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This is the fourth and final installment in our series on teaching controversial topics. In the first, we considered two reasons to teach controversial topics and three frameworks with which to do so. The second addressed how to develop a conducive classroom environment by building relationships with students and preparing to draft ground rules for discussion. The third concerned why and how to involve students in the creation of ground rules, some suggested ground rules, and how to use ground rules. 

This month, we turn to some tips for facilitating discussion of controversial topics. Implementing the following strategies can foster discussions that are more productive and civil.


Provide a Common Basis for Understanding to help Focus the Discussion

To do this, you might:

  • Assign readings
  • Show a video clip
  • Have students review material immediately before the discussion
  • Create a list of things students would like the discussion to take into consideration


Begin the Discussion by Stating its Purpose

Stating the purpose provides a touchstone with which students can evaluate how to contribute to the discussion. It can also serve as a point for instructors to reference as they guide the discussion. Examples include:

  • Promote critical thinking by helping students understand the complexity of the issues
  • Increase awareness by providing information that is typically not addressed
  • Improve dialogue skills that students can use in other venues
  • Connect the topic with students’ roles and responsibilities outside the classroom


Structure the Discussion to Include Everyone

Strategies for doing this include:

  • The Round: Ask a guiding question and give every student an opportunity to respond without any interruptions or comments. Offer the option to pass. Discuss responses after the round.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Ask a question and give students a few minutes to respond individually in writing. Then assign partners and give explicit directions for discussion, such as “Tell each other why you wrote what you did.” After a specified amount of time, reconvene the class and debrief. 
  • Reflection Memos: Prior to class, have students write a reflection in response to some question(s) you pose. Ask them to read their memos in pairs, small groups, or to the entire class. 


Maintain the Focus and Flow of the Discussion

Begin with clear, open-ended yet bounded questions. Questions to avoid include: 

  • Double-Barreled: pose two questions simultaneously
  • Hide the Ball: search for a specific answer
  • Short Factual or Yes/No: can be addressed summarily

Prepare questions to break the silence:

  • “What makes this hard to discuss?”
  • “What needs to be clarified at this point?”

Maintain the focus

  • Ask probing questions to prompt students to provide more information, clarify, elaborate, or explain.
  • Remind the class of the readings or discussion objectives to redirect the discussion to its intended purpose
  • Validate important but extraneous input by redirecting the focus and mentioning them at the end of the discussion as points to consider

Be an active facilitator, but don’t take too much control. As necessary:

  • Reword questions
  • Correct misinformation
  • Reference relevant materials
  • Ask for clarification
  • Review main points


Facilitate a Wrap-up 

Students are more likely to feel that a discussion was worthwhile if the instructor facilitates—with class input—a synthesis of key issues addressed. It can be helpful to generate a public written list. 

In addition, to get student feedback and identify issues to address later, save the last five minutes of class for students to write a Minute Paper on questions such as the following. Be sure to review responses and debrief them  in the next class.

  • “What are the three most important points you learned today?”
  • “What important questions remain unanswered for you?”
  • “What did you learn specifically from what someone else said that you would not have thought of on your own?”


While discussing controversial topics will likely always be challenging, implementing the strategies outlined in this four-part series can help make doing so more pleasant and productive for everyone involved. 


“Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.” Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan. Accessed December 6, 2019. http://www.crlt.umich.edu/publinks/generalguidelines

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