2. Teaching Inclusively

In their introduction to “Creating Inclusive College Classrooms,” CRLT’s Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia offer the following useful definition of inclusive classrooms:

Inclusive classrooms are classrooms in which instructors and students work together to create and sustain an environment in which everyone feels safe, supported, and encouraged to express her or his views and concerns. In these classrooms, the content is explicitly viewed from the multiple perspectives and varied experiences of a range of groups. Content is presented in a manner that reduces all students’ experiences of marginalization and, wherever possible, helps students understand that individuals’ experiences, values, and perspectives influence how they construct knowledge in any field or discipline. Instructors in inclusive classrooms use a variety of teaching methods in order to facilitate the academic achievement of all students. Inclusive classrooms are places in which thoughtfulness, mutual respect, and academic excellence are valued and promoted. When graduate student instructors (GSIs) are successful in creating inclusive classrooms, this makes great strides towards realizing the University of Michigan’s commitment to teaching and to diversity and excellence in practice.

This module is presented early in the sequence, because practices for teaching inclusively align with practices for teaching well. It’s useful to integrate an awareness of inclusive teaching into the planning stages and to think of students as a group having diverse needs and backgrounds. While some instructors may feel pressure to appear inclusive, students’ experiences are what count. Thinking of inclusivity or “diversity” as an added consideration rather than as integral can assign inclusivity a marginal role.

In answering the question, “How do we know inclusive teaching is effective teaching?” CRLT summarizes key strands of research that point to the ways student learning and academic success are affected by classroom climate, social belonging, cooperative learning, mindset, stereotypes, and microaggressions. The takeaway is that instructors “can feel confident that learning outcomes are improved when teachers (1) attend to student differences, and (2) take deliberate steps to ensure that all students, across differences in academic and social background as well as physical and cognitive abilities, feel welcome, valued, challenged, and supported in succeeding in the field of study.”

The materials that follow have been edited and supplements but draw substantially (often verbatim) on the resources provided by CRLT, particularly the research and synthesis provided by Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia. Approaches to conflict in the classroom are drawn both from CRLT and from Vanderbilt University’s CFT.

Choosing Course Content

Some GSIs have a great deal of control over the content of a course, especially the content of their section, while others do not. It is helpful for students to know the extent to which you, as a GSI, have control. If students criticize or make suggestions about course content, texts, material, etc., over which you do not have control, it’s advised that you convey their comments to the faculty member in charge of the course and encourage them to do the same.

When you have some control over the content (including books, coursepacks, and other materials), the following two questions and their related suggestions are particularly pertinent:

Whose voices, perspectives, and scholarship are being represented?

  • Include multiple perspectives on each topic of the course rather than focusing solely on a single perspective. For example, if the topic is “The Great Depression in the USA” the content would not be inclusive if it focuses solely on the experiences of European Americans. Americans of African and Asian descent, American Indians, Mexicans, etc. had experiences and views that should be acknowledged. It would also be important to include the experiences and views of people with different socio-economic statuses in this example.
  • Include, as much as possible, materials written or created by people of different backgrounds and/or perspectives. If all the authors or creators of materials in a course are male (or female), white (or another group), liberal (or conservative), etc., instructors will be sending a message about the voices that are valued and will be devaluing the scholarship of others who have written or created materials on the topic. (This guideline should be altered appropriately in courses where the focus of the course is to better understand a particular perspective or world view. Even these courses, however, can be attentive to the range of possible voices on a given topic.) On a related note, it is important to include works authored by members of the group that the class is discussing. For example, if the course deals with topics related to Muslims or Islam and the syllabus does not include materials written by Muslim authors, the message sent to students may be that you devalue the contributions of and scholarship produced by Muslims.

How are the perspectives and experiences of various groups being represented?

