Reflection Before Discussion

Planning a Discussion

Before leading class discussions, instructors should begin by considering the learning outcomes for students. What do you hope students will learn during the discussion? Is the focus on course content, skills, dispositions, or all three? What strategies do you look to use to extend students’ thinking and encourage critical analysis and broaden student perspectives?

Exercises – Strategies to Prepare for Difficult Discussions

Before the conversation:

  • Think about what you hope students will gain from the discussion.
  • Make intellectual exploration, not judgment or consensus, a goal for class discussions.
  • Frame the conversation with prompts and questions.
  • Consider how to reply to incomplete or inaccurate responses or when student views are at odds with prevailing perspectives.
  • “Name and Frame” is the way you will address “hot button” topics when they arise.
    • “Name” the challenge, and then “frame” your approach by describing your expectations for how students can disagree and respectfully share alternative viewpoints.
  • Teach students the skills they need to participate in difficult conversations

Supercharged Subjects

While some topics can suddenly and unexpectedly generate heated discussions and hot button moments, others are likely to cause heated discussions every time. These are known as “supercharged subjects.” Talking about decolonization, anti-Indigenous racism and classism, or Indigenous land rights are a few topics that can be supercharged.


Exercises – Strategies for Planning and Implementing Course Content Involving Difficult Discussions

Below are some strategies for planning a course or module that facilitates quality discussion and thoughtful debate, mainly when the subject is divisive or emotionally charged.

Begin to shape the terms of debate long before the controversial issue arises in class.

  • As a class, consider reviewing different perspectives and underlying knowledge bases forming major arguments around the topic.

Define the kinds of mental operations required to deal effectively with the controversial issue.

  • Layout the possible assumptions behind specific arguments, unpack popular attitudes around them, and what these may convey.

Systematically model the operations and roles students will need to encounter the controversial subject successfully.

  • Consider ways in which people might respectfully disagree about or expand upon a topic (“I wonder if you have considered this from the perspective of…”

Provide students with experiences of seeing a question from multiple perspectives.

  • Offer multiple critiques or discussions of the topic from very different viewpoints and angles.

Give students practice at contextualizing controversial issues.

  • Discuss the cultural, contextual, historical, and social contexts surrounding the issues.

Approach the controversial issue incrementally:

  • Step 1. Have students define the terms in which the issue has been faced in the past.
  • Step 2. Have students evaluate the validity of criteria that have been used to discuss the issue
  • Step 3. Have students widen the range of possible positions.
  • Step 4. Then have students contemplate their responses.

Interrupt the discussion to make points of disagreement explicit and observe them together.

  • “Let’s pause here and consider what central disagreements and sticking points  we can observe.”

Despite the structure, make sure the discussion belongs to the students, and be prepared to take advantage of student input at every stage.

Facilitating a Tough Discussion


Watch the “Navigating Difficult Conversations” video aimed to guide you through navigating difficult conversations.


Center for Teaching, Research & Learning (CTRL). (n.d.). Facilitating class discussions and navigating difficult conversations. American University. Retrieved from

Pace, D. (2003). Controlled Fission: Teaching Supercharged Subjects. College Teaching, 51(2), pp. 42–45. Retrieved from


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Decolonizing the Engineering Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Pamela Wolf, Ben Harris, Nika Martinussen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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