Managing Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

On December 7, the Department hosted Sarah Schwarz from the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, who facilitated a conversation about how to manage difficult or controversial classroom discussions. Dr. Schwarz offered a number of strategies:

  • Think ahead: be ready to acknowledge when something difficult has arisen in the course of the discussion.
  • Set ground rules: engage students in a collaborative process to establish what makes a successful conversation. Refer back to these ground rules and reassert the core principles when necessary.
  • Common ground: establish shared understandings and facts in the midst of disagreement to avoid an easy resort to judgment.
  • Take time: acknowledge that an issue has generated conflict and give the students time to reflect on what is happening. This could take the form of having them reflect and write in class or you might table the issue and return to it.
  • Connect: to current events; class members to one another; and to support resources for the instructor and students , such as those available at the McGraw Center.

Suggestions for setting ground rules included:

  • At the start of the semester, note that difficult issues might arise in the course and have students think about and discuss in advance how they might deal with them.
  • Have the students reflect on the most productive class discussions in which they have participated as a prompt to generate a list of ideas for the ground rules.
  • Have the group decide on which ground rules to ratify.
  • As part of the process of norm setting for productive conversations, discuss with students the distinction between offering opinions and making arguments.

Additional resources: