Laptops and Tablets

If your course will be utilizing mathematical software, using online content, or accessing an e-text during class, allowing laptops in the classroom may be necessary. If not, you should give some consideration as to whether you will allow students to use a laptop or tablet for notetaking. There are at least two concerns to consider: the privacy of students with disabilities and the overall learning environment.

If you choose to ban laptops, you may still need to permit their use to students with certain disability accommodations. If a formal ban is in place, you may inadvertently reveal the presence of a disability for a student using one and privacy laws will leave you unable to directly address a perceived inconsistency. You could opt to allow laptops only on a case-by-case basis, requiring students who want permission to use a laptop in class to make a case to you in private that they are capable of taking effective math notes on the computer. This would lead to some ambiguity when students are seen using a laptop, rather than a clear indicator that the user has a disability, but could still result in challenges.

Students may be better off handwriting mathematics notes in class. Studies have shown decreased performance when notes were taken on a laptop versus long-hand (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Typing notes may require little concentration on the subject matter and students may transcribe rather than process and summarize the way a student writing out notes may. While long-hand notetaking may be more cognitively demanding, the resulting notes have been shown to be more beneficial for subsequent review (Luo et al., 2018; Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). This issue may not affect a student who takes notes on a tablet but the device is still potentially problematic.

Laptops and tablets provide the distraction of e-mails and texts to even the well-intended student who resists internet surfing. Many of us can relate to becoming sidetracked when such messages come in as we are desperately trying to get work done. Research has shown that multitasking on a laptop during a lecture impairs learning (Sana et al., 2013; Wood et al., 2012; Hembrooke & Gay, 2003). Instant messaging on a laptop during a traditional lecture style class can negatively impact performance, as may even course-related multitasking activities (Kraushaar & Novak, 2010). In comparison to students without access to technology during class, even students who used tablets flat on their desks (to allow observation of activity by the professor) have shown decreased performance similar to peers allowed unrestricted use of computers (Carter, Greenberg & Walker, 2016).

There is some evidence that not only the laptop user is affected. Students who are seated in view of another student’s laptop have shown decreased learning as well (Sana et al., 2013). Classroom constraints may not afford every student who would like to use a laptop the opportunity to do so without affecting the learning of another student. If you do choose to disallow computer or tablet use in class, explain your reasoning. Some professors present this data to their classes and ask students to assist in designing a suitable and fair policy on the use of technology. For your first few courses, it is probably best to seek advice from colleagues and superiors on a policy. If you decide to allow for students’ input in the future, your experience may indicate certain requirements are prudent.

Due to the aforementioned difficulty in typing up mathematics notes, you may not need to address the question of laptops directly in your syllabus, but you should think about these issues and how you might address them if they arise. It is likely that some students will indicate they might like to reference an e-book during class. Check in with other professors in your department. Discuss how frequently it is an issue and how they have dealt with it in the past. The more thought you put into such policy in advance the less likely you are to create unintended difficulties by answering a request off-the-cuff.

Phones and Smart Watches

Unlike the accommodation for laptops, you are on safer ground disallowing the use of phones and many smart devices. Phone use is often easy to note as students sometimes seem oblivious to the fact that they are not viewing us through a one-way mirror. Yes, we can see them, too! And yet, we are trying to teach, not police the use of devices. Since multitasking negatively affects learning and subsequent retrieval (Rosen, 2008), distractions, such as phones and laptops, may impair students’ abilities to process and store the information they are trying to learn. This suggests restrictions on devices might assist our students’ learning. Interestingly, at least one study found students with silenced, un-accessed phones may be just as distracted as those permitted to use phones. When researchers asked students to watch a 20-minute talk and take a subsequent quiz, performance was only improved for students who were not in possession of phones at all (Lee et al., 2017). In many settings, it is impractical and unrealistic to expect students to not carry a phone to class, nor would one typically require students to surrender phones to a teacher at the undergraduate level, so there may be no simple solution to this particular distraction.

If you want to use phones for activities in class but do not want them out otherwise, you may want to address this in your syllabus. Perhaps you want students to be able to use their phone for a calculator or to utilize a specific application, such as for polling student responses to questions posed in class (discussed in Chapter 7). If you want to use the phones throughout class, you will have little option but to simply allow the devices to be out. If you only want to do a few short exercises, you might place them at the start or end of class and have students put the phones away otherwise.

Smart watches can be a problem during testing, as students can view photos, receive texts, and access the internet. You should watch your class during a test to observe if students have questions and for security purposes. With small to moderate size classes, the inappropriate use of a watch should be fairly easy to detect.

Formulate a policy, which is in agreement with any held by your institution, and consider including it on your syllabus. Contemplate how you plan to address this policy. Will you actively speak to students as a class, individually, or possibly send an e-mail? Remember the intent of improved learning, not policing behavior, and maintain a positive tone as you address issues.


It is important to discuss the expected behaviors in your classroom (MAA, 2018: 3) and you need to do so from the start. Your institution most likely has a policy on acceptable student conduct. You may want to expand on inclusivity and being supportive of other students during the class discussion. Adhering to your classroom policies falls under conduct, though violations may not represent unruly behavior.

You may feel that having policies regarding attendance, tardiness, and use of phones or laptops, fails to acknowledge that your students are adults, but these are put in place to improve the learning of the individual or class as a whole. Your students will soon be entering the workforce where there is a wide spectrum of expectations for conduct. Asking your students to adhere to a few guidelines, especially those backed by research to improve the learning environment, is treating them like adults. The crux is to have a legitimate educational or practical purpose behind your policies. Be transparent as to your motivation and avoid addressing these issues in a scolding manner. Remind students of policies and ask them respectfully to adhere to them.

Unexpected Issues

If students ask for your policy on a topic you have not yet pondered, consider telling them you will get back to them shortly, even if you have a gut response as to your answer. Giving yourself the opportunity to think through the implications of your decision may allow time to realize potential exceptions or to confer with colleagues. As long as you get back to students promptly with an answer you can abide by, this practice should serve you well.

Quick Glance: Course Policies Overview

  • • Learn your institution’s requirements and restrictions before setting your own policies.
  • • Determine what to grade and how to weight each. Consider the pros and cons discussed in this chapter.
  • • Provide a clear but flexible framework for grades.
  • • Determine a realistic policy for late or missed papers. You must be able to apply this policy consistently throughout the semester for all students.
  • • Consider a wide variety of issues - even those which will not be formal policies included on your syllabus. Thinking about these in advance can help you determine whether they are worthy of a formal policy and shape your handling of issues that may arise.
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