Setting Expectations

Have you ever started a new job and thought “I wonder what they expect of me?”, “how will they evaluate my performance?” or “what does it take to be successful here?” Or, perhaps you have tried to play a board or card game with others only to realize that you all play by different rules so the official game rules must serve as the official arbitrar of the disagreement?

When we begin anything, it is natural to want to understand and digest the rules of the particular situation, as well as be on the same page as others. Not just the others with whom you might be competing (to win the game, to get the promotion) but the others who will be evaluating your performance and dolling out praise (or criticism).

To be sure, it’s almost impossible to understand all of the rules of the game or the expectations of your employer. After all, cultural norms and values are often elusive and difficult to articulate and understand, even for those who created the culture or established the values in the first place. In other words, cultural expectations often operate below our conscious awareness.

However, it is critical that we try. Not just as employers, but as classroom instructors.

The students in our classrooms are like the new players to the game and the new employees in the organization. Even those who are experienced students step into a new culture or organization every time they begin a new class or experience a new instructor. And, I might argue, students have to work even harder to understand expectations because they might have 3-5 different instructors in a term, all of whom might have different expectations and rules that the student has to decipher and act according to.

Thus, it seems only fair, responsible, respectful, honest and trustworthy, for each instructor to not only bring their own expectations to the clarity of their consciousness, but then to clearly articulate those expectations to their students. Otherwise, how can we truly ask students to meet those expectations and act with integrity?

So, what to do? 

First, instructors should back-up to the original design of their class and ask “what are the learning objectives or overall purpose of this class? What do I truly expect students to walk away from this class knowing what they didn’t know before or doing what they were unable to do before?”. An instructor cannot possibly articulate expectations without first succeeding in articulating learning objectives.

Second, once those learning objectives are clear to the instructor, the instructor should interrogate their own curriculum and assessments to ensure alignment with the learning objectives. Do your lectures, readings, classroom activities, assignments, exams (etc) really facilitate the reaching of those learning objectives or enable you to evaluate the meeting of those objectives? If not, change them. This alignment between learning objectives, activities, evaluations and assessments is critical for articulating expectations and realizing integrity.

Third, once the curriculum and assessments are matched to the learning objectives, instructors should drill down into the expectations they have on how the curriculum and assessments can be operationalized. For example, which activities and assignments must be individually completed versus completed in pairs or groups? What kind of “help” are students allowed to seek out for each activity or assignment? From whom can they seek out that help and are they expected to acknowledge those sources of help? What counts as “working individually” versus “working collaboratively” on each assignment or activity? Do you expect students to come to class? If so, can you articulate how attendance is related to the learning objectives? What are your expectations for classroom behaviors, not just for the students but for yourself and, if relevant, your instructional assistants?

These are just some of the key questions that instructors must ask themselves if they want to operate on the same page as their students. After all, it is the instructor who has the power to set the expectations and culture in the classroom – they are the role model and the leader and we know that people pay attention to what the leaders pay attention to it (shout out to Edgar Schein for that tidbit).

To be sure, students set culture too, but the environment in which they are situated has a disproportionate impact on their culture-setting abilities. So, whether you are just starting your academic term this month, starting later this fall or are in the midst of assignment and exam completion time, now is the time to make sure that you are clear on your expectations and you have clearly articulated them to your students.

When you do this, you will help your students learn with integrity.

About the Author
Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D. is the author of Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative (Jossey-Bass, 2008), co-author of Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), editor of Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct & Empowering Change in Higher Education (Routledge, 2011), and section editor for the Handbook of Academic Integrity (Springer, 2016). She is the Director of the UC San Diego Academic Integrity Office and Board Member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, and has been an ethics lecturer with the Rady School of Management. When Tricia blogs, the content is hers and should not be attributed to her employer or ICAI.
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