Setting expectations

Developing expectations, or a code of conduct, with the class helps to foster community by balancing the learning needs of the individual with those of the group.

Why set expectations?

  • Expectations hold students accountable for their behavior
  • They can prevent issues of incivility
  • They can help cultivate an atmosphere of trust and respect in the classroom environment with respect to academic freedom.
  • Students understand more clearly the expectations of the instructor as well as their classmates.
  • Setting expectations in a syllabus can act as a contract that can be referred to in instances where ground rules are being broken
  • Rules can create a safe learning environment for course participants when all know that their ideas and viewpoints will be respected

Considerations for setting expectations

  • Introduce expectations early in the semester
  • Ask students for feedback
  • Throughout the semester, refer to the established expectations when addressing any incivility
  • If using group work, consider having small groups come up with their own set of expectations at the onset
  • Reiterate expectations before discussing a topic that may be heated

Getting started with setting expectations

  • Decide what is non-negotiable for you as the instructor
  • Plan to facilitate a conversation around expectations as a class or present your proposal and give students the opportunity to modify it
  • In small groups, have students think about past learning environments. Which learning environments were productive and positive? What were the characteristics of that environment? Which learning environments were not productive? What were the characteristics of that environment?
  • Based on these conversations, have students create a draft list of expectations for your class
  • Collect and compile these
  • Adjust them as you see necessary and redistribute them to the class for agreement
  • Once everyone agrees, put these expectations into your syllabus
  • Revisit them throughout the semester to check with students that the expectations are still working; make adjustments as necessary


Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.