How Do I Engage Students in Difficult Class Discussions Around Sensitive Topics?

How Do I Engage Students in Difficult Class Discussions Around Sensitive Topics?

Hands of text holding a damaged cartoonishly heartClass discussions can become difficult for many reasons: Your course topics focus on sensitive or even controversial issues; learning activities ask students to make personal connections to the class materials; or you wonder about how to bring up current difficult issues in your class when these arise. Regardless of why, how, or when difficult class discussions happen, there are practices and strategies that you can use to help you and your students talk in ways that support positive engagement and minimize harm and unproductive conflict.

Laying the Foundation for Productive Engagement

Before you ask students to talk about sensitive topics, think about what you need to do to create conditions that allow for diverse perspectives to be expressed in an appropriate manner.

Include an inclusiveness statement in your syllabus. Highlight in this statement how you envision a supportive classroom climate for all students. You can find a sample statement in the Inclusive Syllabus Template or in the CTL Handout: Sample Inclusive Course Policies and Syllabus Statements.

Establish class participation agreements. Conversations around sensitive topics elicit emotional responses. Explore the CTL webpage How Do I Develop Class Participation Agreements for strategies and examples on how to create a supportive space for difficult class conversations. Even if the difficult conversation arises in response to emotionally-laden current events, take a moment to set some norms of engagement.

Have course learning objectives focused on students’ skills related to talking across differences. The UMass Amherst General Education Diversity Learning Outcomes can be useful for any course that engages students with sensitive topics. Learning objectives related to perspective taking and communicating with diverse people and across differences can be part of any course.

Know your students and have them get to know each other. It is hard to talk about difficult issues when you do not know who you are talking with. Use community-building activities, such as check-ins and icebreakers, to help students connect with you and each other.

Conceptualize discomfort as a part of the learning process. Encountering new experiences, perspectives, and ideas can lead to emotional and/or cognitive dissonance. This may cause students to feel confused, anxious, defensive, angry, or simply uncomfortable and exhibit resistance. Help your students understand these reactions as a part of learning and growth, for example, by introducing them to the idea of expanding comfort zones. Margaret Wheatley’s brief essay Willing to Be Disturbed can be a good starting point to discuss this with students.

Provide a structure that supports helpful communication skills. Use an Active Listening Exercise. Teach students a communication framework such as LARA (Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Add) that helps with talking across differences. Read about The LARA Method for Managing Tense Talks or Listen to Professor Barry Checkoway (University of Michigan) discuss the LARA method.

Envision beforehand problematic situations. Reflect on what is at stake. What may be harmful? For whom? Who might resist? Know your own triggers and think about how to manage them. Practice some strategies that will help you to intervene productively if a discussion is not going the way you envision it.

Prepare yourself with strategies for conflict resolution: Explore our CTL webpage How do I navigate hot moments in the classroom

Opening the Conversation

Reframe the discussion as a dialogue. Moving intentionally from debate-style engagement to one of dialogue can be helpful for talking about difficult topics. Help students understand that dialogues—listening to learn and re-examining all positions—support your course goals of having students learn as much as possible from others.

Open the conversation with a silent writing activity. Ask students to silently reflect for 1-3 minutes on a thought-provoking question or prompt which invites divergent thinking or have them complete a sentence starter.

Use various discussion strategies. Consider ways for students to share with their peers in dyads or small groups, intentionally have students address a controversy by alternating their perspectives, or integrate writing through sentence starters, chalk talks or quick writes.

Structure the discussion as a learning conversation. Ask students to explain their thinking. Ask them to reflect on where their opinion comes from. Is it based on general beliefs, assumptions, facts, individual experiences, diverse cultural understandings? Ask them to identify where differences come from and what commonalities or common ground they can find. 

Ground the discussion in the course materials. When students share individual experiences, encourage them to make connections to course materials.

Closing the Conversation

Use the last minutes of class for focused written reflection. Ask students to reflect on questions, such as: “How do you feel about the topic now at the end of the discussion? Why?”; “What perspectives different from your own did you gain from this discussion?”; or “Think of some important moments from this discussion: best moments, critical moments, turning points.”

Use an exit ticket. Before students leave the class, ask them to briefly reflect on the classroom conversation on a piece of paper that they leave with you. You can also use an online Google survey and share the link and/or QR code with students at the end of the class. See Hyeyoung Park’s Faculty Success story: Using Exit Tickets to Check in with Students and Foster Learning

Use the Moodle/Blackboard discussion forum. If you want students to reflect in more depth, have them respond to some good probing questions in an online discussion forum.


Sample Diversity and Inclusion Statements compiled by The Sheridan Center at Brown University

Diversity, and Inclusion Syllabus Statements - San Diego State University

Syllabus Diversity Statement-Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Comparison of Dialogue and Debate - Global Campus United States Institute of Peace

Yankelovich, D. (1999). The magic of dialogue (available through the library).

Margaret Wheatley (2002). Willing to Be Disturbed



A group of three people discussing at a table.

Strategies for navigating and managing yourself during hot moments during class discussions, and helping students process conflict.

Contemplative Pedagogy is an approach to education that uses contemplative practices, attention to the full student, and an interest in transformative learning.

Profile of Lena Fletcher in snowy landscape

You may have heard about colleagues using contemplative techniques in their teaching, but wondered what exactly happens. Lena Fletcher explains how she uses short meditations in her large classes to deepen engagement with challenging course concepts.