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Co-Creating Rules of Engagement

By Judith Ross-Bernstein

It’s that time of year. I can’t help but be poised at the edge of my seat, imagining teachers and students entering their classroom space for the first time. I overheard a veteran professor yesterday, “I know I will feel better once I can get in the space and connect to my students.” The anticipatory excitement/anxiety is palpable. The same colleague later said, “It’s important to me to set a positive tone.” My empathy runs deep for this slick area in teaching terrain; the complex intricacy of creating a safe and inclusive classroom climate. Establishing rules for engagement (ground rules or classroom norms) is just one small step, but renders large impact. It provides explicit guidelines for how to act; explicitly state what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and allows students and instructors to feel safe expressing their own perspectives.

How to establish classroom rules depends on the instructor and their context. My propensity toward active learning and physical movement draws my attention to a related activity demonstrated by Lott Hill and Soo La Kim, from Learners@the Center. IC campus readers may recognize it; we’ve walked through it on three recent separate occasions with about 75 faculty members. I’ll attempt to describe the bones of the activity and debriefing questions. From these combined experiences, we found it has the potential to highlight the individual experiences within the group of participants. Attending to individual student differences while simultaneously leading the group can be among faculty’s greatest challenges.  Perhaps this activity can be adapted by faculty, with the intention to  have students co-create explicit rules for classroom engagement.

Activity: Walk the Space

In a classroom environment ask groups (15-40 people) to “Walk the Space.” In concrete terms, the initial directive, “walk the space in silence and find your path among other people but don’t bump them as you cover the entire territory.” Stop. Ask the participants, what do you notice about your experience in the space? Next we asked participants, “keep walking carefully in silence, but make notice how you become aware of each person you pass.” Stop. Ask the participants, what do you observe about this version of the experience? Last, ask the participants, greet each other in passing. Stop. Ask the participants, what did you learn about each other or yourself in this iteration?

After each movement and debrief cycle, people settle back to their chairs. Elicit questions with the purpose to generate a list of ground rules, drawing data from the activity debrief.  What ways can we use classroom space to enable you to learn? List different ways to acknowledge the experience and reflections of others, different than our own? What are ways to relate to each other that can support our learning community?

Either sample of rules listed below could have been generated by the “Walk the Space” activity. Instructors are as diverse as their students; set classroom expectations in a way that fits your own teaching style and discipline. I learned from another colleague that he seeks to clarify rules of engagement via two co-created lists with students. He ask his new students,  What do instructors do? What do students do?  Yet another process is to have students work in small groups to edit a sample of generated classroom rules (Stone Norton (2008) cited in Salazar,, 2009, pg. 214).

1. Everyone has the right to be heard.
2. Be respectful while still being critical.
3. No name calling
4. One person speaks at a time.
5. Maintain confidentiality.
6. Hold yourself and each other to high standards of excellence at all times.
7. Have the humility to recognize that you do not know everything and that everyone can stand to improve.
8. Recognize that everyone will start from different bases of knowledge.

Another sample and style can be edited by students and posted online is suggested in Woods, D. (2002).

R       be Respected
I        to Inform others about your own opinion
G      to have your own personal Goals and needs
H       to Have feelings and to express them
T       to have Trouble, make mistakes and be forgiven
S       to Select or choose whether you will meet another’s expectations
Not to achieve your rights by violating the rights of others

“It’s important to me to set a positive tone.”

As one small step in tone setting, co-creating classroom rules for engagement can become agreements to refer to and support during challenging moments in seminar, examined communally for relevancy, and refined over time in order to meet the demands of an evolving classroom community, from the beginning and all the way through the semester’s end.

Best wishes for a semester of engaged learning.


Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence (2014). Establishing Ground Rules

Deckman, S. (2014) Engaging Students as Course Co-Creators. Threads@CFE

On Course Workshop, 2014. Establishing Classroom Rules

Ross-Bernstein, J and Menning, N. (2014). Creating Classroom Climate. Threads@CFE

Salazar, M., Norton, A., & Tuitt, F. (2009). Weaving promising practices for inclusive excellence into the higher education classroom. In L.B. Nilson and J.E. Miller (Eds.)
To improve the academy (pp. 208-­226). Jossey­‐Bass.

Additional Resources

Warren, L. Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom,  Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.

Woods, D. (2002). MPS 28 Group Skills, McMaster University, Hamilton.


Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence,  (2014). Establishing Ground Rules



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