You’d think if anyone were disciplined enough to resist the lures of the internet for the sake of doing well in school, it would be the cadets at the United States Military Academy, or West Point, the famously selective institution that requires you to find a nomination from a congressperson just to apply.
A new study suggests that even these officers-to-be get caught up in the World Wide Web, and it’s further evidence that our attention spans don’t know what to do when a screen is in sight.
In a working paper published at MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative, researchers tracked the academic performance of 726 cadets in an introductory economics class. The classes were divided into three groups, assigned at random. In one, electronics were banned outright, in another, laptops and tablets were allowed laptops for note-taking, and in a third, tablet computers were allowed, so long as they were laid flat on desks.
On the final exam — which had an average score of 72 out of 100 — the laptop students did 1.7 points worse than their analog peers, with the tablet-only group finding “nearly identical” results. (In statistics jargon, students in the device-allowed classes scored 18 percent of a standard deviation lower than students in the device-free section. )
As Jeff Guo notes on Washington Post’s Wonkblog, kids with higher GPAs and standardized test scores were more negatively affected by electronic use than lower-achieving kids. Guo speculates that the bright kids might have been more confident in their ability to multitask (terrible idea) or that they got more out of paying attention.
In the paper, authors Susan Payne Carter, Kyle Greenberg, and Michael Walker — all on the economics faculty at West Point — warn that it “is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point.” Class size is capped at 18 students at America’s oldest military academy, and class ranking is high stakes: the better your rank at graduation, the more likely to you are to land your military job of choice. And there’s also the detail that military instructors will carry out any disciplining required by your behavior in the classroom.
While this paper was more concerned with tracking the academic effects of electronics in the classroom than with why those effects occur, other research has given a few suggestions. A 2014 study found that since the kids these days are such quick typists, they take down every word spoken by the teacher, cutting out the moment of assessing the content of what’s being said. A 2012 study attested further to the power of the screen, suggesting that laptop use doesn’t just lead to lower test scores for the user of a given laptop, but for classmates surrounding them — possibly because just being able to watch someone multitask is distracting.
Maybe what’s most at work when the laptop is present in class — or, you might admit, in a meeting — is the posture of the user. In a personal essay about why he was banning laptops in his classroom (in which he noted that he was not a Luddite), Columbia University assistant professor Tal Gross pinpointed the something that’s lost with laptop use: “Students shift from being intellectuals, listening to one another, to being customer-service representatives, taking down orders,” he wrote. “Class is supposed to be a conversation, not an exercise in dictation.”
That’s the strange tension of laptop use. While it’s obvious that having the internet in front of you is distracting, we engage with computers so seamlessly that we shortchange the thing our devices are built to serve: human intelligence.