Setting class “norms”, expectations, and participation guidelines
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    Setting class “norms”, expectations, and participation guidelines

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    Article Summary

    Why is setting expectations so important? Setting expectations and norms help us to create a class culture and environment in which all students feel safe, supported, and encouraged to express their thoughts, opinions, values, experiences, and perspectives. Adult part-time learners like the ones enrolled at Harvard Extension School come to class from wildly varied backgrounds and with tremendous experience in various professional settings. Creating a space for them to feel safe sharing their thoughts and opinions gives you an opportunity to leverage their experience to create a dynamic learning experience for all students in your course.

    Explicitly communicating norms and expectations for participation and interaction helps students know what to expect, understand why certain values are important, and reduces the likelihood of unnecessary conflicts. It also helps you, the instructor, intervene and correct certain behaviors if necessary. 

    Developing class norms and expectations

    Designing a norm setting activity

    Examples of class norms you might set

    One way to explicitly set norms and expectations for your class is to create them on your own and list them in your syllabus and on your Canvas site. It is recommended that you spend time during your first class session explaining what the expectations are why they matter. 

    Another effective strategy is to take time during class to generate class norms as a group. This allows your students to make an agreement together about what to expect from themselves and others. In addition to giving your students an opportunity to express what is important to them, this can also serve as a trust building exercise between you, your students, and each other. After norms are agreed upon they should be easily accessible to all students, for example on a written poster somewhere in the classroom or in an easy to find place on your Canvas site (or both!). In cases of conflict, the class can refer back to the norms you set to assist with discussion and resolution.

    Norm setting activities can be done in small groups or as an activity with the entire class. They can be done in person or online, both synchronously or asynchronously. For online courses, you might choose to utilize tools for sharing and voting such as PollEverywhere, Qualtrics, Zoom polls, or others.

    When designing a norm setting activity, keep in mind the following things:

    • It might be easier for students to identify things that make them feel unsafe rather than things that make them feel safe.
    • Consider adding your own ideas to the activity to ensure that norm you feel are important are included in the exercise.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask students to clarify their statements to get to the heart of what they might be asking. Use phrases like “tell me more about that” or “give me an example of what that behavior might look like” to get your students to give you more details about what they need.

    • Make comments using “I” statements to avoid generalizations and speak from our own experiences.
    • Utilize the “Vegas Agreement”: Personal stories that we share during class, stays in the class.
    • Address one other with proper names and pronouns.
    • Avoid interrupting and talking over others. 
    • Acknowledge what another person has said, even if you disagree with it.
    • Challenge ideas and arguments, not people.
    • Check your assumptions about fellow members of the class. Refrain from judging and labeling.
    • Acknowledge that stereotypes, bias, discrimination, and oppression based on race/ethnicity, social class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. exist and that we will actively try to combat them.