Guidelines for discussing difficult or important topics (2023)

The following guidelines can help teachers facilitate discussion of controversial topics in the classroom. Regardless of the context, it is helpful to structure such discussions in a way that establishes boundaries for the process and provides some degree of closure within the classroom. Such discussions are a particularly important time to explicitly discuss expectations of considering a range of perspectives and experiences in space.

Spontaneous Conversations: Dealing with the Unexpected

It is wise to be prepared to respond to the possibility that a student unexpectedly brings up a controversial topic in class. Immediate response is required, if only to decide what to do next:

  • Confirm the student who raised the issue, noting that student responses may vary.
  • Decide if you are ready and willing to engage with the topic immediately.
  • Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time exchanging views on the topic.

If students want a dialogue and you want to wait for it, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways students can prepare.

Click here for more resources on making the most of Hot Momentsthat pop up in your classroom when you don't anticipate them.

Scheduled discussions on important or controversial topics

Scheduling a discussion on a controversial topic or topic benefits from considering the following topics, each addressed below:

  • Recognize a clear goal
  • establish ground rules
  • Create a common basis of understanding
  • Creating a framework for discussion that maintains focus and flow
  • Including everyone
  • Be an active moderator
  • Summarize the discussion and collect student feedback
  • Dealing with problems concerning the identity of the instructor
  • University Resources
Recognize a clear goal

Starting a discussion with clearly articulated goals can help shape the nature of the discussion and tie it to other course goals.

Examples of general goals are:

  • Linking the topic to course material, including fundamental concepts and strategies for analysis and thoughtful reflection
  • Raising awareness of the issue by providing information that is not generally raised in informal discussions
  • Encourage critical thinking by helping students understand the complexity of problems
  • Improving dialogue skills that students can take with them to other places
  • Relating classroom discussion to the roles students have as citizens within the university community and wider society

More specific goals for discussions of social conflict, particularly those that involve hateful or biased language, may focus on policy, social convention, or civic responsibility, including the following:

(Video) How to Set the Stage for Challenging Classroom Discussions

  • Examination and development of positions on socio-political, university-political or socio-political issues.
  • Identifying a core problem underlying social conflict and exploring possible answers to the problem.
  • Analyzing the root causes or reasons for a social conflict (i.e. a past-oriented discussion).
  • Exploring possible consequences or implications of a conflict (i.e. a forward-looking discussion).
  • Planning effective measures to reduce such incidents and/or support vulnerable populations.

(This second list is adapted from Ronald Hyman, 1980, InImproving conversational skills. New York: Columbia University, College Teachers Press.)

back to the list

Establish ground rules or guidelines

In class, instructors can either work with students to create ground rules or discussion guides, or they can present a set of guidelines and then work with students to accept or modify them. Recourse to these community agreements can be very helpful when the discussion becomes tense. Some suggestions include the following:

  • Listen respectfully without interrupting.
  • Listen actively and carefully to understand the views of others. (Don't just think about what you're going to say while someone else is speaking.)
  • Criticize ideas, not individuals.
  • Commit to learning, not discussing. Comment to share information, not persuade.
  • Avoid finger pointing, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Let everyone have their say.
  • Avoid making assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.

It is important that the students agree on the ground rules before the discussion begins.This page provides some more examples and considerations for using policies.

back to the list

Create a common basis of understanding

Providing students with a common ground of understanding from the start helps keep the discussion focused and provides concrete case studies or examples. For example, you can assign reading material to a specific conflict, have students select their own reading material to bring to class, or show a video clip to stimulate discussion. Another option is to have students review the materials during class and then engage in a structured discussion.

You can also draw on the students' own knowledge to create a common basis:

  • As you teach, ask students to identify key information points and cite their source. (You can ask students to do this individually and then summarize the information, or you can just glean information from the whole class.) Make a list of these for the whole class.
  • Use this survey as an opportunity to distinguish judgmental, "charged" comments from less judgmental statements and from statements about personal opinions or experiences. Realize how difficult it can sometimes be to make these distinctions.
  • To identify and locate threads of discussion that are out of focus or highly speculative, ask for and identify information that students would dowould like to knowto clarify their understanding of these questions or tangents, even if this information is not available.

back to the list

(Video) News Literacy Workshop: Strategies for Discussing Difficult Political Topics

Creating a framework for discussion that maintains focus and flow

Since any social conflict or controversy is a complex subject, it is important to provide a framework for discussion alongside clearly defined goals. Your framework can be a guide that balances the need to have clear purpose and direction while being open to student observation and interpretation.

