Office of the Provost

October 4, 2017

How to sustain vibrant conversations in the classroom

Jerry Baldasty

In March, I sent a message with some advice for faculty on ways to sustain vibrant classroom discussions. At the time, current events had produced sharp political differences among us on our campuses – and throughout our country. It seems little has changed since February, in that respect.

But no matter the political or cultural climate, we should strive to facilitate robust discussions in our classrooms. Doing that isn’t always easy, which is why I’m reposting my message below now that autumn courses have begun.

I welcome your additional suggestions for best practices regarding classroom discussions. Please email me at, and I will share more ideas in the future.

Lately, I’ve heard from a variety of UW faculty colleagues who are working hard to sustain vibrant classroom discussions at a time when current events have produced sharp political differences among us. Our colleagues report that students across the political spectrum say that anxiety about current events leaves them unable to engage openly and fully in class discussions. Students are wary of how their classmates or professors might respond to their views on a range of topics. The result: anxiety for instructors and students alike.

Every class can present a challenge – for the task is to create a learning community, with people who often do not know one another, and who analyze their world through different frames. This is particularly germane to discussion-based classes and classes that involve contemporary issues (e.g., environment, health, politics, race, immigration, social justice, education and much more). Additionally, a faculty member may have to deal with students’ preconceptions about the instructor’s experiences, perspectives, research and openness to disagreement or questioning.

We’ve heard questions from faculty and teaching assistants such as these:
• How do we encourage students to express their views while maintaining a sense of respect and understanding?
• What are the best strategies for addressing social justice issues (especially pertaining to race, gender and sexuality) when students believe these are partisan issues?

Many of our faculty have been thinking about these matters for some time, and they are willing share approaches and practices that have been successful. Here are a few suggestions, based on my conversations with several faculty, that may help with establishing and sustaining a respectful, vibrant class discussion setting in which students from across the spectrum may fully engage. While many of you do this already, reminders are always useful, especially as we prepare for spring quarter.

Setting expectations from day one
Put norms about engagement and disruption on your syllabus and course web site. Discuss norms with students on the first day. And let students provide examples of engagement and of disruption.

One professor uses this statement in her syllabus – and then calls attention to it at the start of the quarter, and other times such a reminder seems warranted:

“I aspire to create a classroom environment that encourages and welcomes different perspectives. How do we learn anything in the absence of robust engagement with ideas and perspectives that differ from our own? Respect for different perspectives and the people who express them does not necessarily mean agreement with them; at a minimum, it means that we should cultivate gratitude for the opportunity to re-examine our cherished habits of thought.”

Reading aloud a paragraph on the first day of class may not be enough. Periodic reminders throughout the quarter are important – especially when things are going well.

Ground rules
At the start of the quarter, some faculty members ask their students to create discussion ground rules that respect free speech rights, and that model respect for others. Fundamental to this approach is that everyone has to agree that disagreement is acceptable, but disrespect is not.

Faculty report that student engagement in setting ground rules can work well. Students will take ownership of those rules, monitoring their own behavior and “calling each other out” for breaking the rules of engagement. As one professor told me, “It’s not perfect, but it can go a long way to creating an environment in which every student’s voice can be heard.”

Encouraging broad participation
George Lovell, professor of Political Science and divisional dean of Social Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, contributed tips to encourage the maximum participation in class discussions.

Positive type reinforcement
• If a small number of students are dominating the conversation, invite and wait for other students to participate.
• Always thank students who express less popular or controversial views for contributing.
• If a student disagrees with something you said, thank the student and make clear that the comment was welcome.
• Thank students when they express constructive disagreement following the classroom norms for discussion.
• Reach out (by email or in office meetings) to individual students who are not participating to invite them to speak more often.

Negative type reinforcement
• Intervene if there is a personal attack on another student by reminding students of goals of civility in discussions.
• When a student makes comments at the borderline of civility rules, invite the student to reframe the comment in less personal terms.
• In milder cases which still have the potential for escalation, approach the student outside of class to talk about the impact of comments on others.

Recognize: It isn’t always easy
A few weeks ago, one UW professor was flummoxed during an awkward moment in his class. Nothing in his 30 years of teaching had prepared him for what transpired.

The professor was reviewing the results of a student survey; and prior to class, he had screened the survey comments for profanity and racially-tinged words. But given the size of the data set, he couldn’t catch everything.

While lecturing, he pulled up one survey response that could be interpreted as anti-Muslim. He was caught off-guard. He was fairly certain that several Muslim students were the in class. Worried that the survey response would get in the way of student learning – and that discussion of the response would derail the class – he just forged ahead.

Later, he was still troubled by his reaction, so he revisited the issue in the next class session. He told his students that he had been flustered and didn’t know what to say. He then talked about his goals for the class – that he did not want to shield students from the world. At the same time, he wanted to make sure conversations were civil and respectful. He was willing to alert them when topics were about to become uncomfortable, yet he would not prevent them from seeing things. While he wanted to set the tone, he was adamant that he would not tell students what to think. When he finished speaking, the students applauded.

We all learn from each other. Below are additional ideas and links to a variety of resources across our three campuses.

The Center for Teaching and Learning has outlined several strategies for dealing with challenging classroom situations, things you can do as you design the syllabus, during the first week of class and in the midst a tense moment. Also important is self-care for instructors, which the center addresses, as well.

The Faculty Senate’s guide to fostering an inclusive community for research, teaching and service also offers excellent advice and resources. The UW Bothell Campus Library has posted an informed civic engagement resource guide, and UW Tacoma’s Faculty Resource Center also provides support for faculty.

If classroom behavior becomes disruptive, Student Life has posted what you can do, based on our faculty and student codes, as well as UW resources to assist you and your students.