Facilitating Challenging Discussions and Maintaining Pedagogical Wellness

Description/Introduction

What do we mean by “challenging discussions”?

Challenging discussions refer to conversations that involve divisive and/or emotionally-charged content. This can include topics such as race and ethnicity¹, gender and sexuality² ³, mental health , political views and ideologies , religion and belief systems, sexual assault and consent, income inequality, and socioeconomic status. These topics are integral to social discourse and instructors can anticipate ways to thoughtfully address them throughout their teaching.

There are also topics that involve emerging campus crises and world events. This can include topics such as war, gun violence, pandemics, and police brutality. Such topics can require a more responsive, rather than anticipatory, approach. Here is a comprehensive resource for teaching potentially traumatic topics: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.

What is our goal of PW with a challenging discussion? What would success look like?

The goals of pedagogical wellness with having challenging discussions in the classroom are to: provide a supportive environment for students and instructors experiencing a common challenge, create space for conversation, foster student learning through difficult conversations, provide and opportunity for connection of course content to real-life events, and offer professional development opportunities.

Reminder: There’s no single “best” way to respond.

When there is a challenging event that occurs, there is no single best way to respond. It is important to note that you might still be processing the event. Bringing the conversation to the classroom setting could be way to “humanize” yourself to your students, but also provide an academic learning opportunity. In this guide, we provide a range of options for you to consider and adapt to what is best for you, your students, and the class. We recommend that you center compassion, act with intentionality, and leverage resources and support. If you aren’t feeling confident the first few times, that’s okay. This is a skill that you can develop with practice and time.

Research suggests students find it helpful when instructors take time to acknowledge difficult events or crises.

Making space to acknowledge and discuss difficult topics and events can have a positive impact on students’ emotional and psychological wellbeing. It can also enhance students’ personal and pedagogical growth through building critical thinking, engaging with diverse perspectives, and connecting the course material to real-world situations. Conversely, ignoring these discussions may negatively affect students’ motivation.

Facilitating Challenging Discussions

Note: Feel free to explore these sections in any order. For example, if a difficult conversation has already taken place, you can explore the “After the Discussion” (Follow-Up) section. *This advice corresponds specifically to responding after crises.
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Before the Discussion…

Self-preparation: Reflect on your feelings and biases towards the crisis or topic. Being aware of your emotional state helps guide the discussion more effectively. Furthermore, if available, reviewing your positionality statement could help you reflect on how your identity impacts your perspectives.

Prepare the students via email before class

  • *Acknowledge the crisis: Start by recognizing the event that has occurred. This helps to set a tone of awareness, understanding, and empathy.
  • Set up time and space: Tell students you will make time for a conversation about the topic before your normal class content is discussed.
  • Expectations around participation: Let students know participation and attendance during this discussion are optional.

Set the tone on the day of the conversation

  • Open up with compassion – for example: “I understand that (name the situation or event) is a difficult topic for many…”.
  • Clarify the purpose of the conversation – for example: “The purpose of this conversation is to provide space for us to discuss and process together…”.
  • Develop common community agreements for the conversation.
  • Communicate the time boundary of how long you plan to spend on the conversation.
  • Indicate content warnings when appropriate with options to opt in or out throughout the conversation.
During the Discussion...

Consider silence as a tool

  • Offer a moment of silence for a tragedy.
  • Use silence to give yourself and your students time to think about the conversation and listen mindfully.

Approach with empathy

  • Avoid assumptions.
  • Start with a check-in question: How are you feeling?
    • Consider using The Blob Tree, mood meters, and “temperature checks” to help students identify and articulate feelings.
    • Consider allowing students the ability to engage anonymously.
  • Invite students to participate in active listening.

Encourage diverse perspectives

  • Encourage students to share their ideas and viewpoints, but avoid asking students to represent an entire ethnic group or identity.
  • Ask prompting questions:
    • What is another perspective on this?
    • Why might someone disagree with this?
    • What perspectives are being excluded or have not been discussed yet?
    • How might people who think Y perceive this issue?

Provide structure (e.g. reflective writing, small group discussions, guided questions) before proceeding with full group conversation.

