Computers, Practice, and Thinking

Computers are very useful tools. We should use them in as many places as possible. Right?

While some people may feel that way, I definitely do not.

Overuse of computers seems to dull thinking.

In one course on my computing science degree, the instructor said, near the beginning of the course, that he was considering allowing the use of laptop computers (but no Internet access) on the midterm or final exams. The midterm came and went, but about three weeks before the end of the course, he brought up the subject again.

(On the midterm, we were allowed to bring any written reference material we wanted. The issue was whether laptops would also be allowed on the final.)

There were some who were very loud about being able to use computers. I waited for an opportunity to state my view. Finally, one person said to me not to speak against laptop use just because I did not have one. That gave me my opening and I said that I was concerned that a test could be written to favour laptop use and that I did not think that I should have to spend several hundred dollars more to write an exam. The instructor said that the test would not be biased. Since he was a straightshooter, I took him at his word.

For the final, I brought three textbooks, my notes, and my assignments. No laptop.

The final was handed out. The cover had a question on whether a computer was used. As I usually do, I checked the exam over before starting, and it appeared to be good. I got to it. I found that the exam was a very good one. I only occasionally had to refer to my material. I left feeling confident that I had done well.

At my alma mater, supposedly, final exams are supposed to be marked within 72 hours. That does not seem to happen too often, at least in my courses. About a week later, I encountered the instructor in a hallway and asked. He must have just finished. He said that he had two things to tell me. One was that, in general, the students who did not use a computer did better than those who did. The other was that I got the only A+.

I was pleased with my grade, but I puzzled over why the difference between computer use and non-use.

After some thinking, I came up with what I think is the answer. It is too easy to get lazy when using a computer. You can use the computer to solve a problem and never really understand how to do it yourself. Then, in an exam, your lack of deep knowledge or comfort with the subject bites you.

I have a crosscheck on this.

I also minored in math, and I studied for exams with others. We worked out problems to get comfortable with the techniques. In one case, I worked with another to solve a problem in linear programming. It was not working out, yet we thought we knew how. I finally figured out that the text was a bit ambiguous, and when we tried the other way, it worked. Had we not worked on problems in advance, when the exam came, we would have blown up with the problem we had during study.

Do not let a computer stop you from learning your material.