Faculty Club / Student Engagement / How to Keep Classroom Discussions Productive this Election Season

How to Keep Classroom Discussions Productive this Election Season

Explore ways to address unplanned conversations on hot issues, and learn how to facilitate productive classroom discussions.

Image Source: iStockPhoto

Election season is upon us once again, and with it comes a renewed sense of political engagement. In today’s increasingly divided world, some students are eager to address political matters in the classroom, while others are finding these topics hard to navigate.

Jayme Renfro, Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Northern Iowa, explains that, “In Northeast Iowa, students are reacting to the tumultuous political situation in the world by withdrawing a bit. Perhaps one of the reasons that we, as a society, are so bad at talking about politics, religion, and money is that we were taught not to talk about politics, religion, and money.” 

While some students may come to class ready to discuss current events, others may feel hesitant because conversations surrounding sensitive topics can sometimes spiral into contentious debates. As educators, it’s crucial that we prepare for these situations and, when relevant, plan structured discussions that give students a voice. 

By facilitating thoughtful conversations around real-world issues, we teach students to listen to one another and respect diverse viewpoints.

Unplanned Conversations

Election season is a common time for students to have impromptu conversations surrounding sensitive topics. If a conversation becomes heated in your classroom, it’s essential that you address the moment thoughtfully. 

Jayme reminds educators not to be afraid of these conversations and to keep them confined within the topic of your class. For example, when she teaches public policy and abortion or gun control comes up, she may ask, “Do we have any evidence that the founding fathers thought about abortion or other kinds of healthcare? What training would police officers need to undergo if there was a change to gun control law?”

Some tips for addressing unplanned conversations include:

  1. Acknowledge the Student(s): When a student raises a contentious issue, start by acknowledging their contribution while emphasizing that perspectives on the matter can vary widely.
  2. Decide Whether to Engage: Assess whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic immediately. If you feel the topic is not appropriate for your course, communicate your “why” for pausing the discussion.
  3. Assess Student Interest: Consider the class’s interest in discussing the topic. If students express a desire to have a dialogue and you prefer to postpone it, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways students can prepare.

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For more guidance on managing hot moments, refer to this resource from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University: Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom.

To Address or Not to Address?

Even if students don’t bring up sensitive topics in class, there’s something to be said for bringing them up yourself. Research suggests that most students find it beneficial when instructors acknowledge issues of deep concern on campus. Failure to address these issues can leave some students feeling frustrated or disappointed.

To address sensitive current events like the election, start by explaining what’s happening and the emotionally charged nature of it. Point out that we all come from diverse backgrounds and have differing perspectives and emotions surrounding these issues.

Try using a sample statement like this one, which was adapted from Teaching During a Crisis | CITL Indiana:

“With the midterm elections coming up, I recognize that political tensions and emotions may be higher than usual, especially after what has been a challenging few years for all of us. We all come from different backgrounds from across the United States and the world, so each of us will be thinking about and experiencing this election differently…”

You can follow this statement with plans for a structured discussion, resources for students, or ways for students to engage in activism outside of class.

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When deciding whether to address the election or another sensitive topic in class, determine how to tie the topic back to learning objectives. 

Ask yourself these questions:

Which topics within my discipline might require special attention in light of the election?

  • Ex: How might the topic of immigration be relevant to my class on International Relations?

How might the candidate platforms be a resource for teaching and learning these topics?

  • Ex: Can we explore Candidate X’s platform vs. Candidate Y’s platform in regard to immigration policy?

What are the diverse perspectives and voices that characterize my field related to these topics, and how do I maintain some balance in presenting them?

  • Ex: How might we examine the spectrum of opinions surrounding immigration policy and use our findings to explore International Relations on a broader scale?

8 Tips for Planning Productive Discussions

1. Identify a Clear Purpose

To ensure political discussions stay on track, start by identifying a clear purpose. This foundational step serves as a compass, which guides both you and your students toward constructive dialogue. 

Effectively state your purpose by first connecting the issue in question to your course materials. Use your learning objectives to determine how discussing the event will help students meet learning objectives. 

There are some classes where discussing the philosophical pros and cons of abortion is appropriate, but that isn’t the case for most classes. It is up to us to be able to keep the discussion as close to the learning objectives as possible.

Jayme Renfro, Associate Professor of Political Science

For example, if you’re teaching Calculus, you may realize that discussing the election doesn’t align with your learning goals. But if you’re teaching behavioral science, examining candidate behaviors at a recent debate may be a valuable practice in observation and analysis.

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To expand on your identified purpose, pinpoint the key skills students will gain through these conversations.

Skills that students can improve through political discussion may include:

  • Active speaking and listening
  • Media literacy
  • Engagement in civil discourse

2. Establish Ground Rules

Once you and your students have a clear purpose for discussion, it’s time to establish ground rules. These rules will guide students in creating a respectful environment that amplifies diverse perspectives. 

Begin by stating students’ responsibility to include all voices. Share in this responsibility with students to ensure no one gets excluded from the conversation. 

Other ground rules may include:

  • Recognize the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of your peers.
  • Listen respectfully.
  • Be open to changing your perspective.
  • Speak for yourself instead of generalizing—use “I” statements.
  • Respect differences—everyone’s opinion matters.
  • Challenge ideas, not people.

These ground rules for discussion cultivate an atmosphere where constructive criticism and thoughtful debate can flourish. When you establish ground rules from the start, you give students the power to lead and shape the conversation in a meaningful and inclusive way.

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To give students more ownership over classroom discussion, have them create ground rules or discussion norms together. 

An activity for this may look like:

  1. Place students in small groups and ask them to collectively create five discussion norms.
  2. Pass out sticky notes and ask groups to write each of their norms on a separate note.
  3. When everyone is finished, ask a representative from each group to place the sticky notes on the board.
  4. Students then work together to group similar norms into clusters.
  5. From there, students decide on a final list of discussion norms for the class.

3. Start with Reflection Time

Beginning classroom discussions with dedicated reflective time is an effective way to ensure inclusivity. By giving students the opportunity to gather their thoughts in writing, you encourage deeper engagement and more thoughtful contributions. This time also allows quieter students to process and plan out their thoughts before speaking up. 

Reflection time can come right before the discussion or in a prior preparation class. Once students know the essential question or purpose of the discussion, they can jot down their initial ideas, questions, and talking points. You can also provide optional resources like background articles for students to review ahead of time. These may be especially helpful for international students if your conversation focuses on American politics.

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Reflection time before a discussion is valuable, but you should also allocate reflection time for after the discussion. This reflective time allows students to synthesize the information they learned and debrief with the group in a meaningful way.

Post-discussion reflection time may include the following questions:

  • How do you think the discussion went?
  • What did you learn?
  • What lingering questions do you have?
  • What do you plan to do differently in future discussions?

4. Consider Using a Discussion Framework

When planning a structured discussion around controversial topics, consider using a discussion framework to guide student interactions. There are a variety of frameworks to explore, and depending on the purpose of your discussion, one may work better than others.

Jayme recommends the University of Wisconsin’s Discussion Project. Through this tool, she’s found various discussion strategies. One strategy involves having students work in pairs to present arguments to one another before repeating back the main points of their partner’s viewpoint. She explains, “No rebuttal, no arguing. Just summarizing it and repeating it back. This encourages active listening and makes sure each student is actually hearing the points of each side of the argument.”

Other strategies you can try include:

Pinwheel Discussion

A pinwheel discussion encourages student participation and higher-order thinking by helping students take on differing perspectives. To facilitate a pinwheel discussion, divide the class into groups and assign each group a viewpoint. Assign one of these groups the role of provocateur (discussion facilitator). Students in each group then take turns being active members in the discussion, while the others listen.

Image Source: BCPS Office of Social Studies

Anonymized Debate

Like the pinwheel discussion, an anonymized debate challenges students to take on varying perspectives. In this format, begin with a controversial question, which students answer anonymously on a notecard. Then collect the notecards, shuffle them, and redistribute them. Each student represents the point of view of the notecard they receive during the debate.

You can use this evidence card as inspiration:

Image Source: storyboardthat

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To engage students in the planning process, consider having them choose a discussion format from options you provide. When students have agency over what framework you use, they’ll likely feel more comfortable contributing.

It’s important to note that some students may have trouble speaking up no matter the discussion format. To accommodate these students, allow them to opt out of the discourse. Instead, they can take on the role of active listener through a note-taking activity.

5. Be an Active Facilitator

Your role as facilitator is critical to the success of the discussion. 

Facilitating a discussion differs from leading it because, as a facilitator, you relinquish ownership. Students instead must take accountability for where and how the discussion goes.

When facilitating, think of yourself as a political debate moderator. Start by asking a broad question, then let students take the lead. If the conversation veers off course or becomes heated, chime in to veer the conversation back toward learning goals. Refer to this resource on Facilitating Political Discussions from the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education.

Planner, host, moderator, devil’s advocate, fellow-student, and judge – a potentially confusing set of roles. Even the most seasoned group leader must be content with uncertainty, because discussion teaching is the art of managing spontaneity.