  • Include materials (readings, videotapes, etc.) that address underrepresented groups’ experiences in ways that do not trivialize or marginalize these groups’ experiences. Books that include a section on some aspect of diversity at the end of the text or books that highlight women, people of color, people with disabilities, gay men, lesbians, etc., in boxes and not in the body of the text can be seen as examples of the marginalization of these topics, groups, and group members’ contributions. When it is important to use such books for other reasons, instructors have a responsibility to make students aware of the texts’ limitations at the beginning of the course and to facilitate students’ ability to read critically with these issues in mind.
  • Be aware of and responsive to the portrayal of certain groups in course content. For example, if an Asian country’s policies are being used to contrast American policies, the policy of the Asian country should not always be used as a negative example (e.g., social policies in China) or always used as a positive example (e.g., business in Japan). It would be much more inclusive to address the role of culture in foreign policies and not present policies as either wholly good or bad. Such treatment ignores the complexity of other cultures’ policies or practices.
  • Avoid dichotomizing issues of race into black and white. It is essential to recognize and acknowledge that there are other groups for whom racial issues are relevant (Arab Americans, Asians Americans, Latinos/as, Native Americans, etc.). Whenever possible, perspectives on racial issues from other groups should be included in course materials. If you have difficulty finding such materials, you should bring other perspectives into course lectures and discussions.

Additional Planning Considerations

There are a number of multicultural issues that should be taken into account during the planning process for any class. Therefore it’s important to become comfortable with your lack of knowledge about certain groups and seek ways to inform yourself (e.g., through experiences, readings, and/or conversations with faculty, peers, and students who are knowledgeable about the particular groups). Below you will find examples of the sorts of issues that might be considered in order to increase your awareness of multicultural issues during the planning process.


Students may have religious holidays and practices that require accommodations at certain times during the academic calendar year. Students with disabilities may also require special accommodations. To be sensitive to the religious needs of students, it is important to read the “Religious Holidays and the Academic Calendar” handout provided each year by the Provost’s Office so that you are aware of the holidays that occur during the semester you are teaching. Contact Services for Students with Disabilities (763-3000) for information on ways that you can accommodate the needs of those students. At the beginning of the semester, ask your students to let you know if their attendance, their participation in class, or their ability to complete an assignment on time will be affected by their observance of religious holidays or practices, or because of a disability. Give advance consideration to requests for reasonable and fair accommodations. Some instructors ask for this information on data sheets that students complete on the first day of class.


Students who are different in a highly visible way (women who wear Islamic clothing, African Americans or Asian Americans in a predominantly white class, students who use wheelchairs, etc.) can be penalized because of their visibility. In particular, absences of such students may be noticed more easily. For this reason, it is important to record all students’ attendance at every class session (whether or not you use the information) rather than collecting a mental record of absences of highly visible students that may inadvertently and unfairly affect how you evaluate them.


When you use different criteria to evaluate the performance of students from certain groups, this can create tensions in the class because students tend to share their grades. Furthermore, if these criteria are applied based on assumptions you have made rather than on accurate information regarding the students, some students may be unfairly penalized. For example, expecting students to be able to write well or “authentically” about their cultures of origin may disadvantage students who identify weakly or lack knowledge about these cultures.

Cultural Reference Points

Instructors who use examples drawn only from their own experience may fail to reach all students in the class. Given that examples are designed to clarify key points, you should collect examples from a variety of cultural reference points. For example, in 1995/1996 “Friends” was a sitcom that received high ratings. However, this show was less popular among many African American people than shows like “Living Single” and “Martin.” Similarly, when using sports examples it is important for instructors to include sports in which women participate (e.g., track & field, figure skating, gymnastics, tennis, softball) as well as those in which male participants predominate (e.g., hockey, football, baseball). This concern can also be offset by asking about students’ familiarity with an example before discussing it or asking students to produce examples of their own. You can also explain examples fully in order to reach a diverse classroom.

Instructional Strategies

Students bring an array of learning styles to a class. If you rely on a small repertoire of instructional strategies, you may provide effective instruction for only a small subset of your class. You should become aware of your preferred instructional strategies. For example, do class sessions always revolve around full group discussions of readings? Do students predominantly report out from small groups? Once you have a sense of your strategy preferences, you should consider alternative techniques that will help your students learn more effectively. If you typically give mini-lectures to students, you might consider using visual materials (e.g., images, cartoons, video), demonstrations, hands-on activities, cooperative group work, etc.

 Preparing for Controversial Topics

Before the course begins, do some thinking about what topics in your subject area may become controversial in the classroom – keeping in mind that the issues you think are controversial may not be the same ones that create conflict among your students.  “Hot button” topics can be extremely diverse, and may include any or all of the following:  varying interpretations of religion; race, gender, and sexuality; genetic testing; evolution; immigration; and many more.  Thinking ahead about which issues in your class may create controversy can help you feel more prepared.

