Supporting Meaningful Conversations

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In an article "On Difficult Conversations" by Derisa Grant, the author argues that faculty badly need more practice incorporating discussions of race, gender and other identity-related issues into their courses.  Conversations related to topics related to diversity, identities, inequities, and current events can be challenging to navigate, potentially leading to heated discussions, but labeling them as "difficult" suggests that they are troublesome or tangential.  We need to be prepared to support and facilitate such discussions in both online and in-person classes. They can help students develop important skills in meaningful discourse, evidence-based critical thinking, perspective-taking, and listening. Below, we provide suggestions for how instructors can create a positive climate for class discussions about topics that may spark hot moments, whether in a live interaction or asynchronous discussion forum (e.g., discussion board, chat channel, email, or VoiceThread). At the bottom of this page, we also share some special considerations for online discussion forums.

Meaningful Conversations FAQs

Set the stage for such discussions by developing guidelines for class participation and meaningful discourse. Guidelines for real-time online interactions may look a lot like those for in-person interactions. Discussion forums and other types of asynchronous interactions call for specific "netiquette" guideliness. Here are two examples of netiquette guidelines for online instruction.

In courses relying heavily on online instruction, instructors can build rapport by increasing their presence and supporting peer-to-peer interaction by making classes more personal:

“I never would have thought that it was possible to have a personal relationship with classmates or a teacher that you never meet in person but here I am at the end of these eight weeks feeling like I have met these people in person.”

Online classes can be just as personal as in-person classes, as the quote above from a recent KU student explains, but instructors have to be intentional in engaging students and creating a sense of community. You can’t just take an in-person class, stuff it into Canvas and expect it to work. You have to create opportunities for interaction and add personal touches that make students feel part of a class. No single approach provides that. Technology can help, but it must be accompanied by solid pedagogy.

What follows are some examples of how instructors have successfully engaged students, improved learning, and helped create a sense of community. These strategies can also help bring more personality and connection into in-person classes. 

Introductory video

A short welcome video introduces students to a class and allows students see the person behind the course. Susan Marshall, an instructor in psychology, explains it this way: “Making a welcome video seems somewhat unnecessary from a course content perspective but it can go a long way toward students seeing you as an approachable, real-life person.” Here's an example of a welcome video that Doug Ward (Journalism/CTE) and Carmen Orth-Alfie (KU Libraries) created for their course.  Here is some guidance on using Kaltura to produce video and audio for your course. 

Class introductions

Have each student create a short profile that remains available throughout the class. Ali Brox, an instructor in environmental studies, likes to use VoiceThread, a tool that allows students to create short videos with a webcam. She prompts them with the types of questions she often asks in her in-person classes: What is your name? What is your major? Where are you from? Why are you taking this class? Other instructors have students create written profiles and invite students to share photos. Using prompts related to course material can also provide insights. For instance, Carmen Orth-Alfie of KU Libraries asks students in a data class to choose a quote about data and explain why that quote has meaning for them.

Individual correspondence

Reach out to each student individually and welcome them to the class. Refer to something from the profiles students create so they know that you have read about them. You can take that a step further and assign students to introduce themselves to a few other students individually. You can assign those randomly or have students comment on profiles of others who have similar interests or on I sometimes have students do something similar, choosing three others with similar interests (based on the profiles) and introduce themselves to those colleagues.

Weekly updates

Lack of a specific meeting time can make a class feel amorphous. To provide some structure, email students each Monday and provide an overview of what they will be doing in class that week. Include synopses of interesting things you have been reading or that relate to the class, keeping the message light and trying to make it something students want to read.

Discussion boards

These provide important opportunities for interaction and help students think through course material. Small discussion groups (six to eight students) provide more opportunities for interaction and allow students to get to know one another. To help students approach the discussions from different perspectives, consider assigning roles like discussion leader, devil’s advocate (who points out flaws or brings in alternative viewpoints), synthesizer (who ties the discussions to previous course material), reporter (who summarizes each week's conversations) and monitor (who visits the other group discussions and shares what those groups are doing).

Podcasts and videos

Video can provide a good means of reaching students, as long as it is brief (five to 10 minutes) and on point. Videos are best when you need to show something visually. Those in which an instructor sits in front of a camera and talks provide little incentive for students to watch. Podcasts are often a good alternative when you don't have visual material to share. Students can listen on their phones, so podcasts help engage them away from their computers.

Instant messaging

Rather than using email, consider Microsoft Teams as a way to communicate with students. Teams is a team messaging platform that can be either synchronous or asynchronous. You can message students individually or in groups using a computer, a tablet or a phone. Students can do the same. Teams is a good alternative to Blackboard's discussion board, and it is a good place to create an area for students to ask questions about the class.  Setting up a random channel on Teams allows you and students to share interesting outside material, improving interaction and often providing interesting material for future classes. One of the biggest advantages of Teams is that it takes class communication into a space that feels more natural to students.