C. Roland Christensen, Harvard Business School

As a facilitator, your duties may include:

🧠 Preparing thoughtful questions: Prepare questions in advance to extend thinking and encourage deeper exploration of the subject.

🗺 Guiding students back to the topic: If the conversation veers off track, gently bring it back to the central topic or question.

🙏 Finding common ground: Encourage students to identify areas of common ground, fostering a sense of unity amid differing opinions.

🧐 Clarifying student comments: When necessary, clarify student comments to ensure everyone understands each other’s perspectives.

Image Source: Institute for Arts Integration

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Have a couple of students take on the role of facilitators for the discussion. This gives more responsibility to students and strengthens their leadership and mediation skills.

6. Know Your Biases and Remain Inclusive

Every instructor brings their own viewpoints into the classroom. As a facilitator, you must detach from personal biases and guide rather than impose your views. Recognizing and addressing these biases is essential to creating an inclusive and respectful atmosphere. 

To remain inclusive while facilitating, give students the benefit of the doubt. Always assume positive intent and use follow-up questions that encourage students to expand on unclear statements. If a student says something that doesn’t sit right with you, ask the class for additional viewpoints that might challenge the statement.

Every one of us has areas in which we are vulnerable to strong feelings. Knowing what those areas are in advance can diminish the element of surprise. This self-knowledge can enable you to devise in advance strategies for managing yourself and the class when such a moment arises.

Lee Warren, Derek Bok Center

When creating ground rules for discussion, encourage students to share alternative viewpoints and challenge assumptions in respectful ways. If moments of conflict arise, ensure that you’re protecting all students equally, even the students you don’t agree with. Offensive or inappropriate comments are exceptions to this point.

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Have students complete an exercise during discussion preparation that helps them reflect on their own biases.

Ask students to take a few minutes to reflect individually and write down:

  1. Any strong opinions they hold related to the upcoming discussion topic.
  2. Any experiences or influences that might have shaped these opinions.

You can also ask students to complete Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). IATs evaluate a person’s attitudes or beliefs about a range of topics, including age, gender, and race.

7. Address Inappropriate or Offensive Comments

When discussing polarizing or controversial topics, there’s always a risk that someone will say something insensitive. While you shouldn’t call students out based on your biases, it’s crucial to address inappropriate remarks.

Some strategies you can use to address these comments include:

❤️‍🩹 Move the dialogue away from personal attacks and toward a discussion of why hurtful words can be damaging.

🔀 Shift power away from one individual to the community. Encourage students to address the issue collectively.

❓Engage the student responsible for the comment by asking probing questions, such as, “What underlying assumptions are you making here?” or “Is it always the case?” 

If a student experiences an emotional reaction or angry outburst, acknowledge it and offer them the option to remain in the discussion or step out temporarily.

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Jayme explains a time she had to address a student who said something insensitive/inappropriate in class. Here’s how she handled it: 

I dismissed class early. I was upset enough that I could not have been an effective teacher. The student never returned to class, but my plan was to ask them to come to my office hours before they returned to class and have a brief discussion with them about my expectations for civility. If that didn’t go well I would have referred it to my department chair.

8. Debrief the Conversation

After the discussion concludes, be sure to debrief with your students. A debrief may include individual reflection time, as well as a larger group wrap up session. Debriefing helps the class reflect on the conversation’s outcomes, while reinforcing its educational value. 

When debriefing, remember to:

🙏 Express Gratitude: Thank your students for engaging openly and respectfully with challenging issues that matter.

🔎 Synthesize Key Insights: Help students come up with the most important takeaways from the discussion. These may include core arguments, assumptions, and implications.

🙇 Encourage Continued Reflection: Promote ongoing learning and growth by motivating students to continue reflecting on the topic.

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As you conclude your debrief of the discussion, invite students to check in outside of class. If you touched on particularly sensitive subjects, refer students to on-campus resources where they can seek further support.

Take Care of Yourself

Holding discussions on sensitive topics can be both challenging and rewarding. Remember that it’s okay not to have all the answers. As election season or other contentious periods unfold, take care of yourself first.

While some topics may be hard to address, they are profoundly meaningful for students’ growth and understanding.

To get more inspiration for holding meaningful class discussions, browse Course Hero’s resource library. There, you’ll find resources from hundreds of professors navigating similar issues in classrooms across the world.

About the Author

Morgan Westling is an Associate Content Specialist at Course Hero. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Portland and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The University of the South. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing for over 7 years. Find more of her work at http://www.morganwestling.com.

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