Discussion-based Teaching and Handling Controversial Topics in the Classroom

Discussions help students apply abstract ideas and think critically about what they learn. In fact, studies show that discussions build students’ problem-solving skills more effectively than do lectures. However, fostering productive discussions can be difficult for even the most experienced instructors. The articles in this section offer tips on preparing for discussions, asking questions that promote discussion, getting students to talk, and handling common problems that arise during discussions.


Using Discussion Questions Effectively (CRLT)
Strategies for encouraging student engagement and critical thinking through effective questioning. 

Teaching by Discussion (Penn State)
Resources on discussion-based teaching from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State.

IDEA Paper #15: Improving Discussions (IDEA Center, Cashin & McKnight, 1986)
Explores the strengths and weaknesses of discussion approaches, and suggests 18 recommendations for improving discussion in college courses.

IDEA Paper #31: Answering and Asking Questions (IDEA Center, Cashin, 1995)
This paper is concerned with the answering and asking of questions in college-level courses. It makes suggestions regarding questioning techniques that are appropriate for lecture classes as well as for discussion groups.

FAQs: Leading Discussions (Middendorf et al., 2010)
This document provides solutions to several common questions about leading discussions, including how to keep conversations flowing, and how to handle “discussion monopolizers.”

The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start (Frederick, 1981)
Listing of ten ways to start a discussion, adapted from Frederick’s article in Improving College and University Teaching.

Handling Controversial Topics in Discussion

Many instructors consciously avoid controversial issues in the classroom because of the difficulty involved in managing heated discussions. However, controversy can be a useful, powerful, and memorable tool to promote learning. Research has demonstrated that conflict or controversy during classroom discussion can promote cognitive gains in complex reasoning, integrated thinking, and decision-making. The links in this section offer guidance for how instructors can successfully manage discussions on controversial topics.


Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom(Warren, 2000)
Handling controversial topics and heated discussions can be stressful and difficult. However, controversy can be a powerful tool to promote learning. This article offers instructors practical strategies for turning difficult encounters into learning opportunities.

CRLT Discussion Guidelines
The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) routinely develops guidelines to help instructors facilitate classroom discussion when controversial or tragic incidents become foremost in students' minds. Topics include Affirmative Action, the War in Iraq, and Racial Conflict, among others.

Why Teach Controversial Issues? (Flinders University, Australia)
This document discusses the characteristics of controversial issues and benefits of addressing them in the classroom; also includes strategies for discussing controversial issues.

Teaching Controversial Issues (UNC Chapel Hill, 2004)
This publication describes planning for a controversial discussion in the classroom, and builds upon a foundation of student development theory (Perry’s schema). It includes suggestions for discussion guidelines, as well as establishing a classroom climate in which controversial issues are discussed respectfully.

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