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An increasing number of university professors are banning the use of laptops during class to improve students’ ability to learn.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When university courses resume this September, Canadian students may find themselves learning the meaning of two new letters: HB.

The standard pencil, for many years alien to digitized lecture halls, is coming back into fashion on campus as a growing number of professors across North America ban laptops from their classrooms.

Many of these instructors are responding to a body of research showing that computer screens are distracting for people trying to learn, and that handwritten notes lead to better conceptual understanding than typed ones.

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Computer-free lectures seem to mark a departure from the optimism around technology that has prevailed on many campuses in recent years, and academics who have banned laptops say they are part of a growing wave.

"It's become pretty common now," said Arash Abizadeh, a professor of political theory at McGill University who banished laptops from his classes in 2010.

It was about five years ago that Paul Thagard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, started noticing a "wall" of screens in his lectures. When he installed a graduate student at the back of the classroom to spy on his plugged-in students, he learned that 85 per cent of them were using their computers for something unrelated to class.

"Since I teach cognitive science, I know how limited attention is," he said. "Pedagogically, I thought this was a disaster."

A 2003 study by researchers at Cornell University came to the same conclusion as Prof. Thagard's sleuth: Students who use laptops during class also engage in "high-tech 'doodling' " – sending e-mails, exchanging instant messages, surfing the Web.

The study found that these students scored significantly worse on a pop quiz about a given lesson's content than students whose laptops were closed – a finding consistent with troves of research showing that "multitasking" is virtually impossible for most people.

Online distractions have only become more seductive in the past decade, with the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

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"Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework," Clay Shirky, a professor of new media at New York University, wrote in a 2014 essay for the website Medium, explaining why he was banning laptops from his lectures.

It may be intuitive that the Internet can impede focus, but researchers have also recently come to a more surprising conclusion about the impact of laptops in classrooms.

In The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard, their cleverly titled 2014 paper on the subject, Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote that even when students use computers only for note-taking, they retain less information than students who take notes by hand.

That is because scratching out words on a piece of paper forces students to synthesize as they write, distilling the gist of a lesson, rather than copying a professor's words down verbatim. The joint study found that note typers were less able to answer conceptual questions about a given lecture than students who took notes longhand.

"In high school, I took typing – and so I know, as someone who can touch type, that I can type things without having any idea what I'm typing," Prof. Abizadeh said.

Most professors who ban laptops insist that they are not grouchy Luddites and tout their use of technology in other spheres.

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Pierre Martin, a political science professor at the University of Montreal with a device-free classroom, said he was the first in his department to create a website for his courses. "I'm actually a rather compulsive user of technology," he said. "It's because I am that I know it's bad for the students."

But sheer frustration with the sight of glazed student eyes is another motivating factor for professors who launch anti-computer crusades.

A widely watched YouTube video from 2010 shows a University of Oklahoma physics professor dunking a laptop in liquid nitrogen before smashing it to pieces.

Perhaps turned off by such bellicose tactics, some students have objected to anti-laptop policies, saying that even if the devices are harmful, banning them is a paternalistic abuse of power.

Teachers such as Prof. Martin counter that doodling online distracts not just the person on Facebook, but everyone around them. Laptops in class are like second-hand smoke, he argues.

Indeed, many now grudgingly – even gratefully – accept the bans. "As many complaints as I get, I get compliments," Prof. Thagard said.

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Meaghan Eyolfson, a University of Ottawa law student, said her 20-person criminal law seminar is mostly laptop-free. Two students per class are allowed to type up notes and send them around to others.

She recognizes the policy's advantages, even if it means more work. "Obviously, I pay 10 times more attention in the class," she said. "It's just a pain in the ass."

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