Behind the Laptop. Examining Student and Staff Perceptions of Laptop or Tablet use in Teaching Sessions.


  • Mei Lin Lee
  • Fiona Muir
  • Susan Law
  • Annalisa Manca


3BB The lecture and the flipped classroom


University of Dundee - United Kingdom
Medical School, Medical Education Institute


Technology is increasingly influencing every aspect of students’ academic lives, affecting the way they communicate with peers, collaborate, study and take notes during lectures. The focus of this study, within the University of Dundee Medical School, are medical undergraduate students who bring their electronic devices daily to support academic activities such as note-taking; and clinical teachers, who often find themselves talking to a wall of open laptop lids when delivering lectures. This study investigates whether staff and students find laptop or tablet use in lectures useful to learning or a distracting presence.



Note-taking is an essential skill for students. With the increasing use of technology in education, an important issue is whether students are using devices in a way that enhances learning, or if technology is causing decreased attention and productivity. There are contrasting opinions: some believe that knowledge retention when note-taking by hand can facilitate better learning than when the same task is performed using a laptop (Stromberg 2014). Others view laptop note-taking as an advantage, promoting students’ adult learning skills (Schuman 2014). This study investigates whether staff and students find electronic device use in lectures useful to learning or else a distracting presence, and to determine what the current general use of these devices is during teaching sessions. 

Summary of Work

Research Questions

1) What are University of Dundee medical students’ and staff’s perceptions of tablet and laptop use during lectures and other timetabled teaching activities?

2) What do medical students do with their electronic devices during lectures and other teaching activities?

3) Does electronic device use during lectures result in multitasking and cognitive overload?



The study invited all Dundee University medical students to participate in focus groups. All teaching staff were invited to participate in a semi-structured interview.

Strengths, weaknesses and areas for potential improvement were sought.  Data was reported descriptively and the key themes highlighted. 


Summary of Results

Of the

  • 17 student participants, 15 (88%) used an electronic device daily for note-taking and other academic activities.
  • All 12 staff participants acknowledged the increase in electronic device use. 


Key themes were as follows:

FIGURE 1: Key themes identified from staff and student data collection

FIGURE 2: Other themes identified from staff and student data collection

* and **: Themes can be expanded into further sub-themes



The use of electronic devices in teaching sessions brought mixed opinions. Despite sometimes being a distraction, namely via emails and social media use, many students found them useful for note-taking and studying. Some educators were uncomfortable with their use as they could not regulate what was happening behind the screens, and struggled to engage students beyond the ‘sea of apples’. However, all participants accepted that this growing technology use was a fact associated with modern day education.   


  • There are acknowledged benefits to electronic device use such as the ability to create neater notes, useful storage facilities and easy access to online resources.
  • With benefits also come detriments, such as the distractions available on a device and multitasking.
  • Research participants emphasised however, that if teaching sessions were not engaging, students would be distracted regardless of devices.
  • The temptation of performing other tasks whilst using a device gives rise to the issue of cognitive overload, which both groups were aware of.

An understanding of what happens behind the laptop can inform teaching staff on how to support a purposeful and effective use of technology in their teaching sessions. It may help teachers reduce possible feelings of intimidation as they face the ‘wall of laptops’. This in turn can advise the development of strategies medical schools can implement to tackle inappropriate laptop use in lectures.


Schuman, R., 2014. In Defense of Laptops in the College Classroom. Slate. Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/06/in_defense_of_laptops_in_the_college_classroom.html [Accessed February 13, 2015].


Stromberg, J., 2014. Why you should take notes by hand- not on a laptop. Vox. Available at: http://www.vox.com/2014/6/4/5776804/note-taking-by-hand-versus-laptop [Accessed February 13, 2015].

Summary of Work
Summary of Results
Send ePoster Link