Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Establish guidelines for interaction

Structuring classroom interactions is an effective way to promote productive and respectful discussions (Goodman, 1995). Adding structure to discussion benefits students because it makes discussion expectations transparent and encourages multiple voices and viewpoints. This in turn can help improve student participation and performance, help students consider new viewpoints, and prevent conflict in the classroom (Sorenson et al., 2009; Bergom et al., 2011). Sample guidelines can be found here. There are many ways to introduce and integrate guidelines:

  • On the syllabus: Under your description about discussion and participation, include a list of guidelines (Sulik & Keys, 2014). Make sure to highlight in person the value of having these rules in place for ensuring good discussions and valuing each student as a contributor, and ask the class if they have any questions about them or wish to add anything.

  • On the first day: Ask your students to think about the best and worst group discussions they have been a part of, and reflect on what made these discussions so satisfying or unsatisfying. Then, have your students generate a list of guidelines and decide as a class which ones to adopt (see Diclementi & Handelsman, 2005 for an example). Write them down on a board or piece of paper, and make sure that they officially are added to the syllabus and/or course site.

  • In the moment: If a conflict arises during a discussion and guidelines were not previously established, pause the discussion and have students reflect on how they could collectively re-play that scene (“Okay, everyone, emotions seem to be getting high—how could we rephrase those comments so that they are more respectful of the people involved?”). Then, have the class generate guidelines right then and there, which you can write on a board or on a piece of paper that will be sent around later. Discussion can then continue.

  • In general: Encourage your students to monitor themselves and each other for violations of the guidelines. If you notice discussion becoming derailed or negative, pause the class discussion and have your students identify which guideline has been violated. New guidelines can always be added by you or your class to address any issue that comes up in the moment.


Bergom, I., Wright, M. C., Brown, M. K., & Brooks, M. (2011). Promoting college student development through collaborative learning: A case study of hevruta. About campus, 15(6), 19-25.

DiClementi, J. D., & Handelsman, M. M. (2005). Empowering students: Class-generated course rules. Teaching of Psychology, 32(1), 18-21.

Goodman, D. J. Difficult Dialogues: Enhancing Discussions about Diversity. College Teaching 43(2): Spring 1995. 47-52.

Sorensen, N., Nagda, B. R. A., Gurin, P., & Maxwell, K. E. (2009). Taking a "Hands On" approach to diversity in higher education: A Critical‐Dialogic Model for effective intergroup interaction. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 9(1), 3-35.

Sulik, G., & Keys, J. (2014). “Many Students Really Do Not Yet Know How to Behave!” The Syllabus as a Tool for Socialization. Teaching Sociology, 42(2), 151-160.

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