Classroom Contracts

How do you set expectations in the classroom? Communicating them well helps to build rapport and set the tone for the class.

First, think about what students really need to know to understand how to be successful in your course. Convey your expectations and the expectations of the course as a whole, by addressing questions like these:

  • What approach does the course take to the subject?
  • What kind of preparation is expected?
  • In what ways will students be expected to participate?
  • How can they best listen to and speak with each other and with you?
  • How much time and effort will the course require?
  • How will their work be graded?

When you hold up your side of what you promise, students are more likely to respect you as well as to do their best work for your course.

Much of setting expectations is about being explicit. Be careful not to assume that your approach is obvious to everyone. Provide a rationale for what you are doing. As much as possible, students should understand the goals of specific activities and parts of your course. You can state goals explicitly or debrief afterwards. Why did we just do that activity? What did we learn? Ways of settling expectations can be thought of as a classroom contract. Every classroom has contracts in place – some are explicit and some are implicit. Think about how much of what you are expecting of students has been explicitly stated, and how much may be implied.

Explicit contracts are usually found in the syllabus: what the course is about, what has to be read by when, what and when papers or exams are due, what the grading criteria are.

But there are also many implicit contracts at work: who gets to speak, for how long, how do they get to speak, who sets the agenda, and what kind of learning is expected, and how is success measured. Some of these implicit contracts are also based on the norms of your discipline. As much as you can make these sometimes "hidden" features of a class explicit, it can help the students be more successful. You can’t expect someone to do well at a game if they don’t know the rules. The way the teacher behaves is part of the implicit contract as well; teachers should be models of what they hope to see. Students coming into a class are all trying to figure out and understand both the explicit and the implicit contracts. If teachers think carefully about it in advance, we can be more open about what we are looking for in classroom dynamics and expectations, and work to make the implicit more explicit.

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