The following strategies can help you keep the discussion focused and flowing:

  • Begin the discussion with clear, open-ended but limited questions that encourage discussion.
    • Avoid "double questions" that raise two issues at once, or "hide the ball" questions that seek a specific answer.
    • Ask questions that require multiple answers, rather than short factual answers or simple "yes" or "no" answers.
  • Prepare specific questions to use when the class is silent or reluctant to speak. Some examples are: "What makes it difficult to discuss this?" and "What needs to be clarified at this point?"
  • Encourage students to elaborate on their comments as necessary. With probing questions, an instructor can ask students to share more specific information, clarify an idea, elaborate on a point, or provide further explanation.
  • Be prepared to redirect the discussion if students go beyond the intended focus. Drawing attention to what is being read or reminding the class of discussion goals are useful management techniques.
  • If students bring up issues that are out of focus, note that these are important but secondary. At the end of the lesson, summarize them as other topics to think about for yourself to validate student contributions.
  • Summarize the main points of discussion or problems at the end of the lesson, if possible in writing.

back to the list

Including everyone

Incorporating the perspectives of all students can be challenging in a group discussion, especially when students are dealing with unfamiliar or controversial material. Moving beyond an entire group discussion format allows all students to participate and prevents the most talkative or opinionated students from dominating the conversation. In small groups, your class can listen to students who might not otherwise speak, including those who may see their views as marginalized and those who want to explore ideas about which they are unsure.

Some methods to increase the number of panelists are:

  • The round: Give each student the opportunity to respond to a leading question without interruption or comment. Give students the opportunity to pass. After the round, discuss the answers.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Give students a few minutes to write an individual response to a question. Divide the class into pairs. Instruct students to share their answers with group members. Give students explicit instructions, e.g. B. “Tell each other why you wrote what you did.” After a certain amount of time, have the class reconvene to do a debriefing. They can solicit comments on how their paired opinions agree or differ, or ask what questions remain after their paired discussion.
  • Share reflection memos: Before the discussion, have students write a reflective memo in response to a question or set of questions you ask. As part of the discussion, ask students to read their memos and/or share them in pairs or threes.

In each of these methods, the trainer can play an important role by summarizing or summarizing the various responses and relating them to the discussion goals.

back to the list

Be an active moderator

To keep a discussion focused and focused, it's important to be an active facilitator rather than a passive observer. Be sure to maintain some control, but not too much control. Your role as an active facilitator may include rephrasing student questions, correcting misinformation, referencing relevant reading material or course content, asking for clarification, and reviewing main points.

(Video) Difficult Discussions

Students can expect their teachers to express their own point of view, or they can explicitly ask for that point of view. In deciding how to respond, teachers should consider whether they feel comfortable expressing their personal views and the impact such expressions will have on this and future classroom discussions. For example, will sharing your perspective provide a useful model for how to take a stand on a complex issue, or will it tend to alienate those students who may not agree with you? Or will your exchange of perspective helpfully respond to comments that marginalize or discount students in your class?

back to the list

Summarize the discussion and collect student feedback

It is very important to save time at the end of the lesson to summarize the main points of the discussion. Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was valuable when the teacher, with the help of the class, summarizes what was said or identifies the main issues explored.

To get feedback from students on the quality of the discussion and to identify issues that may need further follow-up, you can save the last five minutes of class for students to write aminute paper. Ask them to answer some or all of these questions:

  • What are the three most important points you learned today?
  • What important questions remain unanswered for you?
  • What did you specifically learn from the statements of another that you would not have come up with on your own?

Review student responses before your next class meeting. In the next class, briefly summarize the students' feedback and thank the students for their participation.

back to the list

Dealing with problems concerning the identity of the instructor

Discussing an issue of social conflict can affect the identity of the trainer in a number of ways. Students can make guesses about the expectations a teacher has when leading the class discussion. Assumptions may be based on students' perceptions of the instructor's identity, the way the instructor has managed other lessons, and their personal interactions with the instructor.

