Guiding Heated Discussions in the Classroom

Class discussions can become very personal and emotional. Whether a discussion is planned or spontaneous will have an effect on the role assumed by the TA. When planning a discussion on a potentially explosive topic, you can anticipate many issues that might arise. Keep a clear goal in mind for the discussion. Of course, discussions shouldn’t be so tightly orchestrated that students feel they are being told what to think.

Sometimes an issue seems to dominate campus life and students’ emotional engagement with the issue spills out during a tangentially-related discussion. A decision whether to allow the digression or to get back on track must be made quickly. If you allow the topic to be explored, be confident that the discussion will advance the students’ understanding, not merely allow them an opportunity to repeat tired old arguments.

Establishing discussion guidelines at the beginning of the semester, will help students keep their comments grounded in mutual dignity and respect. Students will be more willing to take risks in articulating their thoughts without fear of harassment. Make it clear that no matter how heated the discussion becomes, personal attacks and inappropriate or biased remarks are not acceptable.

If the class becomes too raucous, however, and tempers are flaring, break for a few minutes. Ask students to consider what has been said and to write down their reactions. This will give the class an opportunity to cool down and refocus while giving you the chance to evaluate and consider strategies for focusing the excitement and energy in a positive direction.

Individual students who overstep the bounds of civility should be dealt with immediately. If a student begins to shout, ask him or her to take a time-out––to calm down and think before rejoining the conversation. Stress that it is a conversation.

More difficult is the student whose comments are totally unacceptable. Some teachers take the student to task immediately. Others ask the student probing questions in an effort to help the student understand why his or her comments are unacceptable. The latter requires more skill and effort, but gives the student a chance to reflect upon the remarks in a less emotional manner and, perhaps, learn from them.

And, remember, you must be the leader in setting a standard of civility for the class.

Also check our our How to Deal with Politically-charged Issues in the Classroom video.

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