Once you have identified which topics are most likely to produce tense conversations, reflect on how such conversations might actually contribute to – rather than detract from – your overall learning goals for the course.  For instance:  do your learning goals include encouraging students to think critically?  To entertain diverse perspectives?  To converse respectfully across differences?  If so, difficult dialogues may be an opportunity to foster these skills in your students.

If you are still not sure if or how discussions on difficult topics relate to your learning goals, consider the quotes below – they may help you begin to imagine how difficult dialogues can fit productively into your classroom environment.  The quotes come from participants in a Vanderbilt University CFT workshop on Difficult Dialogues, who were asked to summarize how they saw controversial conversations connecting with their own learning goals:

– “I want my students to learn how to really listen to one another and take the perspectives of their classmates.  I want to encourage my students to come to class with an open mind, willingness to learn from their peers, and respect for differences.”

– “My goals for student learning include introspection, reflection, and critical thinking skills, all of which are fostered in dialogue with peers about topics that make them step outside their comfort zones.”

– “The appeal of ‘the hard stuff’ is that it encourages students to think critically about social life, that is, to question what they learn and make meaning from what they learn, to synthesize information from various sources, and to evaluate ideas.”

After figuring out how difficult conversations may fit into the learning goals for your class, consider spelling this out for your students in the syllabus.  This way, from the first day of class, they will know that controversial topics are not necessarily something to be afraid of, but can provide a forum for learning and growth.

Setting Ground Rules for Conversation

Plan on inviting students to get to know each other (and try to get to know your students) by name and interest.  This helps build a sense of community, and may help you, as an instructor, anticipate and prepare for issues that may be hot buttons for your students. It may also turn otherwise conflicted situations into more collaborative discussions across difference.

Have the class establish and agree on ground rules for discussion.  Clarifying expectations about class discussions early on can prevent contentious situations later.  You can supply an initial list of ground rules and ask the class if they would like to add to, subtract from, or change them. Initial ground rules might include:

  • Always use a respectful tone.
  • Sharing time by speaking and also allowing time for others to speak.
  • No interrupting or yelling.
  • No name-calling or other character attacks.
  • Ask questions when you do not understand; do not assume you know what others are thinking.
  • Try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective before stating your opinion.
  • Maintain confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.)

Increasing Awareness of Problematic Assumptions

An important early step in developing competencies to address multicultural issues in the classroom is to raise your awareness of issues that are multicultural and how they might manifest themselves in classrooms. In this process, it is useful to give consideration to assumptions that you may hold about the learning behaviors and capacities of your students. You may also hold assumptions that are tied to students’ social identity characteristics (gender, race, ethnicity, disability, language, sexual orientation, etc.). These assumptions may manifest themselves in your interactions with students. You may need assistance in order to become aware of your assumptions. You should consider getting to know your students to be an ongoing process related to developing a positive classroom climate that promotes excellence.

Below are examples of assumptions, how they might be dealt with, and how you might learn more about your students through the process of addressing these types of assumptions.

Assumptions About Students’ Learning Behaviors and Capacities

Assumption: Students will seek help when they are struggling with a class.

For a number of reasons, students do not always feel comfortable asking for help. In order to address this issue, you can request meetings with students as problems arise or make office hour meetings part of the course requirement (e.g., each student will meet with you after receiving his or her grade on the first assignment). The latter is an ideal method because it allows you the opportunity to meet one-on-one with every student. It also removes the stigma attached to going to office hours.

Assumption: Students from certain groups are not intellectual, are irresponsible, are satisfied with below average grades, lack ability, have high ability in particular subject areas, etc.

It is essential that instructors have high expectations for all students. For example, if a student earns a grade of C or lower, you should inform the student of the need for a meeting to discuss his or her performance. If students are absent, you should show concern about their absence when they return by asking if things are all right with them. If there are repeated absences, you should request a meeting with the student to discuss the situation. It is important for you to make initial contact with students; however, at some point, students need to take the initiative.

Assumption: Students from certain backgrounds (e.g., students from urban or rural areas, students who speak with an accent, students from specific racial or ethnic groups) are poor writers.

While the degree of writing preparation varies across the public school system in the US, students’ regional background or group memberships do not serve as accurate predictors of the degree of preparation they received. Furthermore, you need to be sensitive to cultural differences in writing styles, recognizing that many standards apply to the evaluation of good writing. If a specific type of writing is expected for a given class, it may be useful to assign a short, ungraded assignment early in the term to identify students who may need additional assistance in meeting that particular writing standard.

