Classroom Management

1. Laptop Use

What the Research Shows

Some faculty ban the use of laptops in their classrooms. They are backed by a body of literature in psychology research that suggests that the use of electronic devices in class can lead to a distracting learning environment. Ravizza et al. (2016) measured the actual duration of student Internet use in class using laptops, student motivation, achievement in class, and intelligence. They found that students who used laptops in class for non-academic reasons had poorer class performance, as indicated by their final grade. There is further research showing that notetaking by hand is more effective than doing so with a laptop (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014) and that multi-tasking laptop users also distract their classmates, as peers with a direct view of those laptops suffer academically (Sana et al. 2013).

That said, banning can be easier said than done, especially if the ban includes mobile phones. One has to be prepared to enforce the ban, which can be potentially disruptive to classes and the relational dynamics with your students. It can be at odds with the rest of your teaching persona, particularly if your approach to classroom management is more consultative than authoritative, as well as any intentions you may have to leverage more on web-based educational technology platforms such as GoogleDocs.


Ultimately, in deciding the best course of action for yourself, it is necessary to consider your own philosophy on the issue, your instructional goals and your teaching persona and approaches. (Ravizza et al. (2017)). If an outright ban is not for you, there are middle-ground approaches or strategies you can adopt to reduce the distractions identified in the literature in this area.

  1. Use active learning strategies that require students to physically separate themselves from their devices, either by moving around the room or working around a shared table space that leaves little room for laptops
    Identify selected lessons for when laptops / mobile phones are to be silenced and put away. Ideally, the rationale for this should be communicated clearly to the class, and reinforced by you abiding by the rule yourself, holding up your mobile and switching to silent, before setting it aside.
  2. Physically move around the class as students engage in paired or group discussions. These interactions encourage student attentiveness while discouraging improper device use.
  3. Include a tongue-in-cheek practice of calling on students occupied with their laptop to help you research a point, or to help take notes of a particular segment or exchange within the lesson for subsequent sharing with the class.
  4. Step up to the challenge of winning over your students by making your lesson as interesting, thought provoking and interactive as possible. Some studies postulate that internet distractions are the symptom rather than the underlying cause, which could stem from boredom.
  5. Work with technology rather than against it. Leverage on social media and other online educational technology platforms as part of your lesson. There are studies that indicate improvements to active learning and student engagement with content through the use of social media such as Twitter, especially when that use was continued outside the classroom (Chawinga 2017, Al-Bahrani, et al. 2015, and Jaquemin, et al. 2014)

2. Forming Student Teams


Working in groups or teams on a joint task or assignment is a regular feature in SMU’s active learning pedagogy.

What the Research Shows

In a meta-analysis of 168 studies performed by David Johnson, Roger Johnson, and Karl Smith comparing group (cooperative) learning with individualistic or competitive approaches, it was found that cooperative learning produced greater academic achievement than both competitive learning and individualistic learning across the studies, exhibiting a mean weighted effect size of 0.54 when comparing cooperation and competition and 0.51 when comparing cooperation and individualistic learning i.e. an increase in student academic performance by about one-half of a standard deviation. It is noteworthy that the academic achievement measures defined in each study ranged from lower-level cognitive tasks (e.g., knowledge acquisition and retention) to higher level cognitive activity (e.g., creative problem solving), and from verbal tasks to procedural tasks. The meta-analysis also showed substantial effects on other metrics, including self-esteem and positive attitudes about learning.

These results were further confirmed by Springer, Stanne, and Donovan (1999) in their meta-analysis of 39 studies in STEM university classrooms (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Students who participated in various types of small-group learning, ranging from extended formal interactions to brief informal interactions, demonstrated greater academic achievement, exhibited more favorable attitudes towards learning, and had increased persistence through STEM courses than students who did not participate in STEM small-group learning.

Recommendations to Enhance Learning Dynamics in Student Teams


  1. Articulate the learning goals of the group work, expressly including both the academic objectives you want the students to achieve and the social skills you want them to develop. Reiterate the value of being able to work successfully with diverse individuals.
  2. Determine the grouping that is most likely to achieve your goals.
    1. For group demographic, it is recommended that student teams comprise a mix of ethnicities, gender, as well as nationalities and schools (where relevant). This ensures that an individual student has the opportunity to learn to work and collaborate with a diverse range of working styles, skillsets and dispositions, in preparation for the eventual workplace reality (Frey, Fisher & Everlove, 2009). It is also generally recommended to form groups that are heterogeneous with regard to particular skills or abilities relevant to group tasks. For example, groups may be heterogeneous with regard to academic skill in the discipline or with regard to other skills related to the group task (e.g., design capabilities, programming skills, writing skills, organizational skills) (Johnson et al, 2006).
      Allowing students to self-form is a popular option among most students but may result in cliques, homogeneity, group think and lesser room for growth and development. Some common faculty practices include allowing students to pick one or two group member of their choice, while reserving the right to decide the remaining allocations.
    1. For group size, some experts claim that groups of more than five students tend to be unmanageable. Studies show that as groups get larger, external and internal motivation tend to decrease, and members of larger groups tend to feel that their individual contributions will go unnoticed (McWhaw, Schnackenberg, Sclater & Abrami, 2003). Like other aspects of group work, the size of a group should be shaped by the project’s learning objectives.
  3. Rotate teams at least once throughout the semester to mitigate the likelihood of a challenging working relationship unduly affecting too much of a student’s grade.
  4. Leverage on your assessment design as a form of checks and balance, or incentive system to support students through challenging working relationships. These may take the form of a peer evaluation component where students evaluate and provide feedback on their peers. Alternatively, it might entail recognizing students who were able to successfully manage challenging situations.


