Groundrules for Constructive Classroom Disussion
Volume 11 Number 1 (October 2001)

York's diverse student population presents wonderful opportunities to enrich the learning that takes place in the classroom. In order to use diversity in a most productive and effective way, instructors can aim to establish a classroom climate for constructive interaction and dialogue to take place. One such strategy is to establish groundrules that provide clear boundaries and expectations for discussion, particularly those discussions that are potentially controversial or otherwise difficult in nature. Groundrules can ensure that the broadest range of ideas is expressed in a climate of openness, fairness and respect. They can also help promote classroom safety, and diminish the opportunity for tension, confrontation and personal attacks.

York's policies and procedures on student conduct, disruptive and/or harassing behaviour by students, racism, and sexual harassment might provide an effective starting point for developing a framework for constructive classroom discussion. In addition, the following are some principles that might be considered when developing groundrules for constructive discussion, and the roles of instructors and students in ensuring that it takes place within the specific teaching and learning context in which you teach.

Respect for everyone's opinions and experiences is essential for creating a climate for open and honest dialogue and encouraging the broadest range of viewpoints. Inflammatory statements, name-calling and other personal attacks are counterproductive to effective classroom exchange.

Constructive classroom discussion creates awareness and understanding of the issues under discussion and promotes the expression of the broadest range of ideas, including opposing viewpoints. Comments should should aim to contribute greater insights into the topic and promote learning - rather than defensiveness, conflict and anger.

Learning involves both contributing ideas and points of view, and actively listening to other points of views. Learning is maximized when many different view points are expressed.

Discussion and comments directed toward the issue under discussion, not towards a particular individual, maximize the learning potential of the discussion.

Dialogue and discussion to reach consensus or to convince others to agree with a specific point of view is counter productive, rather higher levels of learning can be reached by examining the widest range of viewpoints.

Many instructors provide groundrules to their students in writing, sometimes as part of the course outline, to encourage a common understanding of how to engage in constructive discussion. For groundrules to be effective, it is important to remind people when these are broken, and to review and perhaps alter the guidelines if needed at various points throughout the term.

Adapted from Discussion Groundrules, Intergroup Relations Centre, Arizona State University ( See also the Bulletins on Inclusive Teaching at York University prepared by SCOTL ( and the York policies and procedures on student conduct (