As educators, having difficult conversations in the classroom can be a transformative component of teaching and learning that can help students grow. For many students, university life brings experience that can expose them to multiple points of view and peers from many different backgrounds, sometimes for the first time in their lives. While a diversity of ideas and people is a central attribute of the Wayne State University (WSU) experience, instructors may value some tips on how to facilitate "hot moments" in the classroom. These strategies can help instructors approach difficult topics in a manner productive for everyone.
- Get to know your students and help them get to know each other before taking on a controversial topic. This will also allow you to anticipate potential issues and plan accordingly.
- Establish your expectations for the classroom climate by clarifying appropriate classroom behaviors. For example, with your students, create discussion guidelines (e.g., don't shout, raise your hand, let people finish their thoughts, don't hog air time, etc.).
- Confront the potential for conflict in a direct way: students know when you are honest.
- Link the discussion topics to learning outcome goals related to your course or discipline and make sure this link is transparent to students.
- Actively facilitate the discussion by using multiple methods to make sure everyone has a chance to form and express their perspectives (whether they talk, or not). Use brief writing exercises, voluntary dyad discussion partners, etc. Normalize the experience that students may feel strongly and differently about the topic. If you feel comfortable, gentle humor can help re-center a heated discussion, as that will give students a chance to stop and reflect. Strive to remain personally neutral and play devil's advocate to facilitate multiple points of view.
- Ask supporting questions to help students explain their opinion, and encourage students to clarify their point of view.
- After class discussion, follow up with students to make sure they got the right take-aways.
To learn more about facilitating difficult topics, listen to a hot moments podcast from faculty colleagues around the country sharing strategies they use in the classroom to make discussions of these topics helpful and productive.
The Office for Teaching and Learning staff is available to consult with instructors on teaching strategies and learning-related outcomes associated with addressing sensitive and emotionally charged issues when these emerge in the classroom in either anticipated or unplanned ways.
Our colleagues in the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan have prepared a useful resource, Responding to Difficult Moments. Should you decide to invite a discussion, it may help to review these guidelines for difficult topics.
Additionally, Lee Warren, from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, describes a series of concrete strategies instructors can implement to facilitate learning in the midst of emotionally charged topics in Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.
Some classroom management issues supersede what an instructor can or should address safely on their own. In such cases, it may be most helpful to seek support from colleagues in the department, college, and across campus to better assess the situation and strategize appropriate responses. Consider contacting any of the following: your department chair, the Dean of Students Office, the University Ombuds Office, and/or the WSU Police Department. You can also fill out a CARE Report. See the WSU Services section for a more detailed discussion and description of these and other campus resources related to classroom management issues.