Allowing students to use electronic devices such as laptops and tablets during class has a negative effect on their overall grades, concluded a recent study.

According to the study, male students and students with high grade point averages at the beginning of their college careers are particularly vulnerable to sinking grades due to device-induced distractions.

Faculty members at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York published their findings online earlier this month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative.

In the study, researchers randomly separated 726 undergraduates into three groups: the control group was completely “technology free”, meaning they were not allowed to use laptops or tablets at all at their desk; the second group could use electronic devices at their own discretion, though professors could call out “blatantly distracted” students; and the final group was restricted to using tablets which were laid flat on their desks so that professors could see what was on the screen.

Students in the last group, which was meant to mimic how devices should ideally be used in the classroom, used tablets much less frequently compared to students would could use them without strict limitations. While 80 percent of the students in the restriction-free group said they used a device at some point during the semester, only 41 percent in the tablet-only class did.

For those allowed to use them, the usage of laptops and tablets in class didn’t appear to make any significant difference in a group’s academic performance. On a computer-based final exam, students in the groups which were allowed the use of some form of device scored lower than students in the “technology free” group, scoring 1.7 points lower on average.

“By way of comparison, this effect is as large as the average difference in exam scores for two students whose cumulative GPAs at the start of the semester differ by one-third of a standard deviation,” the paper said.

“The results from our randomized experiment suggest that electronic devices have a substantial negative effect on academic performance,” the researchers concluded, suggesting that the distraction of an electronic device with internet access outweighed their use for note-taking or research during lessons.

Seeing as the study was conducted at a military school known for its rigorous curriculum and high academic standards, it goes to show that even military cadets have difficulty focusing on their studies if classes allowed them to have free access to devices.

“Our results indicate that students perform worse when personal computing technology is available. It is quite possible that these harmful effects could be magnified in settings outside of West Point,” added the researchers.

They went on to say that in learning environments with lower incentives for performance, fewer disciplinary restrictions on distracting behavior, and larger class sizes, “the effects of internet-enabled technology on achievement may be larger due to professors’ decreased ability to monitor and correct irrelevant usage.”

Image via Flickr.

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