Packin’ a Laptop? 5 Tips to Minimize Your Risk of Self-Sabotage in the Classroom

Packin’ a Laptop? 5 Tips to Minimize Your Risk of Self-Sabotage in the Classroom
Setting up two accounts on your laptop, one for social purposes, and the other for academic work, serves to delineate necessary boundaries. (NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock)

If you’re among the growing ranks of people who harbor doubts about the perks of new technologies in the classroom—such as personal laptops—congrats! Depending on the extent to which you dial back your tech use, you’re likely to be rewarded with increased focus, a stronger memory, deeper learning, and higher achievement.

Forget what Big Tech or gearheads might be telling you. The wealth of carefully conducted, independent research on computers in the classroom is a much better guide. Follow the research and you, your child, or your students will reap the rewards (as will your wallet).

But when it comes to the laptop, dilemmas quickly arise—especially within the context of college.

Laptops aren’t only ubiquitous on the campus scene (translating to a “keeping up with the Joneses” effect), but are often, admittedly, a necessity. Increasingly, college instructors include online activities in class such as polling and asking students to look up real-time information. Meanwhile, computer labs aren’t nearly as convenient or inviting as they may have seemed, say, a couple decades ago—before the mobile revolution. Students today expect to be able to plunk down and hash out a paper anytime, anywhere.

So what’s one to do, given the double-edged nature of the laptop and its likely penchant for biting the hand that feeds it?

Based on a survey of the academic literature from the past two decades, conversations with colleagues at several institutions, and my own observations as an instructor, I have several suggestions.

Keep It Out of Class

This comes with a big caveat: if you can. The risks of simply opening up a laptop during class are legion. Studies have found that students with an open laptop will waste, on average, around 40 out of every 100 minutes in class because of being off-task or distracted.

The cost to academic achievement is real and measurable, regardless of how intelligent, motivated, or interested you are in class. Research reveals that the pitfalls of using in-class technology prove more powerful than a student’s good intentions.

For many, the simplest way to boost learning is by simply leaving that laptop behind. Park it in the dorm, if you can. Or at least zip it deep into the recesses of your backpack before class. Keep the temptation to use it out of sight, out of mind.

Make a conscious decision before class starts that you won’t take it out, no matter what ensues—be it boredom, a sudden impulse to check your email, or the pull of headline news that you glimpse on a wayward classmate’s screen.

Don’t Justify It With Note-Taking

It’s becoming the norm to take class notes on a laptop. But like so much else in today’s world, just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Well-designed, peer-reviewed research studies have found that taking notes on electronic devices is detrimental to learning.

Sure, you can crank out more words per minute by keyboard than by pen-and-paper, and there’s convenience aplenty in the ease of functions such as copy-and-paste.

But the ease of manipulating digital text comes at a cost. Precisely, perhaps, because of its expediency, the information and ideas handled on screen imprint less deeply in the mind. All that speed comes at a cost. Easy come, easy go.

Opt instead for the tried-and-true, centuries-old approach of writing by hand, and you’ll likely be glad at exam time.

If you want to record your instructor’s lecture, buy a simple recording device, ask your professor’s permission (most will be happy to oblige a conscientious student), and plant it on the table or lectern at the start of class. You’ll get a far superior audio recording to anything your computer could capture.

Separate the Social From the Academic

College students can take a cue from most high-achieving professionals, who learn to create space between their work and personal lives, by creating clearer boundaries between their social and academic lives.

It begins with the laptop. This is the key battleground.

A simple—but immensely beneficial—way to create boundaries between the social and academic worlds is to utilize the “accounts” feature offered by any modern operating system. Set up one login account designated for your social and everyday life, and one for your academic life. Two accounts for two different “you’s.”

The “social” one would be where you have your instant messaging app, an email client for communicating with family and friends, your web browser with all of your go-to news and podcasting sites, your music collection, and so on. Purchasing a present for your sister’s wedding? Got a Zoom call scheduled with your best friend from high school? This is where you log in.

The “academic” account is where you do your business as a college student. And “business,” it is. With the costs of college tuition having soared to where they are, it’s no trivial pursuit. Time is money, and the stakes are high. You want to be focused, efficient, and at your best when writing a paper, doing research, or applying for an internship. You want to keep this account streamlined and purpose-driven, and limit your bookmarks to school-specific purposes.

Skip the Spotify lists, limit yourself to your student email account, and avoid any apps that don’t have bearing on your academic self. The point is to strip away the distractors that you otherwise must fend off every time you open your device—forcing you to waste precious, and finite, mental energy.

The more focused you make this academic account, the more it will become your own  tidy, academic “world.” You want it to be a distinct environment unto itself. You’ll be reminded immediately why you’re there and what you should be doing.

But isn’t this going to be a hassle, always having to log in to one account or the other?

Yes! And that’s exactly the point.

Every time you log in, you should have to think about why you are doing so. A laptop (or the internet) mustn’t become a refuge for boredom or a means of escape. That’s exactly how addictions form. Which brings us to our next tip.

Don’t Open Without a Clear (and Good) Reason

No matter how well you set up your laptop, things are going to spiral in the wrong direction if you don’t form one critical habit of mind. Namely, you must have a clear and conscious purpose for opening your laptop. Anytime, anywhere.

This insight comes courtesy of productivity guru Cal Newport (himself, interestingly, a professor of computer science), who explains that anything less than this practice will result in mindless, addictive tendencies. Be it your phone, your tablet, or your laptop, if you reach for it without a clearly defined reason, you are likely feeding some unconscious habit. Much like a hit with an addictive substance, each log in makes the craving only stronger, the habit harder to break. Search up “internet addiction” and you’ll see just how real the problem is for millions today.

Newport even suggests that you establish set times when you allow yourself to go online, and only do so then for a set amount of time. This helps you to develop vital “executive” functions in the brain, such as self-control. Either you control the device, or it controls you. The stakes really are that high.

And in the context of college, it’s your future—as well as your mental health—that’s on the line.

Know Yourself

All of this, of course, is predicated upon your ability to self-reflect and be aware of your device usage. You must be brutally honest with yourself here. And willing to do some reflection—at the end of a laptop session, or at the end of the day or week. Take stock of how you’re doing, and who’s owning whom.

A journaling habit—with paper and pen, mind you!—can be your best friend here. You and your well-being are worth the small investment that a weekly journal entry entails. It could set you on the path to success not only in college, but in life.

Follow the above five tips and you’ll be well on your way to winning in the classroom as well as beyond.

Matthew John is a veteran teacher and writer who is passionate about history, culture, and good literature. He lives in New York.
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