Creating Group Expectations, Contracts and Norms

At the beginning of a learning circle, it is important to check-in and ask everyone what their goals are for the learning circle. One common next step is to collectively create group norms for how your learning circle will run effectively.

We’ve seen this done a number of different ways, from hosting a simple discussion about what makes a good team or learning experience, to a lengthy co-creation of a code of conduct or creating a list of learner rights and responsibilities. There isn’t a perfect way to do this as every group is different! It can certainly help large groups who are meeting over longer periods of times, but with shorter casual groups, it can feel a bit too formal and time-consuming.

Here are a few different ways you might consider facilitating a group norms exercise:

Group Expectations (10 minutes)

Talk about expectations for the group to draw in participation from all group members
and help craft group identity. It’s okay if not everybody agrees on everything!

First: Ask learners how they want to work with their peers in the coming weeks.
Prompt learners with these questions:

  • Do you want to work through activities on a projector or work on their own?
  • Do you want to commit to doing work outside of the Learning Circle? (“Ex. Homework or no homework?”)
  • Do you feel like you have enough time to complete the course?

Next: Based on the discussion create a list of expectations for their group and discuss the list, leaving room for last-minute additions and any disagreements.

Finally: Once the list is final, read the final list to the group.

Codes of Conduct (15 minutes )

(Source: Participatory workshops (2002) by Robert Chambers)

The whole learning circles or a few small groups form to draw up norms and behaviors for the other, then they discuss and negotiate. Or, they can alternate in proposing single points. These can include issues about mutual help, restraining big talkers, and helping the silent speak.


  • Codes are written up and displayed
  • Codes include how to deal with deviant behavior
  • Timing is a common issue. Get a sense of how much flexibility is acceptable. A public commitment to finish at a certain hour helps!
  • Consider making tasks and responsibilities: energizers, food, evaluation, note taking, feedback to facilitators, timekeeper, set up, close (see Roles activity)

Code for facilitators: An alternative idea is to have participants create a code of conduct for how they would like facilitators to behave. A neat reversal of power which sets a good precedent for participation.

Group Norms (15-30 minutes)

(Source: a two-year study of learning circles in Canada funded by the National Literacy Secretariat.)

  • At the first meeting of the circle, the facilitator asks everyone to take a few minutes to think quietly about what makes it hard for him or her to learn in a group and what would make it easier.
  • Then the facilitator asks people to say what they need. S/he writes down these needs on a flipchart, remembering that the flipchart is only noted for an oral list, and that whenever there is reference to a point or points, s/he should be sure to say them, so that participants in the group that cannot read the points will not be left out of the discussion.
  • After some discussion, the facilitator “pools” this information about needs, states everything s/he has learned about people’s needs back to the group and asks whether s/he has everything right. Then the facilitator explains that the circle is going to work on a list of rules that will accommodate all of the needs. S/he leads them in a discussion that begins with needs that are widely shared in the group, then moves to needs that are less widely shared, then moves to needs that may be in conflict and need to be resolved by rules that are acceptable to everyone.
  • As the rules are agreed upon, the facilitator writes them down on a flipchart. At the end of the session, s/he reads through the rules and makes sure that everyone in the group is in agreement. The next week, s/he brings a copy of the list of rules for everyone in the circle and reads this list out loud to the participants.
  • When a new participant joins the group, the facilitator has a private discussion with him/her to find out if the rules will work with this new participant. If they won’t, the facilitator reopens the discussion, bringing the needs of the new participant to the circle.
  • It is useful to review the social rules from time to time. Our understanding of our learning needs evolve, and participants may have new needs to bring to the circle.

How do you introduce and document group behaviors or rules? Add your own below.

1 Like

Hi Nico. Yes, I always ask the group two questions at the end of our first meeting:

  1. Would you like to work through the course videos as a group or by yourself?
  2. Would you like to commit to doing work outside of class?

I let the group members decide among themselves. In the first class we go through the videos as a group, and so far the consensus has always been that they would prefer to continue doing the coursework as a group. Re: committing to doing work outside of class, the consensus so far has been that they would prefer not to have that responsibility, but I do give them an idea for an outside-of-class activity at the end of each class in case they feel so inclined.

I hope that helps!