Assumption: Poor writing suggests limited intellectual ability.

It is misleading to equate students’ writing skills with their intellectual ability. Students have varying degrees of experience with “academic” writing. You have a responsibility to be explicit about what is expected and share with students examples of good writing done by other students. You should also alert students early on of their need to improve their writing and should suggest resources to them, (e.g., Writing Workshop at the Sweetland Center for Writing). By making all students aware of these resources you can destigmatize students’ need for help.

Assumption: Older students or students with physical disabilities are slower learners and require more attention from the instructor.

While there are many cultural assumptions about links between age or physical ability and one’s intellectual capacity, these characteristics are not typically linked. Most classes do include some students who require extra attention from the instructor but such students cannot be readily identifiable by physical characteristics.

Assumption: Students whose cultural affiliation is tied to non-English speaking groups are not native English speakers or are bilingual.

If you feel that it is important to know whether students speak or understand other languages, you should ask this question of all students, not just those to whom you think the question applies. If there are concerns about students’ academic writing skills, it would be best to meet with the students during office hours to discuss their work. One of the questions you could ask as part of your data gathering protocol is, “What were the languages spoken in the environment in which you were raised?” Following this question with appropriate probes would give you an opportunity to find out whether students are native speakers of English and, if not, how recently they became fluent. It is important to identify the source of students’ difficulty with writing (or speaking), because identification of the factors that contribute to the problem will influence the actions taken to address the problem.

Assumption: Students who are affiliated with a particular group (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) are experts on issues related to that group and feel comfortable being seen as information sources to the rest of the class and the instructor who are not members of that group. AND/OR European American students do not have opinions about issues of race or ethnicity and members of other groups do have opinions about these issues.

One way to effectively deal with this set of assumptions is to pose questions about particular groups to the entire class rather than presuming that members of a certain group are the only ones who can reply. For example, questions could be phrased so that students would be able to share experiences of their friends or comments that they’ve heard as well as their own experiences. It would be best to let the class know that if any individual has experiences or information that she or he thinks would be beneficial to the class, she or he should inform you about such experiences or information.

Assumption: All students from a particular group share the same view on an issue, and their perspective will necessarily be different from the majority of the class who are not from that group.

You can regularly encourage all students to express different perspectives on issues, and you should not express surprise when people from the same “group” share opposing views or have a view consistent with the majority of the class. It is important to understand, however, that some students who are part of a “group” will feel hesitant to share views publicly that differ from the “anticipated group position” for fear of being admonished by members of their “group” or isolated from the “group” (e.g., an African American student expressing an anti-affirmative action view).

Assumption: In their reading, students will relate only to characters who resemble them.

This would most frequently occur in courses in which students read literature. Instructors should be careful not to treat with suspicion comments that suggest affiliation with a character that does not resemble the student in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. For example, if a Caucasian student claims to feel her or his experiences resonate with an African American character, rather than dismiss her or his response, probe for further explication about why she or he feels the connection.

Assumption: Students from certain groups are more likely to: be argumentative or conflictual during class discussions OR not participate in class discussions OR bring a more radical agenda to class discussions.

Participation levels vary across all students, with some students more comfortable in listening roles and others more comfortable taking the lead in class discussions. While these discussion styles may be influenced by students’ past experiences, families of origin, and cultural reference points, a priori assumptions about student participation may hinder class discussion. It is important that you encourage participation among all students while also respecting the differences among students that will emerge. More equitable discussions can often be created by prefacing the discussion with a writing exercise that provides all students with the opportunity to clarify their thoughts on the discussion topic. It is also useful to remember that students’ participation levels evolve over the course of a term as they become more comfortable with the course, their classmates, and the instructor.

Considerations for the Classroom

If you are responsible for teaching sections of a course, it is essential to understand that even when you have limited input into course content, you have much control over how that content gets taught. Because of the complexity and unpredictability of teaching, you should carefully plan your course sessions and always be prepared for the unexpected to occur. The following points address many of the issues that may arise during the teaching process.

