someone speaking to a group about divisive topics


As part of the learning process, your students will be exposed to a variety of ideas, beliefs, and opinions. Some material may cause tensions to arise between students who hold opposing views. While it may seem easier to avoid them, exploring deeply divisive topics in the classroom allows students to think critically, examine their own beliefs, and learn to respectfully communicate with those who hold differing opinions.

Florida legislation allows discussion of topics including and related to race, color, national origin, or sex provided that the discussion does not include the instructor’s endorsement of a particular viewpoint. Instructors are asked to create a classroom environment that fosters rigorous and open discussion without introducing their own personal biases.

Additional resources for UF faculty, staff, and graduate assistants are available on the Resources for Difficult Dialogues Canvas course site.

Start Talking

Leaders from Alaska Pacific University and the University of Alaska partnered to develop strategies that would, “. . .improve the learning climate on our campuses, making them more inclusive of minority voices and ways of knowing and safer places for the free exchange of ideas.” (Landis, 2008). The resulting book, Start Talking: A handbook for engaging in difficult dialogues in higher education, is full of classroom practices and examples “from the trenches” that share a wide range of experiences. Useful strategies from the book include:

  • First telling: dyads, Second telling: full group (page 2)
  • Code of conduct (page 12)
  • Silence (page 26)
  • Questions and categories (page 42)
  • Five ways to look at it (page 50)
  • Classroom debate (page 57)
  • Using a book to explore cultural differences (page 86)
  • The five-minute rule (page 109)


The Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center has developed a concise resource that describes challenges and strategies to address them. View Strategies for current challenges in dialogue facilitation.

Semester Start

At the beginning of the term, work with your students to develop a “code of conduct” or discussion guidelines (See Start Talking page 12). 

  • Before the class meeting, make a list for yourself of the behaviors and expectations you have for discussions. 
  • During class, put your students into small groups of 3 – 5 (if feasible for your course) and ask them to brainstorm discussion behaviors that will support the learning process and those that will detract. Use some of the behaviors from your list as examples.
  • Bring the class together and ask each group to share their top items while you add them to a list on the board.
  • Work with the class to select the guidelines or code that the class will follow (use your own list as a guide).
  • Use the same process to determine sanctions for violations of the rules. Students tend to want harsher penalties than you would want to enforce, so be prepared to negotiate on this.

When the class is about to engage in difficult dialogue, remind everyone of the rules that were created by the class.


Prepare students for difficult dialogues with some preparation assignments.

  • Help your students to learn information literacy skills by asking them to analyze and evaluate readings or other source material.
  • Put students into “listening pairs” and ask them to talk about how their day is going, or to share something they find interesting.
    • Each student should talk for 3 – 5 minutes while the other listens.
    • This activity helps students to feel they have been “heard.”
    • Use the listening pairs as a warm-up before difficult dialogues and then later, if the conversation becomes too emotional, move back to the listening pairs.
  • Give students time to think about the discussion topic before they engage with their peers.

Small Group Discussion

It can be easier for students to talk with each other in small groups. Help students get the most out of these discussions by providing them with a specific task and some recommendations for how they might approach the work. You can provide a Google discussion guide with space for notes, ideas, and questions. In some cases, it can be helpful to suggest roles such as facilitator, skeptic, fact-checker, and scribe. Roles that parallel your discipline are ideal.

If it is feasible, students should be assigned to research and present/defend/discuss a viewpoint that is not their own. You may find some initial resistance to this idea, don’t hesitate to explain that this will help the class approach the topic objectively.


Related Resource Library Topics