Address students in distress: See something, say something, do something.

After the Discussion (Follow-up)

Ask for feedback: Use a survey form or reflection assignment to solicit feedback about whether the conversation was helpful or unhelpful.

UCI/DTEI Resources

DTEI cannot provide mental health counseling services. If you are struggling with mental health concerns, please reach out to Negar Shekarabi, Psy.D. at nshekara@hs.uci.edu or the Life Resources Program. For graduate student mental health support, you can reach out to the UCI Counseling Center or Phuong Luong, Psy.D. at pbluong@uci.edu. You may want to talk to us about the details of your classroom-specific scenario. To set up a one-on-one consultation with DTEI, email us at DTEI@uci.edu.

Common Questions and Concerns

We acknowledge that facilitating these conversations can be challenging and that instructors have valid questions and concerns regarding them. One strategy to prepare for these difficult conversations is to reflect on your course content, policies, and current events, think about possible student reactions and questions, and brainstorm ways to respond in an informed and empathetic manner.

We address some of the most common of these below. Note that this not an exhaustive list:

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“It’s not my responsibility as an instructor to talk about topics and events that are unrelated to my course.”

Response: It’s understandable to wonder whether discussing difficult topics and events is your responsibility, or even appropriate, as an instructor – especially when they’re seemingly disconnected from your course. However, doing so can enhance students’ learning experience and foster a space of safety, support, and personal growth.

Strategies:

  • Recognizing that our classrooms do not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. Both learners and educators are affected by current events and bring their experiences with them into our learning environments.
  • Addressing difficult topics and communicating support can enhance students’ emotional and psychological well-being (e.g., Blazer & Kraft, 2017; Dodd et al., 2021).
  • Ignoring social and traumatic events can lead to a decrease in student respect and motivation (Flintoft & Bollinger, 2016; Njoku & Evans, 2022).
  • Discussing contemporary issues can enhance students’ critical thinking and analytical skills, foster a deeper understanding of material, and increase motivation by applying course content to real-life situations.
  • Engaging in these discussions can foster skills necessary for future success. This includes understanding diverse perspectives, encouraging active civic participation, practicing conflict resolution, and developing ethical and moral reasoning.
  • If you choose not to discuss these topics in class, consider sharing resources with students (e.g., readings, campus events and organizations) and/or discussing them during student office hours.
“I worry that students will feel upset, attacked, and/or marginalized during these discussions.”

Response: Being concerned for students’ sense of belonging and wellbeing is legitimate and important. Ensuring a safe (or brave) space is fundamental for learning. However, avoiding these topics entirely deprives students of the opportunity to critically engage with and process them. Here are some simple ways to lead with empathy and cultivate an environment where students feel supported and empowered.

Strategies:

  • Recognize that discomfort is likely to occur during tough discussions – for both yourself and your students. However, this discomfort can be necessary to facilitate meaningful progress, growth, and understanding.
  • Provide content warnings and offer students the option to opt-out or engage with the material in a different way.
  • Establish community agreements for respectful and productive dialogue at the start of the course. Consider co-creating these agreements with your students and revisiting them throughout the quarter.
  • Practice role-playing them using AI chatbots, such as ChatGPT or roleplai.app if you’re nervous about how these interactions will go. It’s important to use prompts that are specific, clear, provide context, and use explicit constraints and guidelines (See: Mastering ChatGPT: How to Craft Effective Prompts).
  • Collect anonymous feedback based on these discussions to gauge students’ comfort and experiences with them, adjusting when necessary. These could be as elaborate as a Google Form or as simple as an “exit ticket”.
“I lack the adequate time, training, and resources to effectively facilitate these conversations.”

Response: Feeling equipped to tackle these discussions can feel daunting. However, you have a wealth of resources and support available to you to help you prepare for and lead these discussions.

Strategies:

  • Consider participating in DTEI’s professional development workshops. These are short, low-stakes ways to learn more approaches and engage with other curious instructors. If you don’t have time to attend them synchronously, you can view our recordings and explore our slides afterwards.
  • Partner with colleagues who have relevant experience to provide you with ideas, guidance, and support. You may even consider collaboratively teaching with them.
  • Invite guest speakers who are experts in relevant topics. This centers their knowledge and experience, while easing the burden on you.
“Taking time to discuss these topics in class takes time away from actual course content.”

