Discussion Guidelines

Discussion guidelines set expectations for participant behavior during small group or whole-class interaction. They also ensure that the class environment is welcoming, inclusive, and respectful.

Why can discussion guidelines help?

Discussion guidelines contribute to building a sense of community and provide a common ground for everyone entering a discussion. Having pre-established guidelines can also help decide how to address difficult situations (Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation, 2020). 

How can you create guidelines?

Involve students in the creation of guidelines. It is important to explain why you are establishing discussion guidelines. Present students with a few suggestions and ask them to help modify the suggested guidelines, or have the class work together to come up with additional guidelines (see video example below).

Directly involving students in creating guidelines gives them a greater investment and sense of responsibility for the guidelines and encourages them to think more deeply about the purpose. Regardless of which method you decide to use, make sure that students agree on ground rules before the discussion begins.

Some suggested guidelines recommended by our staff and collated from Centers of Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Cornell University, and UC Berkeley are listed below: 

  • Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
  • Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others’ views. (Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.)
  • Criticize ideas, not individuals. We all can learn something from each other, even if your views don’t necessarily align.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Allow everyone the chance to speak.
  • Avoid assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
  • We are accountable for our words and their impact.
  • Personal information that comes up in the conversation should be kept confidential. 


Creating Discussion Guidelines. (n.d.). UC Berkeley Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://gsi.berkeley.edu/gsi-guide-contents/discussion-intro/discussion-guidelines/

Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics. (n.d.). University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from https://crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines.

Getting Started with Establishing Ground Rules: Center for Teaching Innovation. (n.d.). Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://teaching.cornell.edu/resource/getting-started-establishing-ground-rules.

Howard, Jay. (2019) “How to Hold a Better Class Discussion.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-hold-a-better-class-discussion [Excerpts]

Inclusive Teaching Forum: Discussion Guidelines. (n.d.). Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://teaching.cornell.edu/resource/getting-started-establishing-ground-rules.