative effect on the attention spent on processing learning content.

Teachers notice that students busy with their laptops are often distracted and not focussed on the task, as confirmed by several studies (e.g. Ragan, Jennings, Massey & Doolittle, 2014). Although we should bear in mind that the creative student does not need a laptop or smartphone to be distracted, we must also admit that these devices mean a bigger chance of going off-task. In fact, it seems that fellow students sitting near a laptop user are also distracted (Sana et al, 2013).

Plus, we are not efficient multitaskers, meaning that when we pay attention to multiple tasks (e.g. both processing learning content and checking emails, social media, etc) it comes at the cost of something else (e.g. less memorisation of learning content). 

These ideas echo the principles of classroom management. The point here is that, to efficiently and effectively manage a class, we should avoid giving students the opportunity to be distracted or seek distractions. To do this, you can find ways to motivate students, find the right pace of the lesson, alternate between teaching and activating, etc. The laptop itself then, is then not the focus, rather how you manage the lesson and avoid distractions.

Related to this, you can also think about how to see the laptop not as a potential distraction tool, but rather as a purposeful means of getting students to actively engage with the material. Think of letting students look up further information, letting them use certain software and do exercises, taking notes (see below), etc.


In this section, we cover a second effect of using a laptop. Here, we focus on research done on how students take notes when using a laptop or when using pen and paper. We also look at how this affects the students’ results.

First of all, we want to make it clear that note-taking has a positive learning effect independent of the choice of laptop or pen and paper (Bui, Myserson & Hale, 2012). So it’s best to advise that students take notes, regardless.

But there does appear to be a difference in how students take notes, depending on whether they use a laptop or pen and paper (e.g. De Bock & De Weerdt, 2018; Christiaensen & Leppens, 2018). Notes on a laptop are longer, more complete and contain more core elements, often including a transcript of some of the teacher’s words. Students use fewer symbols when taking notes with a laptop, simply for practical reasons. In contrast, when taking notes with pen and paper, students are more creative in the structure and length of the notes, using abbreviations and symbols, for example. They also distinguish more main and side issues and summarise or paraphrase information. In fact, students are already processing the learning content in these kinds of notes.

Several studies report mixed results regarding the impact the type of notes has on student outcomes. For example, a study by Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) found that students with pen and paper notes scored better. However, Bui et al (2012) found that students who took notes with laptops produced better test results. One possible explanation for these different findings can be found by looking at  what was tested. While Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014) focused on conceptual testing (where understanding and reasoning are important), Bui et al (2012) focused on testing factual knowledge.

Perhaps the most important message to take away is that note-taking in itself leads to better results, regardless of the medium. Therefore, the choice of note-taking medium is perhaps less important than providing tips and tricks on how to (learn to) note-take properly (for UA staff: Monitoraat op Maat - Academic Dutch is organising a workshop for incoming students that includes 'taking notes during class'. In addition, all UAntwerp students and teachers have access to the self-study package 'Basic skills in academic Dutch: tips and exercises' on Blackboard. This pack contains, among other things, tips on note-taking during lectures. The package is available via 'my studies' or 'my education').

Impact on results

As seen above: if we include the 'type of notes' factor, the impact of laptop use on students’ results paints an unclear picture. However, if we start looking at the overall effect of laptop use on results, we get a slightly clearer picture; one that isn’t really positive. For example, when comparing the results of laptop users and non-laptop users, Wurst, Smarkola & Gaffney (2008) found no significant difference. In turn, other researchers note a negative relationship: laptop users score worse on tests (Fried, 2008) and this effect would also manifest itself in the longer term (Carter, Greenberg & Walker, 2017). In addition, fellow students near the laptop user would also produce worse results (Sana et al, 2013).  So, at best we find no effect, at worst a negative effect of laptop use on test results.

An important point to mention: the above results were obtained in situations where teachers gave students complete freedom in their laptop use and there was no checking at all. Several researchers therefore advocate that if you want to allow laptop use, you should think about how to effectively integrate laptops into the lesson and thus use them purposefully (e.g. Fried, 2008; Wurst et al, 2008). If you decide to allow the laptop during the lesson, as a teacher it’s always worth thinking how the laptop can be useful for the learning environment.

Want to know more?

On the difference in note-taking (laptop vs pen and paper) and the effect on learning outcomes

About the (general) effect of laptop use on learning outcomes

On the fact that laptop use can be distracting

For UA members of staff

  • Here you can find more information on Monitoraat op Maat.

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