Design Your Course to Support Challenging Conversations

Challenging conversations should ideally be built into a course from the beginning of the semester. Before launching into a challenging conversation, set you and your students up for success by addressing the following:

  • Consider how you’ll establish trust with your students before launching into a challenging conversation. How will you work with students to establish trust with each other and with you? For example, be transparent and clear with students about policies, deadlines, and how work is graded. Make space to respond to student questions, and provide timely feedback. Use activities that build trust among students, like well-structured pair or small group work.
  • Develop and support students’ skills with participation and dialogue. Be clear about what constitutes participation in your course, and consider multiple ways to participate (Gillis 2019Zwart 2022).
  • Identify a few expectations or norms for conversation in your course. If you include them in your syllabus, also plan to discuss them with your students, and return to them often. The University of Michigan’s “Guidelines for Classroom Interactions” are a good place to start.
  • Decide whether a whole-class conversation is the best way to achieve your educational goals. If classroom discussions are your primary approach to pedagogy, consider whether another activity or assignment would be a better fit (like a reflection paper, short research project, paired discussion, etc.). There are many possibilities in this active learning database.
  • Clearly connect the challenging conversation to a course goal, and discuss its purpose with your students. A few goal examples are in this resource from Washington University in St. Louis and in this resource from the University of Michigan.
  • Plan to share supportive resources, such as mental health resources, relevant student groups, and academic support resources, with students in the syllabus and again at typically stressful points of a semester (e.g., near mid-points of a semester or as a major deadline approaches). Mental health resources are summarized in the attached resource document.