Keeping our cool when class discussion gets hot

October 27, 2020 | Claudia Stanny

Keeping our cool when class discussion gets hot

Between the coronavirus, hurricanes, public outcries for social justice, and a divisive national election, stress is at an all-time high. What should faculty do when a student blind-sides you with inappropriate comments or disruptive behavior during a class discussion? These “hot moments” challenge instructors to respond appropriately while preserving a civil classroom environment. Hot moments can happen unexpectedly, even when faculty employ strategies to create a respectful, inclusive classroom environment. This essay offers suggestions for managing your class to minimize the chance that you will be caught off guard by a difficult confrontation.

Help students get to know one another. Build a sense of community among your students. As we have all learned from the comment section in social media, anonymity sometimes enables rude and disrespectful behaviors. When students know one another as individuals, they tend to be kinder.

Establish ground rules for class discussions of sensitive topics that are likely to trigger a hot moment. Ideally, instructors establish these expectations early in the semester (e.g., holding a class discussion about the class conduct statement in your syllabus). However, a good strategy is to remind students of class ground rules for respectful behavior before beginning a discussion of a particularly sensitive topic. Common ground rules include the following:

  • Use a respectful tone.
  • Do not interrupt or yell.
  • Name-calling or character attacks are not acceptable strategies for arguments about ideas.
  • Ask questions if you do not understand. Do not assume you know what others think or mean by your interpretation of statements they make. Ask others to clarify their intent before you respond.
  • Try to understand the perspective of other students before stating your opinion.

Facilitate discussions to ensure that all students have an opportunity to voice their opinion. Use facilitation strategies that promote reflective discussion and ensure full participation of students to engage and represent multiple points of view. Inclusive discussion strategies include the following:

  • Prompt students to make arguments from multiple perspectives (including those they do and do not agree with).
  • Establish rules about how often or how long any one student can speak during discussion to prevent one or two students from dominating discussion.
  • Use facilitation strategies described in the Vanderbilt University resource, Difficult Dialogues, which describes three effective facilitation strategies for discussing sensitive issues.
  • Create a participation rubric that includes a criterion for “classroom citizenship” and rewards students who contribute to civil discussion and inclusion of multiple students. Two examples of class participation rubrics can be found on the CUTLA rubrics archive:



Center for University Teaching, Learning, and Assessment (nd). Examples of Rubrics. 

Gold (nd). Making the most of “hot moments” in the classroom. Resource for faculty, University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT).

Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching and Learning (nd). Difficult Dialogues.

10/27/2020 ajc