Researchers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point recently conducted a study on the effects of tech use in classrooms by randomly assigning 450 students to one of three sections of the same required economics class: one that permitted laptops and tablets, one that did not, and a control group. Since West Point is a military academy the environment and coursework is substantially equal for all students, and a randomized controlled trial is the highest-quality study available in social science, so the results of this study have a high reliability.

Researchers found that the students permitted to use tech devices in class suffered a third of a standard deviation drop in their performance — roughly the difference between an A- and a B+ average. In other words, a student prevented from using screens for class would have an A- grade average, but if allowed to use a laptop or tablet for study instead averaged a B+ grade. Computer use significantly degraded student performance.

These negative effects seemed to be particularly strong for males and for high-performing students, as the graph below from the study shows. The authors caution that these study results need more confirmation due to the sample sizes (West Point is 83 percent male and populated with high-performing students, so there were far fewer females and low academic performers for comparison).

“Although students overwhelmingly like to use their devices, a growing research base finds little evidence of positive effects and plenty of indications of potential harm,” the study authors write in the journal Education Next. It’s not just the computer users themselves who do more poorly in school, either: A 2013 study found that students earned lower test scores both if they personally used a laptop during class and if he or she didn’t use a computer but sat near a computer user.

This research consensus holds true for K-12 as well as college. The Education Next authors write:

In K–12 schools, where students do not typically take lecture notes, a growing body of research has found no positive impact of expanded computer or Internet access. For example, a 2002 study by Joshua Angrist and Victor Lavy found that installing computers throughout elementary and middle schools in Israel had no effect on student achievement, even though their teachers used more computer-aided instruction. Another study, published in 2006 by Austan Goolsbee and Jonathan Guryan, found that the federal E-Rate program expanded California students’ Internet access by 66 percent over four years but did not have an impact on student achievement (see “World Wide Wonder?” research, Winter 2006). Other studies have found no link between enhanced student outcomes and expanded information-technology spending, universal-laptop programs, and providing students with home computers…

Our findings are consistent with those of a recent study by Richard Patterson and Robert Patterson, which found that in-class computer usage reduces academic performance by between 0.14 and 0.37 points on a four-point grade scale among undergraduate students at a private liberal-arts college.

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