An Equity-Centered Look at Common Classroom Ground Rules

Written by: Christie Forgette

When developing classroom ground rules for college and university courses that use courseware and other digital learning tools, instructors need to consider how those expectations will support equity for all learners.

Establishing and communicating ground rules may seem a simple part of getting the semester started, but many educators are asking critical questions about the assumptions behind common classroom ground rules. Seemingly “neutral” expectations based on mutual respect may assume access and experiences that not all students have. Other common ground rules may come from a deficits-based framing rather an assets-based or cultural-wealth perspective.

Classroom ground rules need particular attention when courseware and other digital learning technologies come into play. The EDUCAUSE 2020 Student Technology Report showed that cyberbullying from peers isn’t limited to social media accounts. Twelve percent of college students who report harassment say it happens in courseware or on other digital platforms their instructors recommended or required. More Black, Latino/Latina, and Asian students reported this harassment than White students.

Consider Who the Ground Rules Privilege 

One excellent discussion of a critical approach to classroom ground rules is from two education professors, Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, in their article “Respect Differences?” They argue that “rather than creating a supportive space for dialogue, these guidelines actually can interfere with achieving social justice education goals.”

They particularly emphasize the need to examine and account for power relations when developing classroom ground rules. Many commonly used expectations do not account for the effects of privilege or the positionality of instructors and students. In short, declaring the classroom—whether it is online or in person—a safe space for dialogue doesn’t identify and confront the ways that students actually experience it.

Sensoy and DiAngelo go on to recommend a number of ground rules for engaging productively while proactively acknowledging the inequitable circumstances and positions that students are in. For example, they challenge the common expectation, which many faculty establish, that everyone is entitled to their opinion. The authors advise a reframing: “Differentiate between opinion—which everyone has—and informed knowledge, which comes from sustained experience, study, and practice. Hold your opinions lightly and with humility.”

Frame Classroom Ground Rules to Promote Equity and Critical Thinking 

Many other researchers and instructors emphasize the value of framing classroom ground rules with an eye toward equity. Michelle Pacansky-Brock, in her book Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies, and the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Bloomington are two excellent sources of critical approaches to ground rules. 

These and other sources say to keep in mind factors such as the following:

  • Recognize others’ experiences, cultures, and background but avoid expectations that an individual speaks for an entire group.
  • Recognize discussions as learning opportunities for intellectual growth.
  • Ground discussions in critical thinking by valuing evidence-based arguments.
  • Encourage linking back to course concepts when possible.
  • Connect classroom ground rules to rules of the common practices of the professions for which students are preparing.

Invite Students into the Process

The Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) at the University of Kentucky notes that students will bring their own experiences from successful and unsuccessful classroom discussions to inform the rules. At the beginning of a course, the instructor should consider partnering with students to define and write the ground rules. Allowing students to contribute to the creation process can result in a sense of ownership by students.

Another benefit of students co-creating classroom ground rules is that they may hold each other accountable during discussions.

Develop Classroom Ground Rules for the Online Environment

Consider the affordances of digital space when developing classroom ground rules for effective online dialogue. This applies whether the context is a fully face-to-face class using digital courseware, a fully online and asynchronous class, or a hybrid format. 

The Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State University and Pacansky-Brock suggest articulating norms that all students should be responsible for following in videoconference and online environments. These might include participating and contributing to online discussions or writing posts, listening actively while others are speaking, and helping others with technology issues or online glitches.

The Institute for Learning and Teaching also notes that flaming—which the institute defines as writing lengthy rants, using upper-case letters, or using profanity—should be explicitly prohibited. It suggests reminding students that criticism should be concise, well-thought-out, and respectful. 

Additionally, the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University Bloomington suggests videoconference protocols that instructors should consider using in their classrooms. The protocols relate to muting, camera or lighting adjustment, and “raising hands” virtually to answer a question or contribute to the discussion. 

Plan to Reflect On and Revise Ground Rules

Some of these ground rules for remote learning may be debatable (e.g., guidelines for proper dress while on camera), and they should all be examined critically while keeping in mind the resources, experiences, values, and positionality of students. For instance, not all educators will agree with the recommendation that students should add a photo to their videoconference accounts so that the instructor and peers can see a face when a camera is off.

Ground rules for online discussion are not easy to establish, and educators are far from a consensus on many of them. That’s why one of the most important guidelines is to be ready to modify them as needed. Several sources suggest making the ground rules easily available to students and taking the time to refer to and rethink them throughout the academic term. Educators need to be as open about rethinking and modifying their expectations as they hope students will be about the student’s own intellectual work.

Learn more about how CourseGateway is promoting equity-centered digital learning