Responding to Student Identities

  • Invite all students to contribute to class discussion, even if you assume that the discussion is more relevant to some students than others. Students (irrespective of background) do not like being forced to serve as the spokesperson for their group. Students also do not appreciate being expected to know everything about issues relating to their group or the assumption that all students from their group feel the same way about an issue.
  • Be sensitive to the experiences of visibly underrepresented students in your class. Students with identities that are underrepresented and visible or known may face certain challenges that unfairly compromise their learning environment. For example, students may not be allowed to do assignments on certain topics because of the instructor’s assumption about the students’ biases. In one course, women wearing Islamic head scarves were readily identified as Muslim and not allowed to write a paper on Islam; it was more difficult to readily identify students as Christian from their appearance, so they were not prevented from writing papers on Christianity. Students from underrepresented groups may also feel a self-imposed pressure always to portray themselves in a good light so they do not reinforce stereotypes about their group. Whereas “majority students” can slack off from time to time when working within groups, occasionally show up late to class, or be absent without peers attributing their behavior to membership in a particular group, students from underrepresented groups often sense that their behavior is interpreted as a reflection on their group. Although there may be little you can do to relieve this self-imposed pressure on the part of some students, you can be thoughtful about your interactions with these students and make an effort not to publicly discuss students’ performance or behavior.

Inequities in the Classroom

  • Be aware of gender dynamics in classroom discussions. Even when women are in the majority, men may sometimes consciously or unconsciously dominate class discussions or interrupt women. Monitor the occurrence of this behavior and encourage women to speak up at the same time they discourage men from dominating the discussion.
  • Be careful not to respond to comments in ways that students might interpret as dismissals. You should give sufficient attention to (a) students’ comments that differ from the majority of students’ views or your own views, (b) students’ views that are based on experiential knowledge, and (c) women’s views in predominately male classes or traditionally male fields. Be aware of differential feedback given to students who differ on some aspect of their social identity (gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, etc.). For example, you should attend to whether you speak down to women or “brush off” their questions, yet give men responses that are informative and detailed.

Grouping Students for Learning

There are a variety of reasons for using cooperative groups (to facilitate student learning, to improve interpersonal relationships among students, to foster responsibility for students’ own learning and the learning of others, etc.). You might create in-class and/or out-of-class groups (lab groups, homework groups, problem-solving groups, study groups, etc.). Because group composition can have a significant impact on group functioning, you should use a variety of methods to create groups. Such methods include: assigning students to groups (e.g., make heterogeneous groups across certain characteristics such as gender, race, and/or level of achievement in a particular discipline, or by where students live), randomly assigning students (e.g., ask students to draw a piece of paper with a group number from a bag), or allowing students to form their own groups. This latter method should be used sparingly, if possible, as it can consciously or unconsciously be used to create or reinforce social group differences within the class.

In addition to group formation issues, pay attention to the length of time students remain in the same group, particularly if the group is not working together well. It is essential that you address process issues when students work in groups, and some class time should be allocated in the planning of the course to discuss group process issues throughout the semester. It is often helpful for each person in a group to have a specific role (e.g., observer, encourager, summarizer) and everyone should have an opportunity to participate in every role during the semester. You should help students determine a way to provide feedback to one another about group process and dynamics and a way to keep you aware of within-group functioning. Feedback is particularly important for identifying social identity characteristics that might be a source of problems in groups and for figuring out how to address problems satisfactorily. The following guidelines may be useful for addressing group process.

