Guidelines For Classroom Interactions

Share responsibility for including all voices …
Listen respectfully …
Be open to changing your perspective ...

Instructors across U-M use guidelines such as these to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and collaborative inquiry in their courses.  Sometimes called 'ground rules,' community agreements, or participation norms (and there are several fuller examples below), such guidelines can be provided by an instructor or generated collaboratively with students.  In any discipline, guidelines can support a series of inclusive teaching goals:  they help clarify expectations, cultivate a sense of belonging among students, and facilitate students’ ability to engage productively with one another across their differences.  

On this page, we offer questions to consider when developing guidelines for your particular teaching setting, several examples of guidelines, and ideas about how to make use of guidelines over the course of the term

Questions and Considerations

Before proposing specific guidelines or inviting students to participate in generating them, it’s helpful to decide upon and clarify for students some key questions, including: 

  • What types of learning interactions will be common in your course? (e.g., whole class discussion, small groups or pairs, long-term team projects, ‘Socratic’ question-answer led by the instructor, etc.)

  • If discussion is a key part of your pedagogy, what are your reasons for using it? What skills, capacities, or knowledge do you want students to learn or develop through discussion? (In their book Discussion as a Way of Teaching, Brookfield and Preskill identify four purposes of discussion, which you might find useful to consider:  “(1) to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, (2) to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique, (3) to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and (4) to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world.”)

  • What other goals would be useful for determining guidance for interactions in your particular learning context? (e.g., Are your students preparing to engage in particular professional or community contexts? Is your course focused on especially high-stakes topics that you’re helping students navigate critical conversations about?)

  • What are the limits of guidelines?  Explicit conversations about expectations, norms, and goals of classroom interactions can be an important resource for you and your students, providing common language and understandings that help shape a constructive learning environment. But such conversations--or the guidelines generated by them--will not prevent all challenges. It’s important for you and students to maintain realistic expectations and understand that conflict, misunderstanding, or resistance may well arise in a learning setting even when the group has carefully considered the ‘rules of engagement.’  Guidelines can serve as a useful resource in navigating such challenges, but they won’t always prevent them. (See these other pages for further ideas about facilitating high-stakes conversations and navigating ‘hot moments.’)

The sample guidelines below are offered as starting points in connection with these reflection questions.  They include several guideline types: behavioral suggestions (e.g., don’t interrupt), invitations to adopt particular attitudes (e.g., be open to changing your perspectives), prompts to reflect on one’s own learning (e.g., strive to see your mistakes as part of the process).  In all of these examples, we try to steer clear of some common pitfalls discussed by Sensoy and DiAngelo in their 2014 article, “Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education.” In their discussion of the particular teaching context of social justice education courses, these authors argue:

In practice, the common guidelines purported to be important to building the kind of classroom climate that can support the commitments above [i.e., skills of critical analysis, critical self-reflection, and analysis of relations of oppression and privilege] do not address the deeply patterned social and structural dynamics that are brought into the classroom itself. In other words, these guidelines [e.g., assume good intentions, everyone’s opinion matters, speak from your own experience, or don’t take things personally] can run counter to social justice pedagogical commitments. (p. 3)

The article goes on to explain how these sorts of guidelines can inadvertently mask differences in student positionalities, create privileged space for speech that reinforces systemic inequities (such as racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism), and demand that students who are targeted or marginalized by others’ speech maintain a neutral stance or demeanor.  The examples below deliberately avoid replicating those common guidelines, creating space to acknowledge the ways students’ different relations to social power and privilege can affect interactions in the learning environment. (For more on this last topic, see our Overview of Inclusive Teaching.)

Sample Guidelines from CRLT

Many of these will be more useful for some disciplines, topics, and class settings than others. Which are most relevant for your specific teaching context?  Additional examples, including some for specific disciplinary spaces, can be found here.  

