• 01.23.17

Using A Computer In The Classroom Makes You Do Worse On Tests

Stop reading this and listen to your professor.

Using A Computer In The Classroom Makes You Do Worse On Tests
[Photo: Andia/UIG/Getty Images]

If somehow you’re reading this post when you should be watching and listening to the teacher in front of you, stop now. That computer activity could be harming your exam performance, according to new research.


Three economists at West Point studied the effect of laptop and tablet use during an introductory economics course at the military academy. They found that students who were technology-free scored higher than those who had either free access to internet-connected devices or some use.

The effect wasn’t massive: roughly a 1.7 points reduction on a 100 point scale. But the researchers reckon it could be larger in other settings, given that West Point students generally work pretty hard whatever the equipment in front of them.

[Photo: Flickr user Catherine]

“There are reasons to believe that permitting computers in traditional lecture-style classrooms could have similar or even more harmful effects than those found in this study,” says the study. “Students at West Point are highly incentivized to earn high marks, professors are expected to interact with their students during every lesson, and class sizes are small enough that it is difficult for students to be completely distracted by their computer without the professor noticing.”

The paper compares the difference between computer-impacted students and the other groups with the effect of scores from other education interventions, including charter schools, good teachers, and smaller class sizes. In statistical terms, the treatment groups were 0.18 deviation points below the normal distribution of results for West Point students.

We contacted two authors of the paper: one declined to answer our questions; another did not reply to our email. But the rigorousness of the experiment–it was a random control trial in a real-world setting–means we may want to take the work seriously. Letting students access email and whatever in class could be doing them long-term harm.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.