Ground Rules for Discussion

Materials Needed: 

  • Large adhesive notepaper or butcher paper and markers for small group work.

50 minutes, plus preparation and optional activities.


  • Begin the exercise by telling the students that one of your goals for the class is to help them learn to participate in discussion with each other. Tell them that they will be participating in discussions and conversations of different lengths and different purposes. Ask the class to brainstorm the characteristics of a good discussion. Write their ideas on the board, encouraging students to explain more as appropriate. It will be helpful to ask leading questions such as: 
    • “What’s the difference between discussing and fighting?”
    • “Is it a good or a bad discussion when people yell? Why or why not?”  
    • “Should we interrupt each other when we discuss? Why not?” 
    • “Are discussions better when people have reasons and evidence to support their ideas?” 
    • “When do you feel the most comfortable about expressing your opinions? When do you feel uncomfortable?”
    • “How can people show that they respect each other in discussions?”
    • “Are good discussions cooperative or competitive?”
  • Once you have filled the board with content, give the “good discussion” characteristics numbers. (These numbers are for identification not ranking.)
  • Tell the class that you will all be working together to create “ground rules” for classroom discussions. Break them into groups of three or four, and give each group a large adhesive note or piece of butcher paper and markers. Tell the students that their group’s job is to come up with a list of rules for discussion. Each group should come up with eight rules and write them on the paper. They should try to make sure that the rules are linked with the good discussion characteristics on the board. For example, if “no interruptions” is  No. 1 on the board, then the rule “We should not interrupt each other” should have No. 1 listed after it, as well as any other identified characteristics of good discussion.
  • Once all groups have finished the rules, ask each group to come to the front of the class and share its rules. After each group is done, hang the group’s paper on the wall.
  • After all groups have presented, ask each student to turn in a piece of paper with the best 10 rules for discussion.
  • That night, review the students’ submissions and tabulate the “top ten” rules. Feel free to modify or combine rules so that all groups feel their contribution was meaningful.
  • Write the rules on a poster for permanent display in the classroom beginning the next day, and review the rules with students.
  • As you begin to have more discussions, part of the reflection process should be encouraging students to consider whether the rules are effective or not, and how they might be improved.

Extension Activity: 

Depending on the age and experience of the students, it may be helpful to talk to them about effective and ineffective discussions they have had. As a “pre-think” journal exercise, it might be helpful to ask students to write about one conversation they had that was productive and one that was unproductive, explaining why each was good and bad.