Facilitating Class Discussions and Navigating Difficult Conversations

There is an art to leading discussions in class that begins by considering your Student Learning Outcomes: What do you hope students will learn during a conversation? Is the focus on course content, skills, dispositions, or all three? What strategies do you look to use for extending students’ thinking and encouraging critical analysis, and for broadening student perspectives?

Course content can sometimes spark controversy or serious disagreement. Students who are passionate about their point of view may not always be willing to consider other perspectives. Some students will need help learning to engage in respectful discourse when there are differences of opinion. Even when you have created an inclusive classroom environment, there will be times when students actively disagree or become upset at statements made by their peers.

(Note: Some of the ideas below are from Leena Jayaswal, School of Communication.)

1. Think about what you hope students will gain from the discussion.

Is the goal to expand student perspectives on a topic or are you looking for consensus? Do students need to choose a particular viewpoint or are you asking them to analyze the benefits and challenges of several? Is a debate an appropriate format for what you would like to accomplish? Other factors to consider are:

  • Strategies for engaging more rather than fewer students in the discussion. In large classes, this might mean dividing into smaller groups for conversation
  • Thinking about how you group students for small group activities
  • Creating context for the discussion by linking it to prior class sessions or readings or asking students to relate the conversation to other courses with similar themes
  • Reminding students to bring notes or bullet points about the reading to class (when there has been an assigned reading)
  • If it is a new topic you have not yet addressed, you might start by asking students what they already know about it or how they perceive the issue

2. Make intellectual exploration, not judgement or consensus a goal for class discussions.

When consensus is the goal, frame the discussion in a way that emphasizes similarities and connections. If the goal is intellectual exploration, encourage students to think more broadly and consider multiple perspectives.

3. Frame the conversation with prompts and questions.

There are many different ways to facilitate a discussion. These include asking open-ended questions, inviting students to reflect by writing about a question, and requiring students to bring in questions about a reading they did before class.

4. Consider how to reply to incomplete or inaccurate responses, or when student views are at odds with prevailing perspectives.

When students answer only part of a question (e.g., in class discussion or on a quiz or exam), prompt them to continue thinking about their response. Strategies to consider include

  • asking additional questions such as “Could you tell me more?” or “Can you offer an example?”
  • asking students to take a minute to reflect and then write down a response.

Factually inaccurate responses are more challenging because while you need to address them, you still want to encourage students to continue participating in the conversation. One tack is to acknowledge whatever part of the response is accurate but correct the portion that is not. Think about how to avoid embarrassing or shaming students in such circumstances.

5. Extend student thinking by asking additional questions and mentoring students to cite sources.

Secondary questions can help students deepen their thinking and understanding. You might ask, “Can you relate that comment to what we were discussing earlier?” or “What might be an application of your observation?” In these cases, students may need additional time to think before responding.

6. “Name and Frame” the way you will address “hot button” topics when they arise.

Early in the semester it is useful to acknowledge that such topics are likely to come up. “Name” the challenge, and then “frame” your approach by describing your expectations for how students can disagree and share alternative viewpoints in a respectful manner.

7. Teach students the skills they need to participate in difficult conversations.

Based on their prior experiences, students may be more or less skilled at participating in group discussions. Let them know your expectations and model them in the way you lead group conversations. For example,

  • Ensure that everyone has a voice – a chance to participate.
  • Remind students that it is okay to disagree with peers but not okay to attack them for holding different points of view.
  • Instruct students to avoid sarcasm and not to bully a peer.
  • Emphasize that language and word-choice matter, hence the important of thinking before expressing one’s views.
  • Help students keep the discussion focused on the topic at hand.

8. When students make challenging or angry statements, give yourself and students time to reflect before responding.

A number of strategies work well when navigating difficult conversations. When students make challenging or upsetting statements, one technique is to ask everyone to take a minute to think about what they have just heard. Another is to then ask students to write down what they are thinking. These pauses give both students and the instructor time to catch their breath and think about how to proceed.

9. Be impartial in your response when navigating difficult conversations.

When responding, let students know that you are not taking sides. Your goal is to listen to students and have them listen to each other.

10. Use constructive strategies following discussion of a “hot button” topic or a difficult conversation.

Depending on students’ reactions and responses, there are times when you may want to table a topic and return to it in the next class session. Let students know if this is the plan and be sure to follow through. This approach provides both the students and the instructor with additional time to reflect on the issue. After class, you might email one or two questions for students to consider before the next class and use the time to frame how you want to address the issue.