Conversations about human, social, and political differences can be difficult and may lead to tense moments in the classroom. Some amount of discomfort can command learning gains, but certain behaviors can close opportunities for learning and decrease students’ sense of belonging.
Educators can create environments that effectively stretch student thinking while respectfully embracing diversity. The strategies listed below may increase the likelihood of an inclusive climate. They are not exhaustive nor appropriate for all educators or all courses. They are meant to be considered, modified, and evaluated.
Establish classroom norms for discussions
To help students learn the purpose of academic discussions and understand your expectations of them, share your principles for creating a productive learning environment. Then, together with students, explore what each of the principles mean and how they will be exercised in your course. Clarify or construct with students a set of agreed-upon practices for class discussions about course materials. The practices should focus on supporting all students’ learning. If an issue arises, the classroom norms can serve to remind the class or individual students of specific guidelines and why it is important that the class respect the agreed-upon guidelines.
Here is an example of a set of principles that can be discussed with students on the first day of class:
- Be respectful by actively listening, seeking to understand comments, critiquing ideas (not people), and referring to colleagues by name.
- Be engaged by sharing your knowledge, coming prepared, and cooperatively working with your colleagues.
- Exercise intellectual curiosity and humility by asking questions, taking risks, and acknowledging times when you do not know the answer.
- Be evidence-based. When critiquing or commenting, utilize evidence and sound reasoning. Refer to readings and reliable sources.
Facilitate a productive learning environment
Disrespectful or aggressive comments do not facilitate learning and require a response. Depending on the situation, you may decide to:
a) Ask students to write down their thoughts before continuing with the discussion.
b) Ask a student to take a break and step out of the class before continuing to participate.
c) Rephrase a student's comment before interrogating how the discussion got to that point.
Consider potential situations that you might face and prepare an appropriate response. Practice how you would respond to inappropriate comments.
Be prepared: use the tools of the discipline to keep students on track
Scan your syllabus and note the discussions that may become tense. Gradually build students’ skills for analysis, discussion, and debate of opposing ideas with relatively easy topics before approaching sensitive areas that may include issues of race, sexuality, religion, politics, or family structure. If students stray from using these skills, remind them to return to reliable sources of information to bolster their claims.
Be prepared: build in time for reflection
Structure opportunities for students to stop, think, and reflect. Ask students to write for a few moments, share answers with a classmate, and return to the broader discussion with collected thoughts.
For more information, see Responding to Difficult Moments from the University of Michigan.