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Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics
The following guidelines can help instructors facilitate classroom discussion around controversial issues. Whatever the context, it is helpful to structure such discussions in a way that defines boundaries for the process and provides some degree of closure within the classroom. Such discussions are an especially important time to explicitly discuss expectations for respecting a range of perspectives and experiences in the room.
Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unexpected
It is wise to be prepared to respond to the possibility that a student will raise a controversial issue in class unexpectedly. Immediate response is called for, if only to decide what to do next:
- Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their responses.
- Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic right away.
- Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic.
If students want to have a dialogue, and you want to wait on it, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare.
This page offers further resources for making the most of 'hot moments' that emerge in your classroom when you do not anticipate them.
Planned Discussions on Controversial Topics
Planning a discussion on a controversial topic or issue benefits from consideration of the following topics, each of which is addressed below:
- Identifying a clear purpose
- Establishing ground rules
- Providing a common base for understanding
- Creating a framework for the discussion that maintains focus and flow
- Including everyone
- Being an active facilitator
- Summarizing discussion and gathering student feedback
- Handling issues that involve the instructor’s identity
- University resources
Starting a discussion with clearly articulated objectives can help shape the nature of the discussion and link it to other course goals.
Examples of general objectives include:
- Connecting the topic with course material, including fundamental concepts and strategies for analysis and thoughtful reflection
- Increasing awareness about the topic by providing information that is not generally addressed in informal discussions
- Promoting critical thinking by helping students to understand the complexity of the issues
- Enhancing skills for dialogue that students can take into other venues
- Relating classroom discussion to the roles that students have as citizens within the university community and larger society
More specific objectives for discussion about social conflicts, especially those involving language of hate or bias, may focus on policies, social conventions, or civic responsibilities, including the following:
- Examining and developing positions on issues of social policy, university policy, or social convention.
- Identifying a core problem underlying social conflicts and exploring possible answers to the problem.
- Analyzing the root causes or reasons for a social conflict (i.e., a past-oriented discussion).
- Exploring possible consequences or implications of a conflict (i.e., a future-oriented discussion).
- Planning effective actions to reduce such incidents and/or to support vulnerable populations.
(This second list is adapted from Ronald Hyman, 1980, In Improving Discussion Leadership. New York: Columbia University, College Teachers Press.)
In class, instructors can either work with students to generate ground rules or discussion guidelines, or they can present a set of guidelines and then work with students to accept or modify them. Referring back to these community agreements can be very helpful if discussion becomes tense. Some suggestions include the following:
- Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
- Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others' views. (Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.)
- Criticize ideas, not individuals.
- Commit to learning, not debating. Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.
- Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
- Allow everyone the chance to speak.
- Avoid assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
It is important that students agree on the ground rules before discussion begins. See this page for some further examples.
Providing students with a common basis for understanding from the start will help keep the discussion focused and provide concrete case studies or examples. For instance, you can assign readings on a specific conflict, instruct students to select their own readings to bring to class, or show a video clip to prompt discussion. Another option is to have students review materials during class and follow up with a structured discussion.
You can also draw upon students' own knowledge to establish a common basis:
- In class, ask students to identify key points of information, stating their source. (You can ask students to do this individually and then pool the information, or you can simply elicit information from the class as a whole.) Make a list of these for the whole class.
- Use this elicitation as a time to distinguish evaluative, “loaded,” comments from less evaluative statements, and from statements of personal opinion or experience. Acknowledge how difficult it may be to make these distinctions at times.
- In order to identify and situate threads of discussion that are extraneous to the focus, or are very speculative, ask for and identify information that students would like to know to clarify their understanding on these questions or tangents, even if that information is not available.
Because any social conflict or controversy is a complex topic, it is important to create a framework for the discussion in addition to having clearly defined objectives. Your framework can be a guide, balancing the need to have clear purpose and direction while being open to student observations and interpretation.
The following strategies can help you maintain the focus and flow of the discussion:
Begin the discussion with clear, open-ended but bounded questions that encourage discussion.
- Avoid “double-barreled questions” which pose two problems simultaneously, or “hide the ball” questions that search for a specific answer.
- Ask questions that prompt multiple answers rather than short factual responses or simple “yes” or “no” replies.
- Prepare specific questions to use if the class is silent or hesitant about speaking. Some examples include: “What makes this hard to discuss?” and “What needs to be clarified at this point?”
- Encourage students to elaborate upon their comments where needed. With probing questions, an instructor can prompt students to share more specific information, clarify an idea, elaborate on a point, or provide further explanation.
- Be prepared to re-direct the discussion if students go beyond the intended focus. Drawing attention to the readings or reminding the class about the discussion objectives are useful management techniques.
