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Creating Ground Rules

Establishing ground rules for class interactions and discussion will help create an inclusive and open environment for engaging in difficult discussions. The suggestions below offer tips for creating and using ground rules in the classroom.

Establish ground rules early

Creating ground rules at the beginning of the course sets the tone for the semester. Ground rules allow you to affirm your expectations around participation and classroom interactions. If you are unable to set ground rules at the beginning of the course, it is important to do so before you have students engage in discussions around contested or controversial topics.

Explain the purpose of ground rules

Be transparent about why you are creating ground rules for the class and tie their use to professional expectations in your discipline. Explaining the purpose and use of classroom ground rules encourages students to view them as central to the classroom learning environment.

Co-create ground rules with your students

Involving students in the creation of the ground rules encourages greater ownership over the environment of the classroom. Students take on the responsibility of holding each other accountable to the rules of interaction. When creating the ground rules as a class, you can have students think about the characteristics of the best and worst classroom discussions they have experienced. From these experiences, students can verbalize the characteristics as ground rules for what not to do and what to do during discussions.

Periodically reflect on the ground rules

Remind students of the ground rules before engaging in difficult conversations. If a discussion becomes heated or civil discourse breaks down, pause and remind students of the co-created agreements for interaction. You may consider posting them on the board before each class or having them in an electronic document that can be projected.

Sample ground rules for discussion

As a starting point for developing a set of classroom expectations, here are sample rules used in discussion-based courses.

  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • What is said in class, stays in class.
  • Work toward a shared understanding.
  • Do not personally insult your peers.