In addition, some problems and events can trigger reactive responses in a teacher, and students can say things and speak in a way that evokes emotional responses. Instructors need to be aware of the possibility (or even likelihood) of an emotional response, even when a discussion has been carefully planned. Recognizing the reaction and the trigger as such helps an instructor keep the discussion balanced. To deal with statements that trigger emotional responses, teachers should use techniques that allow them and the class to step back and gain perspective (e.g., with the class to restate or contextualize the triggering statement). When a teacher simply has to let such a moment pass, it is important to find time later to talk about the experience and address the problem that triggered it with others outside of the class.

(Video) Discussing Difficult Topics

In the event that one or more students attempt to provoke the instructor into an emotional response, ground rules for discussion can play a crucial role, and the instructor can model constructive behavior by showing how to unpack such a heated moment , by reviewing what led to engaging in, pointing out differences between baiting, debating, and discussing, and/or steering the discussion in a more meaningful direction.

back to the list

university resources

To discuss additional strategies or concerns, please contact us by phone (734-764-0505), email ( or in person (1071 Palmer Commons). CRLT can also develop custom workshops for units.

Resources specific to student conflict are available fromThe Office for Student Conflict Resolution. The counseling staff offers mediation and counseling for all conflicts involving students. They are also available to come to class to discuss conflict resolution.

The Office of Institutional Justiceprovides training, consulting and other programs for faculty, staff, students and management.

Die Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA)provides programs and resources that support students from underrepresented groups individually and through student organizations.

For theStatement on the rights and obligations of studentsthis applies to all U-M students. For a university policy statement on violence in the university community, seeStandard Practice Guide


What are discussion guidelines? ›

Discussion guidelines set expectations for participant behavior during small group or whole-class interaction. They also ensure that the class environment is welcoming, inclusive, and respectful.

What is guided discussion method? ›

Guided discussion is an active learning technique that encourages students to reflect on their own experiences, explore alternative ways of thinking, connect to a topic, and improve analytical skills.

What are the guidelines in teaching? ›

Guidelines for Successful Teaching
  • Take your students' goals, interests, and existing knowledge seriously.
  • Provide appropriate input.
  • Use language in authentic ways.
  • Provide context and make cultural connections.
  • Design activities with a realistic purpose.
  • Encourage collaboration.
  • Use an integrated approach.

What are some examples of guidelines? ›

Examples of guidelines are:
  • Code of practice.
  • EASE Guidelines for Authors and Translators of Scientific Articles.
  • Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
  • Guidelines for Examination in the European Patent Office.
  • Medical guidelines.
  • Publicly Available Specification.
  • Programming style guidelines.
  • UNGEGN Toponymic Guidelines.

What are the three types of guidelines? ›

Types of Guidance – Educational, Vocational, Personal – Toppr Bytes.

How do you discuss a difficult topic? ›

6 steps to help you tackle difficult conversations
  1. Listen up. ...
  2. Be clear about how you feel and what you want. ...
  3. Look at the issue from their perspective. ...
  4. If things aren't going to plan, take a break. ...
  5. Agree to disagree. ...
  6. Look after yourself.

How do you discuss a difficult subject? ›

  1. Eliminate distractions. Turn off any music, TV, computers and telephones, Karmin said. ...
  2. Use an “I” statement. “[C]ome right to the point and use an 'I' statement,” he said. ...
  3. Communicate what you'd like to happen. ...
  4. Identify what they're feeling. ...
  5. Build on the talk. ...
  6. Acknowledge that pain is individual. ...
  7. Use active listening.

How do you have difficult conversations to discuss what matters most? ›

Techniques that can help you show that care and concern include asking open questions, asking for more concrete information, asking questions that explore the three conversations, and giving the other the option of not answering. Avoid questions that are actually statements. Do not cross-examine the other.

What are good discussion techniques? ›

Starting a discussion
  • Refer to questions you distributed. ...
  • Make a list of key points. ...
  • Use a partner activity. ...
  • Use a brainstorming activity. ...
  • Pose an opening question and give students a few minutes to record an answer. ...
  • Divide students into small groups to discuss a specific question or issue.

