Navigating controversial topics in the classroom

Navigating controversial topics in the classroom

If your syllabus includes controversial topics, you will want to plan and anticipate difficult and emotional classroom discussions. Discussions may consist of multiple phases such as the initial discussion, a potential need to restore community (during or after), and self-reflection. Remember always that your role is to facilitate an inclusive learning environment for your students.

Facilitating discussion

  • Remind your students of the guidelines for class discussion covered in your syllabus.
    • Consider using the ISU Principles of Community, “Students are responsible for living the tenets established in ISU’s Principles of Community: Respect, Purpose, Cooperation, Richness of Diversity, Freedom from discrimination, and the Honest and respectful expression of ideas. Visit ISU’s Principles of Community website (
    • Along with “Netiquette is “Internet Etiquette” or the conventions of politeness about the way we use the Internet and interact with others online. To provide a foundation for civility in the online learning environment, we promote the following Netiquette at ISU (PDF) ( for general guidelines when communicating in this course.”
  • Direct the conversation to the issue, and don’t let students attack other students in personal terms. Students should focus on the argument, not the person.
  • Do not ignore the situation when a student makes a hurtful comment to you or another student. Acknowledge that inappropriate behavior has occurred. It would help if you decided how much time you want to spend on it in class or address it after class.
  • Do not be defensive, even when the student is disruptive. Listen respectfully and acknowledge the possibility that the student may be correct. Your behavior in such a situation will be a role model for your students.
  • Try not to let yourself be rattled by the event, or try not to make it look like you are. As the instructor, if you can hold yourself steady, you will create a holding environment where people can work out the issues that have arisen.
  • Protect the lone outlier (the attacked or attacker), regardless of their position.
  • If you run into problems that may escalate into an unresolved conflict in the your learning environment:

Restoring community

  • You may want to ask students to step back after a heated discussion, analyze what went on and what they learned from the process.
  • Defer. Tell students that this is an important issue and that you will take it up in the next session. Use the time to think and plan a strategy. Make sure you return to the topic later, as promised.
  • Go around the room and ask each student who has spoken (and others if they wish) to state their view and explain it. Do not permit interruptions and acknowledge each student’s comments, no matter how you feel about it personally.
  • If a student breaks down as a result of the original outburst, recognize it and ask the student if they would like to remain in the space or take a break to pull themselves together.
  • If necessary, stop the class, assign students to research the issue, and write a short essay for the next class meeting. Ask students to write about the topic for five minutes in class and then invite them to share them out afterward.
  • Incorporate effective practices located on the Be Identity-Conscious page.


  • Ask students to write a reflection in response to the critical dialogue. This step provides students to think about and come to some terms with the issue and further discuss it. Consider using Brookfield’s (2012) Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) to discover the effects your teaching has on students and determine the emotional highs and lows of their learning. Using the CIQ gives you a running commentary on the emotional tenor of each class. Learn more from Brookfield’s website or access Brookfield’s (2017) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (Vol. Second edition) online from Parks Library.
  • Use the dialogue as an opportunity to analyze the topic being discussed or the initial event.
  • Ask students to think about how their reactions mirror the subject at hand and what they might learn about the topic from their behavior or experience.

Navigating controversial topics in the classroom, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Navigating controversial topics in the classroom, is a derivative of Managing hot moments developed by Harvard University‘s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning retrieved (November 1, 2016) from