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This is the third installment in our series on teaching controversial topics. In the first installment, we considered two reasons to teach controversial topic and three frameworks with which to do so. The second installment addressed how to develop a conducive classroom environment by building relationships with students and preparing to draft ground rules for discussion. This month’s post addresses why and how to involve students in the creation of ground rules, some suggested ground rules, and how to use ground rules.


Involving Students

Ground rules are expectations for conduct.[1] Instructors may create them independently or involve students in the process of creating them. Including students in the process is a good idea because it may help them:[2]

  • Feel Valued
  • Understand the Power of Collaboration
  • Clearly Understand Expectations

In Discussion as a Way of Teaching Brookfield and Preskill suggest a way to involve students in creating ground rules. Ask students:

  1. To identify the best and worst classes in which they have participated.
  2. To reflect on what made them so.
  3. For three things that students could do to help create such an environment.


Suggested Ground Rules

Then, use their suggestions to draft a list of guidelines. You may want to ensure that some of the following make it on your list:[3]

  • Only make a statement if you are willing to say it directly to someone to whom it matters a great deal.
  • Listen actively and respectfully.
  • Seek to include everyone in the conversation. If you tend to talk a lot, leave space for others. If you tend to stay quiet, contribute so others can learn from you.
  • Whenever possible, support assertions with evidence.
  • Cultivate “tentativeness.”
  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • Expect others to have different experiences and perspectives.
  • Seek to learn rather than to debate or persuade.
  • Be willing to change your perspective based on what you learn.
  • Think critically about why you believe what you do.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Don’t assume things about classmates or ask them to speak for their (perceived) social group(s).
  • Expect mistakes. Seek to see them as a valuable part of the learning process.
  • If you learn that something you said negatively affected others, seek to learn how you can do better in the future.


How to Use Ground Rules

Here are some ways to use the list of ground rules you generate:[4]

  • Discuss them on the first day of class.
  • Post them around the classroom.
  • Distribute hard copies to students.
  • Put them on your syllabus or add them to your course website.
  • Strategically remind your class of them before sensitive conversations.
  • Refer to them when people violate the ground rules.
  • Ask students to read them aloud as a reminder of your agreements.
  • Re-evaluate them periodically to see if the class has suggestions for revisions.
  • Use them as a reference point for students to self-assess their participation. (e.g., “How have I contributed positively to the sort of learning environment described in our discussion guidelines?”, “Where can I grow as a contributor?”, or “How well have we as a class been abiding by these agreements?”
  • Use them as a starting point for developing guidelines the next time you teach the class. (Ask students what they want to keep and what they want to amend.)

These strategies can go a long way toward increasing student buy-in for ground rules, which are an important aspect of creating a classroom environment conducive to engaging with controversial topics. Next month, we’ll explore some tips for facilitating discussions of controversial topics.


[1] Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence’s Ground Rules.

[2] The Art of Education University’s Create Your Classroom Rules WITH Your Students for a Powerful Start to the Year.

[3] Adapted from Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning Teaching Controversial Topics and the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics and Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.

[4] Adapted from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Center for Faculty Development and Innovation Classroom Ground Rules and the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.




Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Hoboken: Wiley, 2012.

“Classroom Ground Rules.” Center for Faculty Development and Innovation. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.siue.edu/facultycenter/services_resources/teaching/Ground_Rules.shtml.

“Ground Rules.” Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Carnegie Mellon University. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-dontparticipate/groundrules.pdf.

“Guidelines for Classroom Interactions.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/examples-discussion-guidelines.

“Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines.

Harmon, Wynita. “Create Your Classroom Rules WITH Your Students for a Powerful Start to the Year.”  The Art of Education University, August 3, 2017. https://theartofeducation.edu/2017/08/08/3-benefits-creating-classroom-expectations-students/.

“Teaching Controversial Topics.” Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Yale University. Accessed October 18, 2019. https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics.

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