Laptops in the Classroom

Posted by Sol on 2018 Jan 29th

When I’m not out helping Mac Zen clients, I work 9-5 at a local tech company called Kano/Apps. It’s a great place to work for many reasons, but one of my favourite things about it is the sheer amount of whiteboard space.

For someone who spends so much time working on the computer, it seems odd to be so drawn to writing in a physical medium. But whiteboards are ubiquitous in tech companies - in fact, Aitan has a huge one hanging in his office, marked out with a tight grid of schedules and to dos.

I’ve always found that writing things by hand is super important to my workflow; it helps me remember things, to see things in different ways, and to make associations I wouldn’t have otherwise. The freedom of that 2D space and how easy it is to sketch and erase make it a font of useful ideas, and one I wish I’d discovered a decade earlier.

In elementary school I really struggled with in-class assignments and tests. My writing could never keep up with my thinking, and it felt like I could never get my thoughts onto the page in time. I’d read the textbook instead of taking notes during lectures, and I'd fail tests despite knowing all the answers. Thanks to my watchful and dedicated parents, I was eventually diagnosed with an output disability. It was an all-access pass for a laptop in almost every class.

I got a lot out of having a computer, and I am grateful for my privilege and the opportunity to use one. Thankfully for my grades, wireless internet wasn’t too common in the early 2010s, so I ended up diligently taking notes and completing assignments on my computer. My test scores improved and my sense of frustration lifted. There’s no question that for some students, in some cases, access to a computer is a huge help, and I’m living proof.

But in university, things changed. By then, wi-fi was a basically a god-given right, and I whittled away many hours of lectures reading horror fiction online and getting into arguments on Facebook. I took notes, but reviewing them just meant reading them over, and I never felt truly prepared for my exams - not to mention how much meaningful discussion I missed out on, being buried in the screen.

My breakthrough on this came when I took a Economics elective in second year. The class was huge, so there was never any discussion, and I often had to work during class hours so I often skipped it. Luckily for me, the professor posted all the notes and even previous exams on a website, so I was left to come up with a strategy that’d earn me an A despite never attending the course.

I have no idea how I came up with this, but whenever I sat down to study, I took the class notes and copied them out longhand. Then, I’d go through the practice tests on paper too. By the end of the semester I’d answered over 250 review questions, and I was proud to earn a crisp A in my final exam.

It wasn’t until later that I read some fascinating academic studies on memory, and learned just how effective handwriting can be for processing and memorizing content. It turns out that the fact that writing is slow is actually good! The process of deciding what’s most important to note down helps embed those concepts in your mind, and your longhand notes are much more effective at helping you remember broader lessons from a class. See here for more info:

Though my teenage self would kill me for suggesting it, maybe think twice about equipping your kiddo with a MacBook for class. An iMac at home might be just the ticket for working on homework and larger projects, and having the opportunity to maintain parental controls and access to the machine isn’t a terrible idea either. Take it from a former feckless student - but don’t tell anyone it was me.