Difficult discussions

Brief Description

A difficult discussion is one in which conflicting and deeply-held perspectives raise emotions to a point that jeopardizes the productivity of the conversation.   Difficult discussions tend to involve one or more aspects of students’ identities, such as race, gender, gender identity, social class, sexual orientation, religion, or political affiliation.  Difficult discussions may also place instructors’ own identities and emotions on the line, if only from the perspective of our professional identities as experts in a discipline.  When a classroom discussion moves in a direction that heightens emotions, instructors need a broad set of interpersonal skills in order to keep the session productive. 

Discussions involving issues about which some class members have little personal experience and others have lived experience require particular care. Students who have primarily stereotypical knowledge about an issue or group of people to guide them may bring misconceptions to the topic that will pose a significant barrier to their learning.  Those must be addressed before new learning can happen. 


Difficult discussions typically arise in one of three ways:

  • The instructor introduces the topic as well as the controversy.  Begin with misconceptions, and help students examine how such beliefs are produced and disseminated.  Then explore the research and analytical methods by which your discipline examines this issue.  Particularly in courses where students are first exposed to disciplinary evaluations of common misconceptions (typically in general education courses), students may need multiple and scaffolded opportunities to practice your discipline’s methods of producing knowledge.  

    • Example: Racial Inequities in US schools and busing

  • The controversy arises unexpectedly.  If you have introduced the topic by framing the issue within the context of your discipline, responding to a controversy will be easier than backtracking to the beginning.  In either situation, you may need to pull the class back from the emotional moment in order to reestablish the rules for classroom interactions and/or to establish the framework within which the issue is studied within the discipline.  Help students understand that stepping back is not an attempt to evade the controversy, but instead a means to help students think about it productively.  Tie the discussion to the goals of your course or program, including professional goals such as the ability to collaborate productively with diverse colleagues. 

    • Example: Evolutionary theory discussions sparks a religious discussion

  • A campus, regional, national or international event is omnipresent and may require discussion.  Addressing controversies in a course where subject matter is not directly relevant takes particular sensitivity.  Acknowledging, say, a sexual assault or racial incident that has become widely known across campus may allow students to refocus their attention on your course. It is reasonable to acknowledge your own boundaries (e.g., “I know that this event provokes anxiety in many of us, including me. I want to acknowledge that it has occurred, and I do not have the training to lead a discussion about this.  The campus has resources at X, Y and Z.  Despite the event, we are going to have class today and discuss the topic as assigned.”)

    • Example: A terrorist attack has occurred with high salience to some or many students in the class

Tips for Implementation

  • Be sure your topic fits your course. Academic freedom does not give us carte blanche to do just anything we wish.  Our Affirmative Action and Equity Officer can help you understand what the System policy and courts permit and do not permit: Classroom Discussions, Free Speech, and UW System Policies (UWL only -- login required).

  • Identify potential hot spots in your course and structure your discussion of them carefully in advance.  See the Discussion Design Worksheet for Instructors and the Discussion Design Worksheet for Student Instructions for help with design.

  • Monitor your own implicit biases as well as your own life experiences.  Consider how those might influence how you address controversies in class. 

  • Consider that you may be asking your students to risk being wrong or hurt in a public setting (your class) in front of an authority figure (you). Consider whether you can also risk being vulnerable in your class.  Even one story about a stereotype on which you inadvertently operated can go far in helping the conversation open.

  • Update your facts and ensure that you have the relevant information with you in class.

  • Set ground rules with student participation. Teach students discussion skills by helping them monitor their own and the class’ behaviors, including their ability to call others and themselves on violations of the ground rules (see Bill Cerbin's Discussion Evaluation Form for help with this).

  • Introductory-level classes are likely to need time to learn to discuss hot topics.  Try not to start with something explosive – the likely result will be silence. 

  • Even when a student appears to challenge your expertise with disdain, a respectful response that takes the question seriously models the civil discourse you are asking students to maintain so that the discussion remains productive.

  • Emotion itself is not the problem; guiding the discussion so that it remains productive is the challenge. If you find yourself getting emotional, find a way to pull back.  You can also explain an emotion that students can see. See Difficult Discussions Tips for more ideas.

  • When a disciplinary concept challenges a deeply-valued belief, such as those related to the student’s religion, a measureable outcome is students’ ability to explain a point of view different from their own.


Hoskins, D. (2015). Class discussion. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://www.uwlax.edu/catl/teaching-guides/teaching-improvement-guide/how-can-i-improve/difficult-discussions/