Establishing Ground Rules

Developing ground rules, 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 Establish Ground Rules?

  • Ground rules hold students accountable for their behavior.
  • They can prevent issues of incivility.
  • Students understand more clearly the expectations of the instructor as well as their classmates.
  • Establishing ground rules 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 Establishing Ground Rules

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

Getting Started with Establishing Ground Rules

  • Decide what is non-negotiable for you as the instructor.
  • Plan to facilitate a conversation around ground rules 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 ground rules 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 ground rules in your syllabus.
  • Revisit them throughout the semester to check with students that the ground rules are still working. Make adjustments as necessary.

References 

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.