What are some discussion strategies? ›

  • 10 discussion strategies to use in class tomorrow.
  • Sentence stems.
  • Friends without Pens.
  • Think-Pair-Share (and variations)
  • Number Talks.
  • Socratic Method.
  • Student-Produced Questions.
  • Fishbowl Strategy.
May 12, 2022

What are 4 types of discussion? ›

Based on direction and tone, I grouped conversations into four types: debate, dialogue, discourse, and diatribe. Debate is a competitive, two-way conversation.

What are the 5 guidelines for effective teaching? ›

Five Guidelines
  • Creating a caring community of learners. ...
  • Teaching to enhance development and learning. ...
  • Planning curriculum to achieve important goals. ...
  • Assessing children's development and learning. ...
  • And lastly, establishing reciprocal relationships with family.
Jan 4, 2022

What are 10 guidelines that educators must use in a classroom to ensure that students feel safe? ›

How To Make Your Classroom A Safe Haven For Your Students
  • Rely on schedules, routines, and procedures. ...
  • Maintain a clean, organized classroom. ...
  • Be the same teacher yesterday, today, and tomorrow. ...
  • Be kind. ...
  • Protect your students from misbehavior. ...
  • Don't take misbehavior personally. ...
  • Maintain a peaceful learning environment.
Nov 19, 2011

Why are guidelines important in a classroom? ›

Establishing classroom norms sets the tone of a class, provides clear guidelines on how to behave, decreases instances of incivility, and enables students and lecturers to feel safe expressing their ideas or points of views.

What are guidelines for online discussions? ›

Netiquette Tips For Online Discussions
  • Use proper language. ...
  • Be precise. ...
  • Avoid emoticons and “texting” writing. ...
  • Be explanatory. ...
  • Read all comments before hitting “submit”. ...
  • Tone down your language. ...
  • Recognize and respect diversity. ...
  • Control your temper.
Jun 6, 2015

What are the 5 types of discussion? ›

Description These five types of open-ended, level three questions (enduring, critical, hypothetical, metacognitive, & socratic) provide students with structured ways to format ideas and facilitate higher-level discussion.

Why is it important to follow guidelines in online communication? ›

Netiquette (Online Etiquette) is a set of rules that encourages appropriate and courteous online behavior. These rules are important as they promote communication skills, prevent miscommunications, and help you understand what is socially acceptable when working and collaborating online.

What are some of the guidelines for online students? ›

Netiquette in online education
  • Make sure identification is clear in all communications. ...
  • Review what you wrote and try to interpret it objectively. ...
  • If you wouldn't say it face to face, don't say it online. ...
  • Don't assume everyone understands where you're coming from. ...
  • Don't spam. ...
  • Use emoticons. ...
  • Respect others' privacy.

What makes a successful discussion? ›

In order for a discussion to be effective, students need to understand the value of actively listening to their peers, tolerating opposing viewpoints, and being open-minded. They also need to recognize the importance of staying focused and expressing themselves clearly.


1. Lets Talk Training; Discussing Difficult Topics with Youth - by Meg
(Helping Services for Youth & Families)
2. Difficult Discussions~ Grad Chat w/ Rob Ulrich
(PhD Balance)
3. Facilitating Difficult Group Discussions
(Trainers Warehouse)
4. "Discussing Difficult Topics with Your Children"
5. Discussing Challenging Topics | CEO Effectiveness
(Dr. Bill Anton)
6. Alexander Cummings' Vision for Liberia | Tough Talking Thursday | Host: Dennis Jah | Guest


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Reed Wilderman

Last Updated: 10/17/2023

Views: 6407

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Reed Wilderman

Birthday: 1992-06-14

Address: 998 Estell Village, Lake Oscarberg, SD 48713-6877

Phone: +21813267449721

Job: Technology Engineer

Hobby: Swimming, Do it yourself, Beekeeping, Lapidary, Cosplaying, Hiking, Graffiti

Introduction: My name is Reed Wilderman, I am a faithful, bright, lucky, adventurous, lively, rich, vast person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.