  • When groups are used, make sure that the same individuals do not always put themselves in the position of leadership. Assigning students to roles (e.g., recorder/notetaker, reporter, moderator) or asking students to rotate roles should reduce the occurrence of this problem.
  • Be ready to challenge assumptions that groups will either be aided or hindered by having certain kinds of students in their group (e.g., men in math or science classes feeling they have to help the women along; white students working on a project on “rap music” who are eager to have an African American student as part of their group). One way to reduce the likelihood of such assumptions manifesting themselves in group work would be to spend some time informing the class that each individual brings a different combination of strengths and weaknesses into the group work context and that students should not make assumptions about what these might be prior to any interaction with an individual. Group exercises that identify the specific resources that each group member brings can be useful in the early stages of group formation. It is also important to inform students of your availability to discuss group process problems that the groups themselves have been unable to successfully address.
  • You may need to make an extra effort to reduce the chances that a student who is different from the majority of the class will feel isolated (an African American student in a predominantly white class; a male in a predominantly female class; an openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual student in a class composed predominantly of heterosexuals, etc.). While you can’t be entirely responsible for the ways students respond to each other, doing what you can in assigning groups and establishing guidelines will reduce the chances that a student is excluded. Giving students a reason for being in the same group that is tied to the work of the class can deemphasize grouping as a social occasion and emphasize bonds over shared interest in the work. For example, have students identify before class an issue or “creative problem” they’re trying to solve in their writing, and group students based on common goals. You can also review guidelines for productive group work at the start of the session. Giving clear “tasks” or questions, and having students know what they will do with the products of group work, will focus the work and help the group avoid defaulting to social patterns students might bring with them. You can tell students, especially early in the semester, that you will divide your time between groups and sit in for a few minutes. Be transparent that your role is to encourage productive conversation and to model ways to push the conversation further. This is a good way to get a sense of the microclimate in the groups. It’s also a good way to encourage interaction and draw out reticent students. However, be careful to be as neutral as possible, so that students don’t feel stigmatized. For example, you could say to students, “I’d like to make sure you’re learning to work effectively as a group. What do you each see as interesting points of agreement? What do you see as interesting points of disagreement? Let’s go around.”
  • Even when guidelines for participation and responsibilities within groups have been established, problems may arise. Though these situations require care, is important to act quickly when they do. If students are shunning a classmate during small group activities, for example, you should intervene on behalf of the excluded student. You could announce to the class that you’ve noticed some resistance to collaborate, possibly on the basis of students’ identities. You could then announce to the class that your role is to go from group to group to help them get a feel for productive and inclusive communication. Alternatively, you could intervene by announcing the value of communicating across identities we perceive as different from our own, then take five minutes to have students write privately (for their eyes only) on the prompt: “How does your background shape how you perceive and interact with your group members?” This is intended to get students to be conscious about their behavior and to help them trace the origins of any default behavior. You could transition back to group work by saying, “As you work with your group members, be attentive to the ways in which they challenge your expectations. As you work, practice being open to learning others’ ways of being.” These suggestions aren’t intended to give failsafe solutions, but rather to model ways of intervening without calling out students in front of the class, and communicating inclusive values. If exclusionary behavior persists, it will be important to set up a meeting with the excluded student and together you could generate a variety of actions that could be taken to improve the classroom climate. This would be a show of support to the student. While it is important to solicit student input, you cannot expect the student to have the time or experience to solve the problem. You could also meet with the excluding students individually; the tone of such a meeting should be exploratory rather than confrontational, focusing on the value of group work and addressing potential barriers the students might be perceiving. If efforts are made to improve the situation and little change occurs, you might speak with a consultant from CRLT.
  • This link contains a list of the microaggressions many marginalized students report, along with the underlying meanings that these microaggressions communicate. You might find it valuable to become more knowledgable, so you can decide when and how it might be appropriate to pass this knowledge on to students.

Conflict in the Classroom

  • Respond to classroom conflict in a manner that helps students become aware of the “learning moment” this conflict provides. Heated discussions should be facilitated in a manner that does not result in hostility among class members and a sustained sense of bad feeling in the room. You can avoid these outcomes by encouraging students to tie their feelings and conflicts to the course material and by looking for underlying meanings and principles that might get buried in the process of class conflict. Students appreciate tensions between groups in the class being recognized and effectively addressed.
  • Recognize student fears and concerns about conflict. Students enter a class with different levels of experience and comfort with conflict. It is important to normalize the experience of conflict in the classroom, particularly in classes that focus on controversial topics. This can be accomplished through explicit discussion of student experiences with conflict and the use of structured discussion exercises.
  • Maintain the role of facilitator. One of the challenges of teaching is maintaining the role of instructor under a variety of conditions. For example, you can get caught up in expressing your own perspective in heated discussions or can become overly silent in discussions that go beyond your own knowledge base or experience. While these responses are understandable, such role abdication can create chaos in the classroom or force students to fill in the abdicated facilitator role. In order to avoid this outcome, you should examine your typical responses to conflict. It can also be useful to find ways that you may admit your limits with respect to content areas while maintaining responsibility for the group process.
  • Use intentional strategies to help students deal with and learn from difficult dialogues.
    • When a “hot moment” erupts in the classroom, have everyone take a break and write out what they’re feeling or thinking about the conversation.  This can allow emotions to cool enough for the discussion to be respectful and constructive.
    • Ask that students try to understand each other’s perspectives before reacting to them.  For instance, ask a student to listen carefully to another point of view, ask questions about it, and restate it before offering his or her own opinion.  Or, ask students to write a paper or engage in a debate in which they argue for the position with which they most disagree.
    • When necessary, talk with students outside of class about what happened.  This may be especially important for the students who were most embroiled in the hot moment.
    • For more ideas, take a look at this excellent resource from the Derek Bok Center at Harvard:  “Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom”
  • Monitor yourself
    • Do some thinking ahead of time about what issues may hit a nerve with you personally, and how you might deal with that.  If a difficult dialogue is already taking place, try to stay in touch with your own emotions.  Are you feeling embarrassed, threatened, or uncomfortable?  Being aware of your feelings can help you keep them in check and prevent them from driving your response.
    • Do not personalize remarks, and do not respond angrily or punitively to students whose positions you find offensive.  This could increase the intensity of the conflict, and preempt the students’ learning.
    • Do not avoid difficult topics simply because you feel uncomfortable dealing with them; at the same time, do not introduce controversy into the classroom for its own sake. Again, think carefully about how engaging in difficult dialogues contributes to your own learning goals for the class session and for the course as a whole.

