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 Teaching in the Era of Divisive Concepts Canvas course site.
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.
At the beginning of the term, work with your students to develop a “code of conduct” or discussion guidelines.
- 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.
- The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher education provides frameworks and guidance for using them.
- Walk students through sample text and describe your process for evaluating the source.
- 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.
- The Association of College and Research Libraries. (2015). Framework for information literacy for higher education. Association of College & Research Libraries.
- Camp, E. (2022, March 7). I came to college eager to debate. I found self-censorship instead. The New York Times.
- Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Managing difficult classroom discussions. Indiana University Bloomington. Retrieved April 22, 2022.
- Center for Teaching. (n.d.). Difficult dialogues. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved April 22, 2022.
- (2006) Engaging students in controversial issues, Kappa Delta Pi Record, 42:3, 106-108,
- Nagda, R., Gurin, P., Rodriguez, J. & Maxwell, K. (2008). Comparing debate, discussion, and dialogue (Chart).
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