Easy - Creating Classroom Norms (Sharon Araji)

Creating Classroom Norms

Dr. Sharon Araji
Professor of Sociology
University of Alaska Anchorage

The Codes of Conduct exercise fits especially well with the subject matter of sociology. The class- room can, to some extent, be transformed into a miniature society with its own culture, norms, deviants, and sanctions. Students can be encouraged to see their personal norms within the context of group norms and to witness the effect of individuals on groups and of groups on individuals.

I introduced this exercise for the first time in an upper-division social psychology class. In preparation, students were instructed to prepare a list of personal norms for the classroom and to bring it with them to the next class period. In class, they were divided into four groups by counting off “one, two, three, four” in order to mix up students who were likely to sit with their friends. The groups were instructed first to discuss their personal norms and why they came up with particular items (demonstrating how past experiences influence present attitudes). Next they were instructed to come up with a list of group norms (demonstrating the relationships between individuals and the group). Finally, the groups came back together as a class to reach consensus on a set of classroom norms (demonstrating the effects of groups on other groups).

Of course, norms are only ideas written on paper, and sanctions (both positive and negative) are usually necessary to achieve conformity to those norms. After introducing this concept, I repeated the exercise by having students develop their own list of personal sanctions and then a set of consensus sanctions in class. The students came up with sanctions that were surprisingly punitive and very hard to enforce. For example, the class suggested that students who talk among themselves during a lecture should be asked to leave the room; students who come to class unprepared should get lower grades; and repeat offenders should be kicked out of the course.

Who would enforce these rules? They basically thought I should. How much time would this enforcement take? Would any student’s rights be violated? After some discussion and negotiation, they agreed that enforcement could be less punitive. For several weeks, I brought a large poster to class and displayed the rules so all could see. Near the end of the semester, I brought it back for our discussion of deviancy. The students found it interesting to see where and how they had violated their own rules, and how these activities related to the chapter on deviancy.

The whole experience was so successful that I decided to use it again in a lower-division introductory course the following semester. This class, on the whole, was much younger than the upper-division class; many students were recent graduates from high school. I planned to introduce the exercise on the day we were scheduled to begin the chapter on deviance and social control. This was also the day I gave students back their first exam.

I typically have students sign an attendance sheet in class, and base 2.5% of the course grade on attendance. After we had gone over the exam, about six students, who always sat at the back of the room, left. At that point I distributed a second attendance sheet. I then introduced the chapter by talking about society’s need for social order and norms. I pointed out how once norms or laws are implemented some people will still deviate from those norms or break those laws. In an attempt to maintain social order, society creates sanctions and stigmas (labels), socially constructed by those in power.

I designated the class members who had not left as the “societal leaders” and charged them with creating a set of classroom norms (societal norms). I repeated the process used the previous semester, first having them create personal norms, then small group norms, and then the larger group norms.

Interestingly, one of their norms was that students should not sign the attendance sheet and then leave (this was aimed at the group who left after we went over the exam). Class time expired before we could create a set of sanctions.

To demonstrate how those who follow the norms may be rewarded and those who deviate may be stigmatized, I made some big yellow stars and brown circles out of construction paper and brought them with me to the next class period. I began that class by saying we were going to engage in an experiment, and briefly reviewed the ethics of conducting research. I told the class that this was voluntary, so anyone who did not want to take part could leave for the next half hour. If they wanted to participate, they would need to sign a consent form. No one left— they all were curious.

After gathering up the consent forms, I displayed a list of all the students who had attended the previous class and stayed the entire time, and presented each of them with a large gold star. Next, I displayed the list of those who had come to class, signed the first attendance sheet, and left. Each student on this list was presented with a large brown circle—a negative stigma/label. Students who had missed the previous class altogether were given neither label.

We then explained what had happened after they left the previous class period. As we did not have time during the prior class period to create sanctions, we repeated the same norm construction process as described above.

Overall, the students liked this experience and said it helped them understand the deviance chapter much better. Conformists and deviants both took a certain pride in their position. “I liked the position of societal leader and the positive label (star),” wrote one. “It made me feel powerful.” Another student wrote: “I took pride in my brown circle. I don’t see myself as a conformist—I’m like some of the bikers in the chapter who wear labels that are associated with the idea of being deviants or even law breakers.”

I liked it too. The exercise engages students while demonstrating many of my discipline’s core concerns as a social science that investigates the interactions between the individual and others in society. I will probably continue to use the exercise in the future.