Specific Tools and Strategies for Dealing with Conflict

The following strategies can be useful for planning ahead when you anticipate that a specific topic may generate some contentious conversations in your class.  Or, you can use them if a conflict erupts “in the moment” to help everyone get a handle on what is happening, and to get the conversation back on track.

The Critical Incident Questionnaire

At the end of the day (or week, or unit, or other appropriate time period), set aside 10 minutes for the group to respond in writing to a few specific questions.  (This may be especially helpful to do when a class session has been particularly difficult or tense).

  • At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What action that anyone in the room took did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone in the room took did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What surprised you most?

Keep all responses anonymous.  Collect them at the end of the period.  Read and analyze the responses, and compile them according to similar themes and concerns.  Report back to the group at the next meeting.  Allow time for comments and discussion.

The Five Minute Rule

The five minute rule is a way of taking an invisible or marginalized perspective and entertaining it respectfully for a short period of time.

Rule: Anyone who feels that a particular point of view is not being taken seriously has a right to point this out and call for this exercise to be used.

Discussion: The group then agrees to take five minutes to consider the merits of this perspective, refrain from criticizing it, and make every effort to believe it. Only those who can speak in support of it are allowed to speak, using the questions below as prompts. All critics must remain silent.

Questions and prompts:

  • What’s interesting or helpful about this view?
  • What are some intriguing features that others might not have noticed?
  • What would be different if you believed this view, if you accepted it as true?
  • In what sense and under what conditions might this idea be true?

Functional Subgrouping (also called “The Fishbowl Exercise”)

This exercise is based on a technique used in systems-based therapy.  The idea is for those who feel similarly about an issue to be able to talk with one another without being interrupted or rebutted by others who feel differently.  Ideally, those who identify with one side of an issue discover that they have differences with others in their group, and similarities with those on the “other” side.

  • Begin by asking students to identify with one side or the other of a contentious issue.  This could be an issue that has arisen organically in class, or simply one that you want the students to discuss that day.
  • Ask students belonging to one point of view to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room.  Students who identify with the opposing viewpoint form a concentric circle around them.
  • Students in the central circle are then invited to discuss with one another why they feel so strongly about their position on this issue, and what meaning this issue has for them.  Students in the outer circle are not permitted to speak at this point; they are only to listen in on the others’ conversation.
  • Once students in the middle circle have all had a chance to speak, the instructor asks those in the outer circle to paraphrase what they heard.  Students in the middle may affirm or correct their peers’ understanding, and clarify where needed.
  • Students are then asked to switch places – those in the outer circle come to the middle, and those in the middle move to the outside.  The above process is then repeated, so that by the end, all students have had the opportunity to express their views.

The idea is to help students develop empathy for other viewpoints by listening actively, paraphrasing others’ ideas, and discovering points of connection with those who think or believe differently about an important issue.

(Note:  The Critical Incident Questionnaire and The Five Minute Rule appear in Start Talking:  A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. Edited by Kay Landis.  Anchorage, AK:  University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University, 2008.)

Additional Resources

Discussion as a Way of Teaching:  Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (2nd edition) by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2005. (Available in the Vanderbilt CFT library)

How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus:  From Polarization to Moral Conversation by Robert J. Nash, DeMetha LaSha Bradley, & Arthur W. Chickering.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2008.  (Available in the Vanderbilt CFT library)

“Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.” From the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University.

Start Talking:  A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education.  Edited by Kay Landis.  Anchorage, AK:  University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University, 2008.

The Ford Foundation Difficult Dialogues Initiative