  1. Assign group roles (e.g. manager, skeptic, educator, and conciliator), which can be useful for students who are unfamiliar or unskilled at group work.
  2. Regularly observe group interactions and progress, either by circulating during group work, collecting in-process documents, or both. When you observe problems, intervene to help students move forward on the task and work together effectively.


  1. Provide a structure for groups to reflect on what worked well in their group and what could be improved. One good exercise to take students through is the checklist by Graham Gibbs (1994) below.

    Last time:

    • What I liked most about the group was …
    • What I liked least about the group was …
    • The most effective things about the way the group worked was …
    • The least effective thing about the way the group worked was …
    • The things I did that helped the group most were …
    • The things I did that helped the group least were …

    Next time:

    • The types of people I’d like to work with are …
    • The roles I’d like to play in the group are …
    • The exercises I’d like the group to go through are …
    • The working methods I’d like to use are …
    • The way I’d like us to run our meeting is …

3. Other Practical Classroom Dimensions


Attendance: Enlist the help of your TA to take attendance. Have students sign-in and out of a class attendance sheet put up at the door. Where practicable, use different data points to help you establish attendance such as your TA’s record, the students’ signing in and out and submissions of end-of-lesson deliverables. Students are informed that they may be given a grade of “F” if they have been absent excessively (as determined by the instructor). If you are unable to contact a student who has been absent for an extended period (3 weeks or longer), do notify school management for their follow-up action. Such students are liable to have their student registration status terminated and withdrawn from the university

Missed or late work: The consequences of this should be explicitly addressed in your assessment policies and/or course outline.

Academic integrity: Academic integrity is an important value to instil in our students. The Library has a self-running Learning Object which students can go through at their own time and pace to familiarize themselves with academic plagiarism and related issues. That said, it is worth reaffirming your commitment to this verbally and / or to set it out in an email to the class or on your eLearn announcement page.

For this purpose, a good starting point would be the standard clauses contained in your course outline, which states as follows:

“All acts of academic dishonesty (including, but not limited to, plagiarism, cheating, fabrication, facilitation of acts of academic dishonesty by others, unauthorized possession of exam questions, or tampering with the academic work of other students) are serious offences.

All work (whether oral or written) submitted for purposes of assessment must be the student’s own work. Penalties for violation of the policy range from zero marks for the component assessment to expulsion, depending on the nature of the offence.

When in doubt, students should consult the course instructor. Details on the SMU Code of Academic Integrity may be accessed here.”

Consultations: Do provide your students with a range of dates and times on which they can arrange for a consultation with you on a first-come, first-served basis. Your TA should be able to assist to set up an intuitive and transparent system for this using GoogleDocs. Some faculty utilize WebEx (or equivalent videoconferencing platforms) for greater flexibility in timings. With students’ permission, consultations may also be recorded and used for them to review or shared with the rest of the class where appropriate. Encourage them to discuss and set an agenda for the consultation at least 1 day in advance.


  1. Al-Bahrani, A., and Patel, D. (2015). Incorporating Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook in Economics Classrooms. Journal of Economic Education 46.1: 56-67.
  2. Brame, C.J. and Biel, R. (2015). Setting up and facilitating group work: Using cooperative learning groups effectively. Retrieved 18 Dec 2018 from
  3. Chawinga, W. (2017). Taking social media to a university classroom: teaching and learning using Twitter and blogs. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education 14.1: 1-19.
  4. Frey, N., Fisher, D., & Everlove, S. (2009). Productive group work: How to engage students, build teamwork, and promote understanding. ASCD.
  5. Gibbs, G. (1994). Learning in teams: A student manual. Oxford Centre for Staff Development.
  6. Jacquemin, S., Smelser, L., and Bernot, M. (2014). Twitter in the Higher Education Classroom: A Student and Faculty Assessment of Use and Perception. Journal of College Science Teaching 43.6: 22-27.
  7. Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (2006). Active learning: Cooperation in the university classroom (3rd edition). Edina, MN: Interaction.
  8. Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168.
  9. Ravizza, S. M., Uitvlugt, M. G., & Fenn, K. M. (2017). Logged in and zoned out: How laptop internet use relates to classroom learning. Psychological science, 28(2), 171-180.
  10. Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31.
  11. Schnackenberg, H., & McWhaw, K. (2003). From co-operation to collaboration: Helping students become collaborative learners. In Cooperative Learning (pp. 79-96). Routledge.
  12. Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 96(1), 21-51.