Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Responding to Difficult Moments in the Classroom

For many teachers, leading classroom discussions on difficult topics can be a challenge. We can never fully know what issues will be “hot button” topics for our students. Conversations can become heated quickly or take unexpected turns.



Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unexpected

When a student brings up a controversial topic in class unexpectedly, it requires an immediate response. Consider these steps:

  • Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting students might vary in their responses.
  • Decide whether you are ready or 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 discuss, but you want to wait on it, schedule a discussion time for a later class and suggest ways for students to prepare.



Planned Discussions: How to Prepare

Consider the following when incorporating difficult topics into the class discussion:

  • Think carefully on how the topics connect to learning goals: Before the course begins, consider what topics might be controversial to students. Reflect on how such conversations might contribute to the overall learning goals of the course. Does this topic encourage students to think critically, for example? Once you have identified how learning goals can be achieved, consider stating this explicitly in the course syllabus.
  • Set the tone from the start: Invite students to get to know each other by name. This builds rapport and community. Have everyone as a class establish and agree on ground rules for discussion. Clarifying expectations early on can prevent contentious situations later.
  • Use intentional strategies to help students deal: When a heated moment erupts, have everyone take a break and write out what they’re feeling or thinking. This can allow emotions to cool down. Ask students to try to understand each other’s perspectives before reacting to them. When necessary, talk to students outside the classroom about what happened.
  • Monitor yourself: Do some thinking ahead of time about what issues may hit a nerve with you personally and how you’ll deal with them. If the discussion is already taking place, try to stay in touch with your own emotions. Do not respond angrily to students. But do not avoid difficult topics simply because you feel uncomfortable dealing with them.



Specific Strategies for Discussions

Consider the following strategies for establishing classroom discussion, or utilize these when a heated moment occurs in the classroom:

  • Critical Incident Questionnaire: At the end of the day (or week, or unit), set aside 10 minutes for the class to respond in writing to specific questions:
        1) At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?
        2) At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
        3) What actions anyone in the room took did you find most helpful?
        4) What actions anyone in the room took did you find most confusing?
        5) What surprised you most?
    Be sure to keep these answers anonymous and collect them from students. Be sure to provide time in class to debrief on what themes and concerns you noticed and allow students the chance to respond.
  • The Five Minute Rule: The five minute rule is a way to take an invisible or marginalized perspective and entertain it respectfully for a short period of time. The rule states if anyone feels a particular point of view is not being taken seriously, they have the right to point this out and call for the exercise to be used. The group then takes five minutes to consider the merits of this perspective, refrain from criticizing it, and make every effort to believe it. Only those who can speak in support of it are allowed to speak. Consider the following questions as prompts:
        1) What’s interesting or helpful about this view?
        2) What are some intriguing features others might not have noticed?
        3) What would be different if you believed this view or accepted it as true?
        4) In what sense and under what circumstances might this idea be true?
  • The Fishbowl Exercise: This gives students who feel similarly about an issue the ability to speak with one another without being interrupted or rebutted by others. Begin by asking students to identify their stance. Have students in one point of view make a circle of chairs in the middle of the room. Students in this circle are then invited to discuss the issue. Students outside the circle are not permitted to speak but should listen. Once everyone in the center has a chance to speak, the instructor asks the outer circle to paraphrase what they heard. Students in the center should affirm or correct their peers’ understanding and clarify when needed. Students then switch places and the process begins again. The ultimate goal is for students to develop empathy for other viewpoints by listening actively, paraphrasing others’ ideas, and discovering points of connection.



Other Resources

Hot Moments Handout, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan
Examples of Discussion Guidelines, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan
Inclusive Moves, The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University
Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education