INTRODUCTION: I have taught in a community college for the past twelve years. During that time I have taught First Year Experience and Introductory Social Work courses; currently I teach a student success course for students in academic difficulty. Every semester I have had a few students who lack an understanding of appropriate college behaviors. They can seriously disrupt the learning environment. In the past, I dealt with disruptive students after the fact, but then I began using this activity which is designed to create a positive learning environment from day one. Its use has greatly reduced disruptive behaviors in my classroom.
Although I currently use this activity with my student success course, it would be appropriate in any educational setting in which students have limited experience with appropriate college classroom behavior. I usually do this exercise within the first or second class meeting after introducing myself, checking roll, and reviewing the syllabus. I do it even before any ice breakers or get acquainted activities, thus creating the desired tone for the class from the very beginning. This activity takes about 35-45 minutes.
- To raise awareness of what constitutes appropriate classroom behavior
- To develop classroom ground rules that are mutually agreed on between students and instructor, ground rules that will guide the class for the entire time they are together.
- To begin addressing the On Course principles of self-awareness, personal responsibility, interdependence, self-management, and emotional intelligence
- blackboard, white board, or flip chart
- chalk or markers
1. Begin the activity by stating: “Every person in this class has had previous educational experiences whether in high school, on the job training, or prior college classes. I’d like you to silently reflect on those experiences, focusing specifically on the instructors who you feel were ‘good’ instructors.” (2 minutes)
2. Write a header on one board that says “Professor” or “Instructor.” Ask the students to share aloud what they think are the most important qualities of a good instructor. List the qualities under the header as the students call them out. The students will likely be suggesting such qualities as “on time,” “prepared,” and “kind.” (5 minutes)
3. Write every quality/characteristic the students state without censoring (unless of course, they state something inappropriate) until they can think of no more to list. When it appears the list has been exhausted, you can suggest and record some that may not have been mentioned. (10 minutes)
4. To model a positive behavior and to reinforce their participation, praise the students for coming up with such a good list, creative qualities, unexpected responses, etc. Then say, “OK, now that you’ve come up with a list of qualities that make a good instructor, let’s do the same for qualities that make a good student.” Write a header on another board that states “Student.” Follow through as before, having them list the qualities of a good student. Once again positively reinforce their participation. (10 minutes)
5. At this point ask the students to study the two lists. Ask, “Does anybody notice anything interesting about these two lists?” Hopefully, someone will notice that the two lists have a lot of qualities in common. If no one notices, or wants to say, then make a statement to that effect. For example, “Isn’t it interesting that both lists share many of the same qualities?” This can be emphasized further by asking the students to state which qualities are common to both lists as you circle or check them off. Make a statement about the observations such as, “So it appears you think many of the same qualities you like to see in a good instructor also apply to being a good student. I agree.” (5 minutes)
6. Dive a bit deeper by asking students questions such as, “How do you know if an Instructor is prepared?” or “How can you tell if a student is respectful?” Help them identify observable behaviors, such as, “A prepared instructor has handouts ready for each class. A respectful student keeps quiet when others are talking.” (5 minutes)
7. Here’s the pay off. Say, “I’d like to make a deal with you. I promise that I will do my very best to exemplify all the qualities in the ‘good instructor’ list if you will promise to do your best to exemplify all of the qualities in the ‘good student’ list. Do we have a deal?” At this point you may also want to add that either you or the students can point out (kindly and respectfully) at any time if they think the other isn’t living up to their end of the deal. (10 minutes)
8. Seal the deal, if you would like, by writing out and signing the agreement. This step will add approximately 15 minutes to the original time allotted.
I have been using this activity for a number of years and there has been a range of responses from the students. They typically engage very quickly, enthusiastically voicing their opinions about the qualities of a good instructor and student.
I always write all of the responses on the lists, even if all the students are not in agreement. In modeling respect for their opinions, I feel I am contributing to the atmosphere of mutual respect that I hope will be created and continue throughout the semester. As the two lists are generated, some will see the connections in Step 4 sooner than their classmates, and I may have to temper their enthusiasm so the others can catch up.
By far, the strongest reactions typically occur when we “make the deal.” I’ve found that students’ trust levels vary about my willingness to keep my agreements and their ability to actually call me on a broken promise. This doubt makes it all the more critical that I honor my commitments.
I believe this exercise has done more to set an appropriate, positive tone for my classes than anything I have ever tried before. Students appreciate the creativity and participation that go into the exercise as opposed to having the instructor recite a dry list of rules and requirements for the course. They also appreciate the mutuality of the agreement and have observed that it was the first time anybody asked them what their thoughts were regarding quality instructors. One of them said, “It made me feel like an adult when you wanted to know what I thought and that kind of made me feel like I should act like one.” Some have only half jokingly observed that it put some level of pressure on them to be like “real” college students.
It does take some students more time and practice to implement new, positive behaviors, but other students are typically the first to remind them of the deal we made. These deviations from the agreement provide an opportunity to reaffirm what we all agreed to at the beginning of the course and perhaps work with a particular student on individual issues.
Even when I have had to remind students of our deal, it was easier to address their inappropriate behavior because we had a frame of reference that they understood and had embraced as their own. In our course evaluations, we have a question that asks “What one thing did your instructor do exceptionally well?” Every semester students make comments like “She was very respectful,” “She treated us like adults,” “I felt that I could say what I thought even if she didn’t agree.” That is the atmosphere of mutual respect that I am striving for.
I use this strategy every semester with every class I teach. I have found it to be very effective and plan to continue its use. I have noticed that the times when I have had to remind students of our deal tend to understandably occur when they are experiencing stress in school or in their private lives. Just as they are called to be self-aware and manage their emotions and behaviors in class, I am also called to be aware of the things that impact their behavior (Aha!). In this way I can hold them accountable as I respond to them with a compassion that preserves their dignity. This activity has reinforced my belief that people (students) will rise to the level of your expectations. It provides structure and flexibility which I believe are both critical for optimal learning.
I came across this activity at a conference a number of years ago and have adapted it to the format presented above. I do not recall which conference, or who generously shared it at the time, but he did encourage us to use it at will, and I do.