Planning Difficult Lessons

Thoughtful planning can help us devise effective ways to present and discuss sensitive issues in the classroom. Here we synthesize best practices from a range of resources and offer links to help you find more information. See other FDC resources like Leading Effective Discussions. See The Diverse Classroom to prepare for difficult conversations by becoming familiar with best practices in the welcoming classroom.

Identify a Clear Purpose

For an effective lesson, students will need to know how it connects to the work they have been doing and why the discussion or activity is relevant to their learning. What do you want students to be able to learn or do by the end of the lesson?

Develop Ground Rules

Ground rules help remind students of the expectations of civil discourse and give both teachers and students a tool to help correct incivilities before they occur. Consider setting ground rules early in the semester—work with your students to co-construct a list you can refer to throughout the semester. If students violate a rule, you can point them to the list and remind them of the rules established by the classroom community.

  • You can start this process on Blackboard by asking students to share their thoughts about behaviors that contribute to class discussions and those that do not. Help students to think of disruptions they’ve experienced in the past and ways to prevent them in your class.
  • Discuss the ideas in class and have students help you synthesize repeated ideas into clear rules.
  • Add rules that are important to you if students have not mentioned them.
  • Post the list in Blackboard, so students can easily review it. If new issues emerge, add to it as needed.
  • Ensure student buy-in: discuss the ground rules as they develop to help students recognize that they are relevant and useful.

Establish Common Ground

To keep the discussion focused, your students will need a common basis for understanding—perhaps a reading that you assign in advance or a video clip you show at the beginning of class. Work on connecting the topic at hand to students’ knowledge, particularly lessons learned earlier in class or in other courses.

Create a Framework to Focus the Discussion

A framework can help you to balance the purpose of the discussion with openness to students’ contributions.

  • Begin by posing clear, open-ended questions to encourage discussion. Prepare questions in advance, including questions to use when the class is not responsive. For example, you might say, “What makes this topic so challenging to discuss?”
  • Use probing questions to help students to elaborate on their comments or clarify a question.
  • Plan to redirect your students as needed by reminding them of the purpose of the discussion or by pointing to the common ground established through reading, video, or other resource.
  • When students raise tangential points, note that they are not directly relevant to the current discussion even though they are important.
  • Review the key points or issues at the end of the discussion.

Aim for Inclusion

Including everyone’s voice in whole group discussions can be challenging, especially if you have a large class. Yet you need to find a way to balance the voices in sensitive discussions, ensure that talkative students do not dominate the conversation, and create opportunities for quieter students to share their insights.

One approach is to break the class into smaller discussion groups for all or part of the discussion:

  • For example, begin the discussion with a Think-Pair-Share in response to one of your opening questions. Students gain the opportunity to reflect on the topic individually, share their ideas with a one-person audience, and collaborate on what results they might share with the class.
  • The Snowball Technique can be another effective way of moving the class from paired discussions to a full class discussion. Snowball discussions begin with paired classmates. After a specified period of time, two pairs join to form small groups of four, and the discussion continues. If your class is big enough, the quartets could come together to form larger discussion groups of eight. Finally, the whole class continues the discussion, sharing key points that evolved in their conversations.

Your students may need additional scaffolding to feel ready to contribute, so foster inclusion by helping them prepare.

Facilitate Actively

You will need to play an active role in the discussion, so you can reword students’ questions, correct misinformation, connect points to readings and other lessons, ask for clarification, and synthesize the main points. You might like to try variations on these comments:

  • What I hear you saying is …?
  • How does this illuminate the problem we explored in the reading?
  • Why do many people seem to share this view? Why do others disagree?
  • How can we investigate ideas that appear to be facts? How can we verify our sources?

Synthesize the Discussion

Reserve time at the end of the class to help students synthesize the experience—summarize the main points you discussed and connect them to the lesson’s goals. To help students solidify their learning (and gain feedback at the same time), ask them to write a minute paper. Minute papers typically ask questions like these:

  • What are the most important points you learned today?
  • What important questions remain unanswered?

You might add a question like this, “What did you learn specifically from what someone else said that you would not have thought of on your own?”

Read over the responses and summarize the feedback to share with students in the next class and thank them for participating.

(Adapted from University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. (3rd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey Bass.)


See Faculty Reflection & Advance Preparation for ideas on how to plan ahead and cope with difficult conversations. See UMBC Support for Students for student resources.

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