Doing away with in-class Web surfing

Facebook stalking in class is no longer an option for a growing number of Yale students.

In an attempt to encourage students to pay attention to lectures and to facilitate class discussions, at least two dozen professors and teaching assistants have banned, or at least discouraged, laptop use since classrooms were outfitted with wireless in 2006. Despite the inconvenience the policy poses of taking notes by hand, many of the professors said in interviews that they have not received any complaints about their no-laptops policies, and a handful of them even said they received positive feedback.

Students make excessive use of laptops in class — a situation remedied by laptop bans in some Yale classes.
Philip Hu
Students make excessive use of laptops in class — a situation remedied by laptop bans in some Yale classes.

It’s no secret that students using laptops often multi-task in class — answering e-mails, instant messaging, reading the news and occasionally even taking notes.

Since “it’s not practical for Yale to delineate wireless classroom by classroom or hour by hour” — as Chuck Powell, the senior director of Academic Media and Technology for Yale’s Information Technology Services, put it — professors are taking matters into their own hands. (Yale wireless currently covers more than 80 percent of campus, barring Old Campus and a few buildings, such as Hendrie Hall.)

Five professors interviewed said laptops put up a literal barrier between students and the professor, hampering discussions and a sense of community within the classroom.

“I want to interact with the students. I want them to be paying attention,” said political science and religious studies professor Andrew March, who banned laptops from his Spring 2008 seminar, “Islamic Political Thought.” “It is impossible, even with the best intentions, to stay off e-mail, the Internet, Solitaire.”

Other professors who expressed similar desires to connect with their students said their no-laptop policy was for students’ benefit.

English and political science lecturer Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, who is teaching “Classics of Political Journalism” this semester, said his policy against laptops is no different from any other classroom regulation a professor might have — such as no swearing and timeliness.

In discussion sections, laptops also make it difficult to read the teaching fellows’ or other students’ body language, said Robin Morris GRD ’11, a TF for “Terrorism in America 1865-2001” this semester.

“By looking at students’ faces during discussion, I can look for signs of confusion, disagreement, boredom, excitement — all signals that help me determine my next move in the classroom,” she said.

Taking notes by hand not only eliminates the noise of typing — often distracting in a small seminar — but also forces students to filter information, instead of passively taking notes verbatim, Oppenheimer added.

School of Forestry and Environmental Studies professor Shimon Anisfeld, who banned laptop use from his two courses this spring, “Water Resource Management” and “Organic Pollutants in the Environment,” even used a comic strip to illustrate his point that laptop use takes away from the atmosphere of the classroom. The strip, which Anisfield showed his class the first day, depicts a student having an online conversation in class — a humorous exaggeration of the consequences of classroom laptop use.

Since enacting the policy, professors said they have seen levels of classroom interaction and grades improve.

“I have seen marvelous results,” March said. “I was ambivalent at the beginning, but I would never go back to allowing laptops.”

And at least some students are warming up to the idea, too.

In his course evaluations for “Eastern Europe Since 1914” in Fall 2007, history professor Timothy Snyder asked students how they felt about his policy on laptops. He received unanimously positive responses. One student even asked why more Yale classes don’t enact a ban, he recalled.


  • Y'05

    One of the major advantages of actually writing your notes by hand instead of typing them is that writing notes by hand actually makes it easier to remember the material over time (at least it did for me).

    Hand written notes 4 life

  • Anonymous

    There are many good arguments in this article for banning laptops, but I'd be very upset if I were disconnected from the internet during my med school lectures. Facts are thrown at students very quickly in med school, and the value of the ability to look up terms I've forgotten is really priceless. Being able to look up information during class in real time not just improves my learning, but it also contributes to the discussion when we are able to investigate cutting-edge questions on the spot.

  • cultofthewalrus2010

    I think a no laptop policy makes a lot more sense in a seminar (where there would be less notes to take and more discussion) than a lecture.

  • RaulRamirez62

    Amen! Amen! Laptops should be banned by any prof who wants classroom interacttion, and should be banned in all classrooms since from my observation at several top shools when visiting with my daughter, the students using laptops almost universally were using them to surf the web, and generally waste time and not pay attention to the prof.
    So ban them everywhere!

  • Anonymous

    I think claiming that people who took a laptop-less class loved it is a bit misleading, given that such a policy is likely to dissuade those who would disagree from taking the class in the first place. In fact, that policy was a large part of the reason I did not take the 'Eastern Europe to 1914' class.

  • Trumbull 08

    I sat in my senior seminar with 5 other laptops, I mean people, and it really did interfere with classroom discussion.

    That said, I don't think professors in larger settings should be banning computers.

    Firstly, with the increase use of the yale classes server, students must either bring their computers to class to have the readings accessible or spend tons of paper printing them out (ie so much for a green yale)

    Moreover, typing has many advantages: notes are easily searched for particular information, they can be cut/paste to create study guides, they can be sent to friends to help them with a class they missed, and they are great tools during hectic paper writing sessions.

    And while people use internet, they are all (in theory) adults and should be able to decide if they want to pay attention or check their email. Their grade, their life, their choice.

  • yale '10

    I understand the concern of profs, but there are definitely benefits to laptops. As #2 mentioned, we've used them in seminar to look up quick facts that contributed to discussion. Also, in classes where I have tons of notes, I can use "ctrl+F" to find a term or concept when I'm studying…it lets me study more efficiently and group my notes more neatly. I don't go to Facebook during class, but the people who do should stop of their own volition; we're big boys and girls who can make our own decisions. These same people would probably just doodle were you to take away their computers.

