Skip to main content

Cornell University

Establishing Ground Rules

Establishing ground rules, or a code of conduct, for the classroom helps foster community by balancing the learning needs of the individual with the learning needs of the group.

Why establish ground rules?
How can you establish ground rules?
How can you use ground rules?

Why establish ground rules?

  • Ground rules hold students accountable for their behavior.
  • They can prevent issues of incivility.
  • Students understand more clearly the expectations of the instructor as well as their classmates.
  • Students hold each other accountable in a variety of learning scenarios.
  • Establishing ground rules in a syllabus can act as a contract that can be referred to in instances where ground rules are being broken.
  • Rules can create a safe learning environment for course participants where all know that their ideas and viewpoints will be respected.

How can you establish ground rules?

  • Decide what is non-negotiable for you as the instructor.
  • Plan to facilitate a conversation around ground rules as a class or present your proposal and give students the opportunity to modify it.
  • Have students create the ground rules as a class (Brookfield & Preskill 2005).
  • In small groups, have students think about past learning environments. Which learning environments were productive? What were the characteristics of that environment? Which learning environments were not productive? What were the characteristics of that environment?
  • Ask students to list the conditions needed to ensure that positive characteristics exist in a learning environment. Have them create a similar list of required conditions to prevent negative characteristics.
  • Based on these conversations, have students create a draft list of ground rules for your class.
  • Collect and compile these.
  • Adjust them as you see necessary and redistribute them to the class for agreement.
  • Once everyone agrees, put ground rules in your syllabus.
  • Revisit them throughout the semester to check with students that the ground rules are still working. Make adjustments as necessary.

How can you use ground rules?

  • Introduce ground rules early in the semester.
  • Ask students for feedback.
  • Throughout the semester refer to the established set of ground rules when addressing any incivility.
  • If using group work, consider having small groups come up with their own set of expectations at the onset.
  • Reiterate ground rules before discussing a topic that may be heated.

CTI Faculty Seminar Session Materials

CTI Establishing Ground Rules pdf (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)


Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd ed.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Gabelnick, F., Leigh-Smith, B., MacGregor, J., & Matthews, R (2004). Learning communities: Reforming undergraduate education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. G.(2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

LaSere Erickson, B., Peters, C., & Weltner Strommer, D. (2006). Teaching first-year college students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  Cornell University