Why You Should Tell Students to Close Their Laptops…except when they are doing something for your class that requires open laptops

The KNIGHTLYnews is an online forum where FWS instructors and other teachers of writing can swap and share ideas for best classroom practice. Weekly posts are designed to help teachers develop lesson plans and writing assignments, and respond to classroom challenges by introducing new teaching tools and sharing emerging pedagogical ideas. Posts also direct readers to program and campus resources that support teaching and learning, and provide opportunities for peer collaboration and mentorship.

If you read the title and that opening bit, you get the point. The rest is commentary.

A few years ago, KNIGHTLYnews posted a piece (that I wrote) titled “It’s okay to tell students to close their laptops.” Since that was posted I’ve visited many writing seminars and taught many more. The class visits and the multiple semesters of seminar teaching have convinced me to state the case for closed laptops more emphatically, especially where First-year writing seminars are concerned.

If you are doing something in class that involves open laptops (or tablets), great. Otherwise, tell students to close them down. (They can always open them again when they need to).

There are many good reasons why a laptop should be open during a class. Students may be accessing course materials. They may be taking notes. They may be engaging in an interactive writing or editing activity. Some students require laptops as learning tools.

But there are other times when students’ attention should be directed someplace other than their individual laptops. Students might be watching a video; reading from a printed document; or reviewing a document projected onto a screen. If there is not a specific reason why students should be using their laptops, instructors should tell students to close their laptops.


  • Open laptops create physical barriers between classmates. When laptops are open, and students look across the table, they see laptops. When laptops are closed, students see each other. What’s wrong with physical barriers? Reducing visual barriers improves seminar dynamics. Seminars are intended to be classes in which participants exchange ideas. The principles of seminars are fundamentally different from the principles of a lecture. In a traditional lecture, ideas flow in one direction. In seminars, they should flow in many directions. Students are more likely to talk to each other if they can see each other’s faces (and know each other’s names).
  • Lit up screens draw the attention of the person sitting directly behind the screen and everyone else who can see the lit screen. An open laptop doesn’t just distract the laptop’s user—it distracts the people sitting nearby. Attracting attention is what screens are designed to do.
  • Open laptops are invitations to engage with something other than the subject matter of the course, even if the owner of the laptop has every intention of paying attention.

I was in a large lecture hall when Steve Jobs had died. I know this because a student announced it to the room. The 100 or so people in the room knew at once that this student was doing something with their computer that had nothing to do with the class.

This example (I could reference others) is noteworthy because the student revealed to everyone where their attention had gone. Most students do not make this mistake. But surreptitious laptop use is widespread and irksome to every teacher I’ve ever talked to. I’ve observed students sending messages to other people; shopping; watching sporting events; doing homework for other classes. I’ve talked to others who have witnessed activities of these kinds, and many others.

Why are distractions a problem?

The science on multi-tasking is unambiguous. Students may think they can switch back and forth between class and something else, but they can’t. Our brains can’t engage in two cognitively complex tasks at once.

Listeners may think they can tune out the boring stuff—or the stuff they already know—and then switch back to full attention when the interesting stuff—or the stuff they don’t know—takes center stage. Taking this approach means missing connections students might otherwise make, and missing potentially valuable review opportunities. This approach does not account for the time it takes to re-focus on a class once attention has wandered; or the speed with which memories dissipate after a class ends

Students who try to do class and other things simultaneously are essentially editing the class in real time, and gambling on their ability to judge value in advance. If students divide their attention between the primary work of the class and something on their computers, they reduce their ability to learn anything.

Why not just make some suggestions about laptop use, and trust the students to make good decisions on their own? Why not treat them as adults?

  • First, laptop use doesn’t just affect the user, it affects everyone else in the seminar. Each student who is semi-distracted changes the chemistry of the group. Each student who is fully engaged has the potential to enrich the experience for the entire class.
  • Second, participants in a seminar should feel responsible for the success of the seminar. Reducing distractions and staying focused benefits everyone in the class.
  • Third, students in any class aren’t just learning course material. Students are also learning how to learn, and how to function in a university setting. When instructors provide guidance about how to succeed, they offer students tools and practices they can use for their own benefit, and for the benefit of their classmates.

There are good arguments for having clear policies on the use of electronics during class meetings; for enforcing the policies a teacher implements; and for explaining the policy’s rationale. Decisions about when to use screens in our classrooms—and when to turn them off—are undeniably the purview of the instructor. But these decisions will have the greatest impact if we share the rationales for these decisions with our students. Not just: “do this.” But, “here’s why we do this.”

When we make decisions as teachers—about electronics and everything else—we should act with conviction, but with a commitment to learning from the experiment that is under way every time we teach a class.


from Jews on Film: Visible and Invisible, Fall 2023, taught by Elliot Shapiro

On the Use of Electronic Devices:

Our seminar meets for 2.5 out the week’s 168 hours. You may spend many of your waking hours online or glued to your phone. Take advantage of the opportunity presented by this small class to engage with class members.

More than most lecture classes, seminars depend on interaction among students. Do what you can to be present during our class meetings, and to stay focused. I recommend the following steps:

  • Remote teaching during the pandemic accelerated my move towards (almost) paper-less teaching. I expect to mostly continue this practice during the semester.
  • You will probably need a computer or tablet to take notes or access course materials during class. (You are welcome to take notes on devices or…on paper).
  • During class, please close computer windows and apps that are not immediately relevant to this class.
  • I often ask students to close electronic devices (particularly when we are screening clips). The bright screen will distract you and those around you.
  • Please do not use your phone to access course materials. It’s bad for your eyes and (during class) it makes you look bad.
  • Turn off the volume on your phone and stow it. You will not need it during class and you shouldn’t use it. (If you expect emergency communication during class time, talk to me before class starts). A lit up phone is a distraction, for you and for others. If you think you can look at your phone and no one will notice, you are fooling yourself.
  • Twenty-four hours after hearing something, the best listeners recall 50% of what they heard. That 50% begins to decay quickly. If your attention is divided between class and something else, your capacity to recall anything you learn in class diminishes quickly.
  • You may think you can be attentive to a class and to something else but you can’t. No one can.
  • Students who violate the electronics policy will be subject to public reprimand and (in extreme cases) expulsion from that day’s class.


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