- When students raise points that are extraneous to the focus, note that these are important but tangential. Recap them at the end of class as other topics to think about on one’s own, to validate student contributions.
- Recap the key discussion points or issues at the end of class, in writing if possible.
To include all students’ perspectives can be challenging in a whole group discussion, especially if students are dealing with unfamiliar or controversial material. Moving beyond a whole group discussion format allows all students to participate and helps prevent the most talkative or opinionated students from dominating the conversation. Using small groups, your class can hear from students who may not speak otherwise, including those who may see their views as marginalized as well as those who want to explore ideas they are not sure about.
Some methods for increasing the number of discussants include:
- The Round: Give each student an opportunity to respond to a guiding question without interruption or comments. Provide students with the option to pass. After the round, discuss the responses.
- Think-Pair-Share: Give students a few minutes to respond to a question individually in writing. Divide the class into pairs. Instruct the students to share their responses with group members. Provide students with explicit directions, such as “Tell each other why you wrote what you did.” After a specified time period, have the class reconvene in order to debrief. You can ask for comments on how much their pairs of views coincided or differed, or ask what questions remain after their paired discussion.
- Sharing Reflection Memos: Prior to the discussion, have students write a reflective memo in response to a question or set of questions that you pose. As part of the discussion, ask students to read their memos, and/or share them in pairs or threes.
With each of these methods, the instructor can play an important role of summarizing or synthesizing the various responses and relating them to the discussion objectives.
In order to keep a discussion focused and purposeful, it is important to be an active facilitator rather than a passive observer. Be careful to maintain some control but not over-control. Your role as an active facilitator can include rewording questions posed by students, correcting misinformation, making reference to relevant reading materials or course content, asking for clarification, and reviewing main points.
Students may expect their instructors to express their own point of view, or they may ask explicitly for this view. In deciding how to respond, instructors should consider their comfort in expressing personal views, and also the impact such expressions will have on this and future discussion in class. For instance, will sharing your perspective usefully model the way one can take a stance on a complex topic, or will it more likely shut down those students who may disagree with you? Or, will your sharing of your perspective helpfully respond to comments that marginalize or devalue students in your class?
It is very important to save time at the end of class to conclude by summarizing the main points of the discussion. Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was valuable if the instructor, with the help of the class, synthesizes what has been shared or identifies the key issues explored.
To obtain student feedback about the quality of the discussion and to identify issues that may need follow-up, you can save the last five minutes of class for students to write a Minute Paper. Ask them to respond to some or all of these questions:
- What are the three most important points you learned today?
- What important questions remain unanswered for you?
- What did you learn specifically from what someone else said that you would not have thought of on your own?
Review the student responses before your next meeting with the class. During the next class, briefly summarize the student feedback and thank the students for their participation.
Discussing an issue of social conflict can involve the instructor's identity in a number of ways. Students may make assumptions about the expectations an instructor has in leading the class discussion. Assumptions may be based on the students' perception of the instructor's identity, on the way that the instructor has handled other class sessions, and on their personal interactions with the instructor.
In addition, some issues and events may trigger reactive responses in an instructor, and students may say things and speak in ways that trigger emotional reactions. Instructors need to be aware of the possibility (or even the likelihood) of having an emotional response, even if a discussion is thoughtfully planned. Recognizing the response and the trigger as such will help an instructor to stay even-tempered in leading the discussion. To handle statements that trigger emotional responses, instructors will want to draw on techniques that will allow them and the class to step back and gain perspective (e.g., naming the triggering issue, giving oneself time by asking students to do a brief writing exercise, working with the class to reframe or contextualize the triggering statement). If an instructor needs to let such a moment simply pass by, it is important to find time later to talk through the experience, and to address the triggering issue with others who are outside of the class.
In the event that one or more students try to draw the instructor into an emotional response, the ground rules for discussion can play a vital role, and the instructor can model constructive behavior in demonstrating how to unpack such a heated moment by reviewing what had led up to it, in pointing out differences between baiting, debating, and discussing, and/or steering the discussion into a more useful direction.
To discuss additional strategies or concerns, contact CRLT consultants by phone (734-764-0505), by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or in person (1071 Palmer Commons). CRLT can also develop customized workshops for units.
Resources specific to student conflicts are available through The Office of Student Conflict Resolution. Their counseling staff provides mediation and counseling to assist with any conflicts involving students. They are also available to come to classes to discuss conflict resolution.
The Office of Institutional Equity provides training, consultation, and other programming for faculty, staff, students, and management.
The of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) provides programs and resources that support students from underrepresented groups, individually and through student organizations.
For The Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities that applies to all U-M students, see http://compliance.umich.edu/education/studentsupport.html. For a statement of University policy on Violence in the University Community, see the Standard Practice Guide: http://spg.umich.edu/pdf/601.18.pdf