How Do I Increase Student Engagement with Participation Agreements?

How Do I Increase Student Engagement with Participation Agreements?

Students talking at a table.

Students engage and participate when there is a class climate in which they feel safe, supported, and encouraged to express their thoughts, values, experiences, and perspectives. It is important to clearly communicate what values frame and guide your course. This helps students to know what to expect and reduces unnecessary conflicts. Establishing clear expectations and agreements for classroom interactions provides a solid foundation for all following work. Class participation agreements – also referred to as class norms or netiquette (in the online environment) – make explicit the kind of interactions that contribute to productive learning.

Frame the participation agreements by asking: How will we create inclusive, safe and supportive learning communities in our classes? How are we going to work together? How do we want to be together?


Ways for developing class participation agreements

Use your syllabus to begin setting the tone and positively shaping the class climate. Think about what your expectations for student behaviors are and what type of learning environment you envision. Add a Hopes and Vision Statement or Expectations for Class Participation section to your syllabus. Include how you see your role and what students can expect from you. 

Ask your students. Use a survey to ask your students to identify what will help them participate fully in class.

Engage students in creating their own participation agreements. Consider using a class session at the beginning of the semester, or later if needed, to collaboratively develop the class agreements. Depending on class size you can do this with the whole class or using a small group process. This allows students to take ownership of these agreements. It can also serve as an ice-breaker and trust builder that helps to cultivate an inclusive and supportive learning community.

Small Group Process:

  • Divide students into groups of three or four and ask each group to make a short list of those ways of interacting and communicating they find desirable in this classroom. Possible prompts: Think about how you want to be with each other in this class. What has been working well for you in the past? What are you doing? What are your peers doing? What are the qualities of interaction? Give the groups 5-10 minutes to make their lists. You can give students one or two examples of what you find desirable to get them started.

  • Bring everyone back together. Ask each group to share one thing from their list. Jot that down on the board or in an online document. After each group has shared, ask what is missing that students want to add.

  • Ask students to clarify what is meant by specific behaviors and to give concrete examples. For example, what does it mean to demonstrate respect or to actively listen?

  • Achieve consensus. Let students know that once the agreements are established, each member of the class is responsible and accountable for living into them.

  • Discuss with students how they want to handle it if class members violate the established agreements.

You can also do this activity online. Students can note their ideas in a collaborative online document or contribute to a discussion forum in the LMS. If your class meets remote synchronously, use a breakout room activity.

Using the Class Participation Agreements

Post the list on your LMS course site. Combine similar student-generated items to create a list in categories. Upload the list to your LMS in an easy-to-find place.

Make the list a living document. Periodically ask students to reflect on how the class is doing with their agreements, which ones are working well and which ones the class needs to improve on. Encourage students to modify or add to the list throughout the semester.

Refer back to the list if there is conflict. Should difficult moments arise in your class, use the agreements as part of a conflict resolution process.

Sample Class Participation Agreements

  • Give respect and dignity to all members of the classroom community.

  • Confidentiality. Personal stories that we share, stay in the room.

  • Address each other with proper names and pronouns.

  • Be brave, take risks and lean into discomfort.

  • We all will make mistakes. Let’s learn from them and have a growth mindset.

  • Speak in a way that's kind, honest, and helpful.

  • Use appropriate language. No put-downs, even for comic relief.

  • Come from curiosity and generosity not judgment.

  • Embrace multiple perspectives and a diversity of voices.

  • Speak from your own experiences using “I” statements. Avoid generalizations.

  • Share talking time. Step Forward/Step Back.

  • One mic: One person speaks at a time. Avoid interrupting and talking over others.

  • Listen actively and with the intention to understand. Acknowledge what another person has said. Paraphrase what has been said. Ask clarifying questions.

  • Staying engaged when listening.

  • Staying on topic.

  • Challenge ideas and arguments not people.

  • If someone says something that hurts or offends you, name it (e.g., say "ouch") without attacking the person. Acknowledge that the comment—not the person—hurt your feelings and explain why.

  • Agree to practice dialogue instead of criticizing each other.

  • Agree to take a problem-solving approach when conflicts arise.

  • Write down thoughts or questions if there is no time or you don’t feel safe to voice them during the discussion. Ask the instructor to help you find a way to share your thoughts or a question.

  • Acknowledge that stereotypes, bias, discrimination, and oppression based on race/ethnicity, social class, gender, sexuality, etc. exist and that we will actively try to combat them.

  • Check your assumptions about fellow members of the class. Refrain from judging and labeling.

For questions on your LMS, Google, and other educational technology contact IDEAS at




These suggestions are adapted from:

Adams, M., & Bell, L. A. (2016). Teaching for diversity and social justice. 3rd Ed. New York: Routledge.

Ellerbrock, C. R. (2014). Cultivating positive learning environments in college classrooms. In Cruz, B., Ellerbrock, C. R., Vásquez, A., & Howes, E. V. (Eds.). Talking diversity with teachers and teacher educators: Exercises and critical conversations across the curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2009). Diversity and motivation: Culturally responsive teaching in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hunter, D., Thorpe, S., Bailey, A., & Taylor, B. (2007). The art of facilitation: the essentials for leading great meetings and creating group synergy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Image by Kampus Productions for Pexels.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at


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