How to Establish Ground Rules in Adult Education

Teacher helping adult student
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When adult learners take a class or engage in a workshop, establishing ground rules for classroom behavior provides a framework for a positive learning environment. As you begin setting ground rules, consider the demographics of your audience and the content you will deliver. A short workshop may need a different approach than a semester-long class experience. You should also consider the demographics of your class. A group of seasoned professionals may need less guidance than adult learners returning to the classroom after a long break from school.

1 Group Consensus

The first class period is a good time to engage the class in setting their own ground rules. Begin by asking the class to share the conditions that create an ideal learning environment in the classroom. You should also ask them about the negative things they’ve experienced when interacting in the classroom. Use the positive and negative traits as a framework for creating group ground rules. After the class has created a master set of rules, determine the rules you feel are best. Post the rules at the front of the class and review them throughout the semester to ensure they’re effective and applicable to the learning environment.

2 Individual Responsibility

Adult learners may feel grounded in past classroom experiences. Take the initiative to help students reflect upon what they can do to maximize the learning experience. During the first class period, have students create a personal learning plan that indicates what they hope to gain from the class, how they’ll ensure goals are accomplished and what they’ll do with the material they learn. Ask them to identify potential roadblocks to the learning process and how they’ll overcome these obstacles. Finally, let them know that they must take responsibility for seeking clarification or further explanation about concepts that are hard to understand.

3 Safe Environment

Building an inclusive classroom environment requires trust and respect among students. If you’re teaching sensitive curriculum that challenges values and personal ideals, establishing special ground rules will help students safely share their thoughts and feelings. For example, ground rules that allow students the right to opt out of a conversation may actually encourage greater participation. You’ll also find a richer discussion if you let students know that supporting opposing views is a norm for the classroom. Put-downs and negative reactions should be prohibited to maximize a safe environment for class discussion.

4 Engaged Lectures

When a class is mainly lecture focused, ground rules help minimize distractions and maximize collaborative learning. Ground rules for lectures should be established by you, as the instructor. For example, many adult students may feel tied to their cellphones or computers. Ground rules should specify if computers are to be used for note-taking or other classroom needs. Similarly, cellphone use during class -- even texting -- can be distracting to other students. Consider prohibiting cellphone use during class and offering a break for students to check their cellphones, in case of calls from family. If you’re trying to encourage an active learning environment, let students know they should ask clarifying questions throughout the lecture. Conversely, if you prefer questions asked only at the end of the lecture, let them know that as well.

Dr. Kelly Meier earned her doctorate from Minnesota State Mankato in Educational Leadership. She is the author and co-author of 12 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education. Dr. Meier is is a regular contributor for The Equity Network and has worked in education for more than 30 years. She has numerous publications with Talico, Inc., DynaTEAM Consulting, Inc. and Kinect Education Group.