Laptops or Learning: Helping Students with ADHD and Learning Disabilities

In a recent New York Times article entitled “Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting”, Susan Dynarski describes how using laptops during lectures interferes with learning. The article documents compelling, well-designed research indicating that students (and those in close proximity to them) who use laptops in class learn less than those who do not. While this finding may be unsurprising if we assume that many students are shopping or searching the Internet rather listening in class, the study cited demonstrates that even students who were fully engaged, transcribing the lecture word-for-word, tended to learn less than those who hand wrote notes during the lecture.

Dynarski’s  explanation is that students who can type as fast as the lecturer can speak don’t need to organize what they are hearing or think about what the lecturer is saying. They end up with a transcription of the lecture but nothing in their notes to identify what is most important or makes connections to other parts of the lecture. Students who take notes by hand need to go slower and make decisions about what they are writing and may be synthesizing information at a higher level. Handwritten notes are less likely to be an automatic, simple recording of the lecture. Rather than being focused on writing every word uttered by the professor, students who take notes by hand are constrained by the speed of writing and need to select what they write, as a result learning more.

I question Dynarski’s interpretation of this research. Are students who hand-write lectures actually thinking about and processing the information as they take notes? Is it possible to instruct students who take notes on a laptop to mimic the note-taking of the hand-writers, listening first and then choosing what is most relevant and meaningful? Would they do better than the hand-writers because they had more time to think and synthesize? And, how much does it matter if the note-taker is fast, fluent, and efficient in their ability to hand-write or type?

Intuitively, it makes sense that those laptop-using students who are fixated on transcribing every word are not deeply processing what they hear. Most people have had the experience of reading a few pages of a book, only to realize that they do not remember a scrap of what they read. This can happen with reading, driving, or anything else that has a degree of automaticity to it.

While Dynarski bans laptops in her lectures, she recognizes that students with disabilities need to be allowed  to continue using laptops. This is important for these students, who may be extremely slow in handwriting, display slow processing speed, or have difficulty with working memory and cannot hold information in mind long enough to write it. Many kids with ADHD also have very sloppy handwriting that they are unable to read later.

Students with ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and executive-functioning and processing issues who need to take notes by hand may not be able to get enough information and depth in their notes to capture the main ideas. Making a quick determination of the most salient aspects of a lecture requires prioritization, reflection, sustained attention, and task persistence, which can be difficult for many kids with executive-functioning concerns. Working memory plays a role in how much students can keep information in mind and how long they can retain this information in short term memory. The use of technologies such as laptops that at least allows for getting all of the notes or recording the lecture is crucial for such students.

Technology can be the best support for taking notes for kids with special needs. The app Notability is particularly useful because it can both record an audio file of a lecture and allow students to take notes that are synced to the lecture. Instead of typing at breakneck speed to keep up with the professor, students can take limited notes and then go back later and add to the notes by listening to the lecture again. This type of technology facilitates a depth of processing that helps learners make sense of what they are hearing. For most people, simply hearing something does not mean that we have learned it. We need to give it some thought, use our working-memory skills to connect it to the long-term memories in our knowledge base, and then ask questions and make connections with what we have heard.

Another concern is that typing may become almost an automatic experience for some students. My office manager, who can type over 100 words per minute, reports that she does not always truly hear what I am saying when I am dictating a neuropsychological evaluation. If I ask her about the child and what I might have said, she may tell me she wasn’t really listening, just typing or transcribing. This raises the question about the type of attention that students are using when they are engrossed in getting every word from a lecture into their computer. I would argue, like Dynarski, that even without the Internet-based distractions of the laptop, students who transcribe are hearing but not listening, recording but not learning. They are so engaged in their typing that they are not processing the information, nor are they attuned in a way to get the most from a lecture.

One strategy to help transcribers learn from their  typed notes is follow-up dictation. Dictation is a tool that can be incredibly powerful for learning from lecture-type notes. Synthesizing their notes after a lecture by dictating summaries, making connections, and clarifying what they mean in their notes can be particularly helpful for kids who use laptops to transcribe. This forces students to process the information, not just copy it into another place, and then the dictated notes are available for later study and memorization. Once notes are dictated it also becomes easier to cut and paste, organize, and add comments that reflect even deeper processing.

While I understand Dynarski’s  perspective, I believe that the larger issue may be less about how our students use technology and more about their study habits. Although many kids (and adults) undoubtedly use laptops and other devices in lectures and meetings for something other than the task at hand, they are powerful tools for learning when used correctly. For students with ADHD, executive functioning difficulties and Learning Disabilities laptops and other supportive apps are an asset and not a liability.


Featured image: Flickr user Hillary

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