Response: Time management in a classroom is always a delicate balance, and it’s crucial that students achieve their learning outcomes. However, there are simple, time-effective ways to integrate these discussions which enhance, rather than detract from, curricula.

Strategies:

  • Allocate even a short amount of time (15-20 minutes) at the beginning or end of class, which can make a big difference. Setting – and maintaining – time boundaries will help you manage time while ensuring these conversations take place.
  • Use technology, such as Poll Everywhere and Mentimeter. This can help students reflect and express their feelings, while efficiently guiding conversations.
  • Create space outside of conventional “class time” for this (e.g., discussion boards, forums). Make sure there are clear guidelines in place for these spaces and that they are moderated by yourself or a member of your instructional team to maintain civility.
  • Set tangible goals for these discussions, organize them, and directly link them to course objectives. For example, discussing the economic impacts of pandemics can enrich an economics class, while addressing mental health can be vital in psychology and social work courses.
“What if I lose control of the conversation?”

Response: This is a valid worry to have, as these conversations can be unpredictable and emotionally charged. However, there are several ways to structure and effectively moderate these discussions.

Strategies:

  • Remind students of the community agreements you (co-)constructed at the start of the course if they are violated.
  • Use structured formats, such as fishbowl discussions, think-pair-share, reflective writing, and the critical incident questionnaire to help manage the flow of conversation and keep it focused.
  • Actively moderate the discussion. Be prepared to ask students to elaborate on points and support claims with evidence. Intervene to refocus the conversation back to its stated goals.
  • Directly confront harmful or otherwise inappropriate comments. Call out the behavior and call in the person.
  • If certain students dominate conversations, invite others to share their thoughts.
“I’m afraid of possible backlash, complaints, or disciplinary actions against me for expressing my personal beliefs and/or facilitating these discussions.”

Response: These fears are valid and shared by many educators. It’s important to recognize the various resources and protections available to you.

Strategies:

Additional Resources

The following resources provide additional guidance on how to facilitate these conversations, often using specific examples of topics and world events to model real-life approaches.

Centers for Teaching and Learning Webpages

University of Michigan. Strategies for framing & guiding student engagement with high-stakes topics.

University of Michigan. Hot moments in the classroom.

Vanderbilt University. Difficult dialogues.

University of Connecticut. Difficult dialogues

Indiana University. Difficult classroom discussions.

Montana State University. Facilitating challenging discussions.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Addressing difficult events in the classroom.

University of Washington. Facilitating difficult conversations in the wake of distressing current events.

University of Georgia. Responding to campus tragedy

Scholarship

Blazar, D., & Kraft, M. A. (2017). Teacher and teaching effects on students’ attitudes and behaviors. Educational evaluation and policy analysis, 39(1), 146-170. 

Dodd, R. H., Dadaczynski, K., Okan, O., McCaffery, K. J., & Pickles, K. (2021). Psychological wellbeing and academic experience of university students in Australia during COVID-19. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(3), 866. 

Hosek, A. M., & Austin, L. (2016). Exploring pedagogical and emotional response in higher education classrooms during the Boston Marathon bombing crisis. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 17(1), 68-76. 

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25(1), 207-224. 

Linsenmeyer, W., & Lucas, T. (2017). Student perceptions of the faculty response during the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(3), 524-533. 

Love, J. M., Gaynor, T. S., & Blessett, B. (2016). Facilitating difficult dialogues in the classroom: A pedagogical imperative. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 38(4), 227-233. 

Siegel-Stechler, K. (2023). “Conversation is everything”: How teachers and students create environments where open discussion can thrive. Theory & Research in Social Education, 51(4), 626-660. 

Blog Posts

McMurrie, B. (2024, May 9). How to teach about contentious topics like Israel and Hamas. The Chronicle of Higher Education

Mangan, K. (2024, May 13). Some professors see pro-Palestinian encampments as outdoor classrooms. The Chronicle of Higher Education.