Tips on Teaching

Using Ground Rules to Support a Diverse Learning Environment

by Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Instructor 

When I was a college student, and before I thought about it more intentionally, I thought “diversity” in education was really code for “politically correct,” or just a way to prevent or correct racism or stereotyping.  I’ve since learned that diversity is, in itself, a positive force for education. Think about it:  if we are in a classroom with others who look like us, think like us, approach questions and seek answers from the same perspective, what are we going to gain by being in conversation with one another?  Attending to differences in the classroom can bring valuable perspectives to the conversation, ways of thinking about and answering questions that would be entirely absent if those differences were absent.  But…the work of hearing different perspectives is not necessarily easy, or natural, and speaking a different perspective is not necessarily safe.  We have to feel safe to in order to speak and in order to listen.  And we have to learn—and practice—both.

There are many obstacles to creating a space where people of different perspectives are open to speaking out and open to hearing one another.  For one thing, the ways that we perceive difference affect us in powerful ways, inhibiting us both from being able to speak and to listen to each other.  We may be injured by someone’s words, or fear speaking because we don’t know how our own words may be perceived.  We may see others as not understanding our particular situation, not credible to speak on a topic, or not likely to care about what we have to say.  There’s a mounting energy in our country for reaching across racial, gender, ethnic, sexual, and religious divides—trying to understand one another and heal centuries of wounding.  Students are eager to have these conversations.  But they, like us, are afraid.  Providing boundaries and guidelines for class discussion can help to stem some of that fear.

One way to guide class discussion is to create “Ground Rules” for how we engage with one another.  Such rules can help moderate conversation as we approach questions and topics that make us uncomfortable.

Here are some sample ground rules from the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence:

  • Listen actively and attentively.
  • Ask for clarification if you are confused.
  • Do not interrupt one another.
  • Challenge one another, but do so respectfully.
  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • Do not offer opinions without supporting evidence.
  • Avoid put-downs (even humorous ones).
  • Take responsibility for the quality of the discussion.
  • Build on one another’s comments; work toward shared understanding.
  • Always have your book/readings in front of you.
  • Do not monopolize discussion.
  • Speak from your own experience, without generalizing.
  • If you are offended by anything said during discussion, acknowledge it immediately.
  • Consider anything that is said in class strictly confidential.

Notably, active listening tops the list of rules for discussion.  Not interrupting one another, learning how to challenge each other respectfully, learning to build on something that someone said earlier, speaking from your own experience and not generalizing—these are the rules of civil discourse in broader society, not just in the classroom.  In teaching civil discourse, we are teaching students to be citizens, to engage civilly in a public domain.  The values that govern collaborative discussion in a classroom mirror the values of living in community in democratic society—“mutual respect, open-mindedness, the willingness to listen to and take seriously the ideas of others, procedural fairness, and public discussion of contested issues” (Colby 13).  As we open up our classrooms for discussions, we have the capacity to teach the highly transferable skills and values of democratic engagement.

As you incorporate ground rules into your class, take time to discuss the meaning and the purpose behind the rules.  For instance, you may have a conversation about the importance of “Critiquing ideas, not people.”  Why do people have the tendency to make a personal attack in an argument, and why is it fallacious to do so?  Ground rules demystify the traditions of scholarly conversation and help students mature in their ability to hear and share ideas—skills, which, we hope, students will take with them into their workplaces, communities, and social media worlds.

One strategy you may try to help students take ownership of the rules is to have the class write the rules themselves (“Teaching for Inclusion” 21).  Have a discussion about what constitutes fair and safe public conversation.  Have them write up a set of rules and share their rules with a group, revising a set that each group comes up with. Share the groups’ sets of rules and come to consensus about what the class rules will be.  Of course, as the teacher, you may notice gaps or problems in the rules.  You may guide the class to cover the gaps or point out why a rule may be problematic.  In the end, hopefully, you will have a set of rules that everyone agrees will make discussions an authentically collaborative endeavor.

See also our “Ground Rules” Resource Guide.


Colby, Anne. Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and      Civic Responsibility. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

“Ground Rules.”  Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence, Carnegie Mellon University.    

“Teaching for Inclusion:  Diversity in the College Classroom.”  Center for Teaching and Learning,           University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  19-22.