Design Your Challenging Conversations Class Session

There are a number of considerations and strategies for designing a challenging conversation class session. In addition to having a clear and manageable set of outcomes for the conversation, we recommend the following considerations:

  • Use course materials to establish a common baseline of understanding. Connect students back to those materials, but don’t be overly rigid. It might be helpful to consider other sources of evidence, and what students would need to know to incorporate that evidence into their thinking about the topic.
  • Ensure that you are well-educated about the topic to be discussed, so you can gently correct misconceptions or stereotypes with research, or connect students’ experiences to what is well-documented in your discipline.
  • Identify a class structure and activities that are likely to foster the kinds of interactions that will support your learning outcomes. Consider using think-pair-share, small groups, fishbowls, gallery walks, written reflections or synthesis, or other active learning strategies. Explore the following resources for other suggestions: (Cheung 2022Supiano 2018; “Specific Tools and Strategies” for difficult dialogues from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching).
  • If you are using a discussion-based format, identify questions that are focused and likely to foster discussion. Avoid questions with a hidden “right answer” or yes/no questions, and develop questions that offer opportunities to share multiple perspectives (Howard 2019Watkins 2019).
  • Choose a few reflection questions you’ll ask if students are struggling to discuss, or have questions or a short activity in your back pocket to foster student conversation. You might take a break, or ask students to generate ideas in writing for a few minutes, or discuss why a conversation is challenging. 
  • If there are world events happening that you don’t feel prepared to discuss but want to acknowledge, you could name the events but defer a conversation or make space at the end of class for some optional discussion. The students who stay are likely to be interested in engaging, and you could start by asking what they would like to discuss about this moment.
  • Know that your conversation might have disproportionate effects on students who are the target of the “challenge” being discussed. Consider what options best support the learning of your students, such as allowing some to opt-out or submit a reflection in lieu of a discussion, carefully framing the discussion to avoid false binaries, and being prepared to correct students’ misconceptions.