Facilitating Student-Generated Class Policies

Giving students the leeway to identify solutions to class problems can build their sense of autonomy and strengthen the community.

As an experienced educator, when I hear conversations about giving students agency in the classroom and creating space where students and educators work together to establish rules and norms, I love it in theory. However, I used to wonder, how can this realistically happen with the students I have? Do they see the students I have?

When I found myself overwhelmed with the amount of late work my students were turning in, I took a chance, asking them to design a late work policy that would work for them—and for me. From that experience, I learned that students can help design class policies and rules. However, it has to be done in an incremental way that will not overwhelm them or you.
While it will look different for different classes, students and teachers alike can benefit from the practice, and it is a valid use of class time. Sometimes this time will yield a workable alternative and sometimes it will not. This process allows the class to discuss challenges and to consider compromises, and this is a useful life skill for everyone.
So, how did I do this, and how do I do it continuously with my classes? In simple terms, I followed a series of steps that make this process simpler and streamlined for all of us. Let’s discuss these below.

5 Steps to Guiding Student-Generated Policies

1. Start small: Start small with a rule or policy that will not completely restructure your classroom dynamic. These can range from how to handle bathroom requests, where cell phones should go during class time (backpack, door cubby, etc.), clarifying student responsibility to catch up on lost notes and instruction, how many times to repeat instructions, what to do with no-name papers, and all the random things that drive us all crazy as educators in the classroom.
It is very likely that some groups will only be able to give input for smaller-stakes policies, but even that can be beneficial for both you and them. Once students show they are able to give valuable input on these smaller-stakes policies, you can progress to those with more complexity and impact. Such examples can include whether to allow resources on a specific assessment, seating chart design, and other processes that require more modification.
2. Examine the issue with care: Before students begin to brainstorm new policies, it’s important to have a whole-class discussion of the problem at hand and to objectively describe the problem, frame it in a manner that does not place blame, and explain the impact that this problem has on you and on the larger group. When I introduced the dilemma of late work, this is how I framed it to my students: “This semester, an immense amount of late work was submitted. This was very stressful and exhausting for us all, and it limited our ability as a class to accomplish what needed to be done. What can we do to protect and help our stress levels?”
Depending on your class, this can take place verbally or through written feedback where students give their input individually or in pairs. You can collect these observations and discuss them as a larger group. Read out interesting perspectives and ask the students to give their feedback.
3. Require transferability: Once the class has come to an agreement about the problem they need to solve and how it’s affecting the class community, you should give them the opportunity to generate a solution. Tell your students that any new or modified policies must be scalable to other classes. In short, this should be a policy that can be implemented in other classes and that would meet the needs of many students.
To continue with the late work policy example, a class of highly regimented students will need to consider policies that will give some flexibility to those groups of students who need flexibility. Conversely, those who need some flexibility need to consider policies with structure as well.
4. Set concise boundaries on student discussion: Before giving students time to discuss alternatives and modifications to existing class policy, give them a few nonnegotiables that must exist in the new policy. This helps prevent unreasonable requests, and students will usually respect these. An example of an unreasonable request could be no deadlines until the end of the semester, as that led to the problem in the first place.
Once students begin coming up with a new policy, give a finite amount of time for discussion. If it is small stakes, 10 minutes will often work. For more complex problems, 30 minutes may be needed. Setting a timer also allows for a natural end to conversation if the students begin to lose focus or the discussion isn’t fruitful.
5. Impose a trial period: As long as your students come up with a policy that meets your nonnegotiables and is transferable, put it into practice—at least provisionally. Tell your students that there will be a 30-day trial period for any new policies or adapted ones. Clearly explain what would cause you to pull the new policy and revert to the old policy. At the end of the 30-day period, have a quick discussion on whether this policy seems to be working or not. Start with language such as, “In the past month, we decided to do X and I have noticed Y. What did you notice? Does this seem to work?”

Impact of Student-Generated Policies

I have noticed the following takeaways from having students design class policies and procedures over the past few years. First, most proposals students suggest are reasonable and provide a good example of what compromise can look like. Students sometimes need help understanding feasibility or what the larger school rule looks like, but they can be coached to come up with policies that work. And giving them this opportunity is a powerful way to build self-advocacy. Once students realize that you are willing to have a discussion on class policies with them as people, you may find students more willing to let you know of their concerns and ideas on how to modify tasks in the classroom.
In the end, whether you choose to just dip your toes in the waters of student-designed policies or jump in full-speed (I would personally start with the first option), this can be a great opportunity to teach greater life skills and to implement policies with greater student ownership—and hopefully greater effectiveness.