Guidelines for Interaction for Better Class Discussions

To promote more productive and respectful discussions, try using guidelines for interactions. Guidelines are useful in classes, at conferences and perhaps even within your department. In addition, guidelines may help incorporate more diverse viewpoints, which is a benefit because more diversity is correlated with innovation and improved problem solving.

Very brief discussion guidelines could include items like:

  • Allow everyone a chance to speak
  • Listen respectfully and actively
  • Criticize ideas, not individuals
  • Commit to learning, not debating
  • Avoid blame, speculation, inflammatory language
  • Avoid assumptions about others, especially based on their perceived social group

Here are some useful examples of discussion guidelines:

I’ve used discussion guidelines as a participant at conferences. At the beginning of the conference session, discussion guidelines are placed on each table. Each member of a discussion group is directed to read the printed guidelines, identify and discuss needed changes or additions and then accept the (possibly modified) guidelines. The actual discussion follows.

In the classroom, guidelines for interactions can be used in a similar way, at the start of a class or small group discussion. Guidelines can also be incorporated into the syllabus, discussed on the first day, or even generated when needed, as described by the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

We have identified several points to consider:

  • Lengthy guidelines are unlikely to be read as carefully as briefer guidelines.
  • The “tone” of the guidelines may be important. Those written positively set a different tone than those written as rules of what not to do.
  • Guidelines describing active listening may help your students learn that discussions are more than just people taking turns talking.
  • Consider using student input in modifying the guidelines.

Teaching first year students may raise additional challenges in setting the tone in the classroom. See these six ways to promote a positive learning environment.

If you regularly have difficult discussions in your class, perhaps guidelines are one of several steps to take to ensure fruitful discussions. University of Michigan has terrific guidelines for facilitating classroom discussion around controversial issues.

Are discussion guidelines needed? Consider:

“The first question is: Can learning take place if in fact it silences the voices of the people it is supposed to teach? And the answer is: Yes. People learn that they don’t count.”

–Henry Giroux, Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education