  • yalestudent

    for people of all disabilities, (I have disabilities that hamper my ability to write by hand and have auditory processing disorder), this is backlash against useful and even necessary technology is frightening and ultimately unwarranted.

  • I can't beat level 18

    It's unfortunate to see such actions taken by professors, especially as the YDN noted, so soon after much of the campus was upgraded to allow for internet access. I suppose I'll have devolve back to playing brickbreaker on my blackberry instead.

  • Anonymous

    this article makes no attempt to even examine arguments in favor of using computers in classes.

  • sciencealum

    As a former/current physics student (and one fiercely attached to her laptop), I'm all for the use of available modern technologies…when they are necessary. Generations of Yalies prior to this one seem to have taken notes perfectly adequately with a pen and paper with no detrimental effect. Cases such as disability excepted, using a laptop is ultimately more of a fancy distraction than an actual learing tool. I suppose I agree with #1 in this respect as well; I definitely understood my lectures more clearly when I took (even messy) notes by hand, and spent most of my time actually listening to the lecture (plus, you can draw diagrams!). During my time at Yale, I found using a laptop during class improved my understanding of a course precisely once: during a computer science course where we were required to test code mid-class.

  • Anonymous

    I can understand students being asked to leave for rude behavior or noisy typing but banning laptops is playing mommy and daddy. If I find the lecture slow enough that I can use some of the time working on something else, that's my business, not the professor's.

  • Laptops are not evil

    Laptops in lecture = great tool
    Laptops in seminar = are you kidding me?
    A complete ban = stupid

  • Michael

    I agree with #3 and #6. I am not very fast at taking notes by hand, so in a lecture class where there's a lot of important points and it moves quickly, I would be missing some of the important information. Plus, I often open up the slides for the class on my laptop, so that I can follow along and see the diagrams more clearly as I take notes. However, I generally don't use my laptop in seminar classes since note-taking is slower paced and there's more discussion. I may be one of the few people who usually does nothing but take notes on my laptop during lectures, but it's clearly not "impossible," as Professor Andrew March said, to avoid doing other things. I can see professors banning laptops in seminar classes, but in lectures, it should really be up to the student. If they don't pay attention, then that's their own fault and can only help the grades of those who pay attention. Plus, banning laptops in large lectures seems difficult to enforce. Unless they sent the TAs up and down the aisles or something like that, people with small laptops or netbooks (or iPhones) could probably get away with it, or people sitting up on the balcony. So, ban laptops in seminars if you really want to, but don't do it in lectures.

  • former seminar instructor

    Laptops keep the students at the table from being fully engaged. Multitasking and fractured attention suck away the energy of a good seminar. If you arer meeting once a week for less than two hours, it seems really pathetic if students cannot muster the genuine focus and attention that used to be something students could do on a regular basis. In the eight years I taught Yale undergrads, it seemed there was a steady increase in a general attention deficit, more students needing bathroom breaks, and fewer students able to concentrate and remain truly present. The discussions were lively and focused and it was a popular class, but even so, what might once have been called discipline seems to be dwindling.

  • Hiero II

    Ban them in seminars if you must, but it makes no sense to ban laptops in lecture halls as some professors at other universities have done.

  • Y '09

    The need for a laptop ban also depends on the class…I'm taking a senior psych seminar where I bring my laptop because the conversation flows so quickly and I would like to remember a lot of what my classmates said. About 1/3 of us bring laptops to to refer to the readings on PDF and/or take notes, and it hasn't hindered the discussion whatsoever.

    That said, I have also been in other seminars where having a laptop led to multitasking. Laptops during lectures are pretty much essential, unless Yale can require that every professor take a public speaking class (so some of them learn to slow down!) and post their slides/handouts online (which most do, but not all).

  • isabella '08

    Ban em in seminars at least. If a class relies on pdf files exclusively or primarily, then allow computers but disconnect the internet in the classroom or distribute print-outs of the literature to students beforehand. Computers and internet connectivity are not necessary to facilitate a good quality discussion session.

  • Anonymous

    Please don't take it away from math classes where computers are our only connection to the English language!

  • Sophie Yale

    If it's really necessary, I think banning laptops in seminars is plausible - but definitely not in lectures. It's easier to take notes because the lesson generally flows rather fast and it's more beneficial to use my laptop because I can get the notes which I would have usually missed (through note-taking). If students aren't paying attention in lectures and instead are checking their Facebook account, why not disconnect connection to the internet? Saying this however, us students wouldn't be able to do any research for quick-fire questions.

    But yeah, I think it would be okay to ban laptops in seminars because there's more discussion and less need for a laptop.

  • George Patsourakos

    George Patsourakos
    I believe it is a good idea to ban laptop use in classes, because using a laptop results in students being less attentive of the information being presented, thus weakening the teaching-learning process. The fact is that students cannot give their full attention to a seminar or lecture, if they are busy typing or reading something on their laptops. In fairness to all students and instructors, I believe that the Yale administration needs to implement a standard policy regarding laptop use in classrooms. Perhaps the ideal policy would be one that permits laptop use in lectures, but forbids laptop use in seminars and all other non-lecture classes!