  • Share responsibility for including all voices in the conversation. If you tend to have a lot to say, make sure you leave sufficient space to hear from others. If you tend to stay quiet in group discussions, challenge yourself to contribute so others can learn from you. 

  • Listen respectfully. Don’t interrupt, turn to technology, or engage in private conversations while others are speaking. Use attentive, courteous body language. Comments that you make (whether asking for clarification, sharing critiques, or expanding on a point) should reflect that you have paid attention to the previous speakers’ comments.

  • Be open to changing your perspectives based on what you learn from others. Try to explore new ideas and possibilities. Think critically about the factors that have shaped your perspectives. Seriously consider points-of-view that differ from your current thinking. 

  • Understand that we are bound to make mistakes in this space, as anyone does when approaching complex tasks or learning new skills. Strive to see your mistakes and others’ as valuable elements of the learning process. 

  • Understand that your words have effects on others. Speak with care. If you learn that something you’ve said was experienced as disrespectful or marginalizing, listen carefully and try to understand that perspective. Learn how you can do better in the future.  

  • Take pair work or small group work seriously. Remember that your peers’ learning is partly dependent upon your engagement. 

  • Understand that others will come to these discussions with different experiences from yours. Be careful about assumptions and generalizations you make based only on your own experience. Be open to hearing and learning from other perspectives. 

  • Make an effort to get to know other students. Introduce yourself to students sitting near you. Refer to classmates by name and make eye contact with other students.

  • Understand that there are different approaches to solving problems. If you are uncertain about someone else’s approach, ask a question to explore areas of uncertainty. Listen respectfully to how and why the approach could work.

Sample Guidelines for Social Justice Education Contexts (Sensoy & Diangelo p. 8)

  • Strive for intellectual humility. Be willing to grapple with challenging ideas.

  • Differentiate between opinion--which everyone has--and informed knowledge, which comes from sustained experience, study, and practice. Hold your opinions lightly and with humility.

  • Let go of personal anecdotal evidence and look at broader group-level patterns.

  • Notice your own defensive reactions and attempt to use these reactions as entry points for gaining deeper self-knowledge, rather than as a rationale for closing off.

  • Recognize how your own social positionality (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, ability) informs your perspectives and reactions to your instructor and those whose work you study in the course.

  • Differentiate between safety and comfort. Accept discomfort as necessary for social justice growth.

  • Identify where your learning edge is and push it. For example, whenever you think, I already know this, ask yourself, How can I take this deeper? Or, How am I applying in practice what I already know?

Using Guidelines Over Time

For guidelines to be most useful in your class, it is important to continue bringing attention to them after the first day.  Here are some practices that instructors can use to leverage guidelines as a resource throughout the semester:

  • For the first few weeks, post the list in class where everyone can see it. Maybe ask a student to read it aloud occasionally, as a whole-group reminder of your collective agreements.  

  • Type up the class’s list and distribute the hard copy, or include it as a page on your Canvas site. (This can be a complement to the first suggestion, especially important in case you have visually impaired students in your class).

  • Revisit the guidelines in class after several class sessions to elicit revisions or additional suggestions.

  • Use at midterm and/or at the semester’s end as a point of reference for students to self-assess their participation (answering, e.g., ‘How have I contributed positively to the sort of learning environment described in our discussion guidelines?’ Or ‘What have my strengths been as a contributor? Where can I grow?’) and/or to provide feedback about their sense of the class interactions and learning environment (answering, e.g., ‘How well have we as a class been abiding by these agreements?’).

  • Use in strategic moments where interactions might feel more fraught: e.g., remind students of your agreements if tensions arise or you’re moving into a potentially high-stakes conversation.

  • Use as a starting point for a guidelines conversation the next time you teach the class (e.g., ‘Here’s what my previous students suggested. What do you appreciate here, and what might you want to add or change?’).

References

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2012). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Wiley.

Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, A. (2014). Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education. Democracy and Education, 22(2), Article 1.  Available at: https://democracyeducationjournal.org/home/vol22/iss2/1

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