Hot Moments

Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics

The following guidelines can help instructors facilitate classroom discussion around controversial issues. Whatever the context, it is helpful to structure such discussions in a way that defines boundaries for the process and provides some degree of closure within the classroom. Such discussions are an especially important time to explicitly discuss expectations for respecting a range of perspectives and experiences in the room.

Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unexpected

It is wise to be prepared to respond to the possibility that a student will raise a controversial issue in class unexpectedly. Immediate response is called for, if only to decide what to do next:

  • Acknowledge the student who raised the issue while noting that students may vary in their responses.
  • Decide whether you are ready and willing to engage with the topic right away.
  • Quickly assess whether the class would like to spend time sharing views about the topic.

If students want to have a dialogue, and you want to wait on it, schedule a discussion for a later class and suggest ways that students could prepare.

Click here for further resources for making the most of 'hot moments' that emerge in your classroom when you do not anticipate them. 

Handling Controversial Topics in Discussion

Many instructors consciously avoid controversial issues in the classroom because of the difficulty involved in managing heated discussions. However, controversy can be a useful, powerful, and memorable tool to promote learning. Research has demonstrated that conflict or controversy during classroom discussion can promote cognitive gains in complex reasoning, integrated thinking, and decision-making. The links in this section offer guidance for how instructors can successfully manage discussions on controversial topics.

Making the Most of Hot Moments in the Classroom (CRLT)

CRLT developed this brief handout to offer instructors ways to make the most of "hot moments" as learning opportunities. It includes specific strategies to prepare for, respond to, and follow up after eruptions of tension or conflict in the classroom. 

Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom (Warren, 2000)

The challenges of dealing with “hot moments” are 1) to manage ourselves so as to make them useful and 2) to find the teaching opportunities to help students learn in and from the moment. This resource suggests tips for instructors faced with hot moments in the classroom.

Discussion-Based Teaching and Handling Controversial Topics in the Classroom

Discussions help students apply abstract ideas and think critically about what they learn. In fact, studies show that discussions build students’ problem-solving skills more effectively than do lectures. However, fostering productive discussions can be difficult for even the most experienced instructors. The articles in this section offer tips on preparing for discussions, asking questions that promote discussion, getting students to talk, and handling common problems that arise during discussions.

Using Discussion Questions Effectively (CRLT)
Strategies for encouraging student engagement and critical thinking through effective questioning. 

IDEA Paper #49: Effective Classroom Discussions (IDEA Center, Cashin, 2011)   
Explores the strengths and weaknesses of discussion approaches, and suggests 18 recommendations for improving discussion in college courses.

Teaching Strategies: Disrespect and Disruption in the College Classroom

The resources on this page describe ways to reduce and respond to disruptive or disrespectful student behavior in the college classroom. Such behavior can not only negatively affect the overall learning environment for students but also contribute to instructors' stress and discontent.  In addition to the resources below, CRLT consultants are available to help you think through strategies for both preventing or responding to disruption and disrespect. 

Understanding Disrespect and Disruption

Reducing Incivility in the University/College Classroom
This resource defines incivility in the classroom as offensive, intimidating, or hostile behavior that interferes with students’ ability to learn and instructors’ ability to teach. This paper identifies factors contributing to uncivil interactions in the classroom and provides practical strategies designed to avoid or diffuse such conflicts.

Understanding Student and Faculty Incivility in Higher Education
This paper reviews academic literature focusing on disrespect and disruptions in the classroom and explores strategies for preventing and managing student incivility.

Guidelines for Discussing Incidents of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination

The guidelines and suggestions on this page are designed to help instructors facilitate classroom discussion around incidents targeting members of the University community based on their identities or beliefs and other behaviors that express hostility, derision or violence.  In the wake of such incidents on campus or in the wider community, instructors may want to plan discussions or be ready to handle unexpected questions. The following guidelines help address both contexts.

Whatever the context, discussion about such topics will be most effective when it:

  • is structured in a way that defines boundaries for the process, and that brings the discussion to closure within the classroom
  • somehow includes all students in the class
  • extends discourse beyond polarized and polarizing debates
  • acknowledges that facts and interpretations of specific social conflicts may change with time, but tools for conceptual understanding and dialogue will continue to be useful past the current moment

Spontaneous Discussions: Dealing with the Unanticipated

If, during class, a student raises for discussion an issue or incident involving hate or bias, consider the following strategies: