Setting expectations in the college classroom

There’s a popular saying among K-12 teachers: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” It’s not to be taken literally (although we all have memories of teachers who didn’t even smile after Christmas). It is meant as a comment on the importance of setting expectations in the classroom.

K-12 teachers devote a lot of time and effort to classroom management. As they should. Children, unformed and irrational as they are, need rules to follow. Those of us who teach in institutions of higher learning tend to give less thought to such things. By the time those wild children get to our classrooms, they have been tamed. They are self-directed, self-motivated, self-aware, and self-disciplined. Or are they?

We know that not all children are wild, and not all adults are tame. But that’s beside the point. Students of any age and any level of domesticity need solid structure and clear expectations in the classroom. The system you have developed for your classes might make perfect sense to you, but you can’t assume that it will make sense to your students. What are your expectations for class discussion? Would you like students to turn off their mobile phones in the classroom? What is your attendance policy? How do you want students to address you? How should they structure an email that they write to you? What file formats are acceptable for assignments? If you are teaching online, how do you want students to communicate with you and each other? There is a myriad of possible behaviors in a classroom. You need to tell your students exactly what you want from them. Micromanagement is not the goal. Rather it is to create a clear structure in which students can learn without uncertainty or confusion.

Following are a few simple guidelines for setting expectations in the college classroom, be it face-to-face or online.

First things first. The first day or first week of class, not later, is the time to communicate expectations.

Put it in writing. A syllabus is a contract that establishes roles and responsibilities for teacher and student. If you want students to do or know something, put it in the syllabus.

Don’t smile until … If you start strict, you can be lenient later, but it can be challenging the other way around. Students tend to perceive the imposition of new rules as unfair, and they may not accept them. This also holds true for grading and feedback. If you are tough at the beginning of the semester, you give students room for improvement. Not so if the first assignment is an easy A.

Don’t let it fester. If there is a problem, deal with it as soon as possible. Minor issues can become disastrous if they are allowed to develop.

An example is worth a thousand words. Give students examples of what you want and don’t want, and explain your reasons.

Of course, there is much more to it. This is a brief and simplistic treatment of a complex topic. You’ll find more details if you follow the links below. We also invite you to visit us at the Office of Instructional Consulting if you’d like to discuss strategies for setting expectations in the college classroom.

Things to consider before the first day of class from IU’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning:

Guidelines for dealing with disruptive students from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning:

Practical solutions for specific problem behaviors:

Online teaching presents its own challenges. Tips for online class managment:

Guidelines for establishing standards of etiquette in the classroom and suggestions for syllabus items from UC Davis:


2 responses to “Setting expectations in the college classroom

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