Phone calls

Don't overlook simple phone calls. They are a great way to talk with students about assignments or to answer individual questions. Rather than having office hours, you can make yourself available for phone calls during particular times. You might also consider requiring students to talk over an assignment with you by phone early in the semester. That helps you make a personal connection with students even as you help them improve their work.

Audio or video grading

Giving written feedback on student papers often takes considerable time. Providing that feedback through audio or video can not only cut down on that time but can help your class feel more personal. Here's one way to approach that: As you read through a paper, make small comments and mark areas you want to talk about. Then use a digital recorder (or your phone) to record as you provide feedback to students. (Blackboard also has an option for providing audio or video feedback on assignments.) Audio helps alleviate the sting students sometimes feel when they see constructive criticism because they can hear the tone of your voice and don't have to imagine your mood when you read their paper. It helps you, as the instructor, become a person rather than just a series of written comments. You can do the same thing with video, recording your screen as you work through a paper.

Frame the conversation by identifying a clear purpose, objectives, and discussion prompts. Set the tone by stressing the importance of respecting others’ perspectives, avoiding generalizations, not asking others to "represent" a group you perceive them to belong to.

Individuals whose identities are marginalized or underrepresented on campus may feel afraid, unwelcome, or fatigued. Be sensitive to the ways these feelings can affect students’ abilities to engage in class. Be prepared to intervene if negative discourse arises. Help students feel supported by acknowledging the conflict and creating opportunities for reflection and empathy. Direct students to resources that can provide emotional support or help them respond to and cope with bigotry, hostility, and other affronts to their identities.

Ask students to try to understand other perspectives before reacting (by asking questions or restating the other view before offering their own).  Be an active facilitator, whether the discussion is in real-time or asynchonously: reword questions, correct misinformation, or reference relevant course material. Recognize and interrupt microaggressions (pdf)

Make sure you understand how your discipline and course themes relate to controversial topics, and to productive, informed discourse more generally.

  • In times of crisis, identify issues that resonate with your course themes, and be prepared to give them special attention.
  • Address diverse perspectives on the issues within your field and model for your students how to weigh issues and evidence and make informed decisions.
  • Consider how your own background and cultural influences might affect your teaching of these issues. Does the material provide an accurate representation of various perspectives?

For example: 

  • Don’t minimize. For instance, don’t say, “It was just a joke” or “Why do you have to be so sensitive?”
  • Don’t put conditions on the apology, as in “I’m sorry if you were offended,” or “I’m sorry but …”)
  • Acknowledge what went wrong and take responsibility for what you did: “I’m sorry that I offended you; I’m sorry I told a story that ...”
  • Take steps to address the behavior: “I will become better informed and make sure I do not do that again.”
  • Move on. Don’t make this about you.

An online learning environment comes with some specific advantages and pitfalls for necessary conversations. On the plus side, asynchronous discussions allow for more intentional interactions- students have time to think, reflect, or gather resources before responding. Students who find it uncomfortable or difficult to speak up in class (e.g., introverts, English language learners) may be empowered in online forums to participate and be heard. They allow themes to emerge and ripen over time, which is especially helpful if the issue involves a quickly evolving situation or current event.  And, they give instructors additional time to reflect on how to respond and intervene when discussions grow intense or hurtful. 

Nonetheless, online forums may also embolden students to say things they would not say face-to-face.  Hasty responses can be poorly phrased, emotional, shallow or surface in thought, and/or focused entirely upon themselves and their experiences. Fortunately, instructors have time in this environment to be more intentional in responding or intervening.  And it is critically important that instructors DO respond when student discussion crosses guidelines for online community, as the web preserves the reminders of hurtful comments beyond the moment, which can negatively impact students who were the targets of those comments and the broader class community.

Keeping Online Discussions Productive

This is a statement about online collegiality and respect that Doug Ward uses in his online classes in Digital Content Strategy. Feel free to use it or adapt it.

As with all live and online discussion, please be considerate of others. Appreciate others’ differences and differences of opinion. Don’t berate others’ thoughts or comments. By all means, challenge assumptions and interpretations, but do so in a collegial manner. Great ideas often evolve from disagreement, but no one is served by put-downs and snarky commentary. We all have different levels of knowledge depending on the topic, so be helpful and use common sense. Also keep in mind that written comments can come across in unintended ways. Again, be considerate.

This policy from a site called The Conversation is an excellent guide to interacting online.

I want our conversations to be free-flowing, and I don’t anticipate any problems. I reserve the right to take down comments that use vulgar language, that are hurtful or show disrespect to others.