Engaging Viewpoint Diversity in the Classroom

“From our founding, Cornell has stood for free and open inquiry and expression. Learning flourishes in an environment where diverse ideas are presented and debated without hindrance. As a university we prize freedom of expression just as we honor our commitment to being a community of belonging.”

Cornell University values statement from Cornell's Freedom of Expression theme year.

Encouraging free and open inquiry, engaging wide-ranging and sometimes conflicting or contending ideas, and fostering inclusive learning environments where students feel challenged and supported are essential to Cornell's values and mission. This crucial work can be difficult, especially during emotionally charged moments that affect the teaching and learning environment.

Cornell University has an enduring commitment to support equality of education by affirming the value of diversity and by promoting an environment free from discrimination. That commitment is expressed in its Equal Education and Employment Opportunity Statement. For more information about Cornell’s broad commitment, please contact the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX.

The Center for Teaching Innovation offers the following framework and approaches:

Your Role as an Instructor

As a Cornell faculty member, you are the expert on your field, topic, and the subject matter of your courses. At the same time, you are an essential facilitator of classroom discussions where the exploration of diverse viewpoints may be critical. Instructors set up the classroom conditions for discussion, implicitly or explicitly, and provide structure and guidelines for debate, discussion, and dialogue. It takes practice to learn how to effectively facilitate and support such discussions. The Cornell Policy Statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech and Expression encourages instructors to create an atmosphere of inquiry that values diverse ideas and reasoned opposition.

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Why Engage Viewpoint Diversity in the Classroom?

Cornell is a community that brings together people with many different beliefs, perspectives and worldviews. Engaging with diverse views helps us to meet students where they are, and to build the kind of community across difference that is essential for a vibrant university.

Engaging with diverse views helps students learn to:

  • Think critically, ask questions, and investigate different points of view
  • Demonstrate understanding of others' perspectives
  • Communicate with different aims ranging from argument to advocacy
  • Work out their own responses to ideas with which they disagree
  • Respond respectfully to having important beliefs challenged

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Ideas and Strategies for Course Implementation

To support instructors, the ideas below provide guidance for planned conversations that work to meet a variety of learning outcomes, as well as suggestions for unplanned discussions that may arise when immediate incidents or hot moments occur. The relevance and application of these methods will vary depending on the discipline and on course learning outcomes.

Successful classroom discussions rest on a strong foundation of trust, skill development, and classroom management within the learning community, preparing learners to handle challenging conversations in the future. Investing time and thought into laying the groundwork for rich classroom discussions is the best way to prepare students to consider diverse ideas in productive discussion. 

What follows are suggestions for how to create a strong foundation for conversations that engage viewpoint diversity at various points of the semester.

Start of Semester:

Develop syllabus language:

In your syllabus, consider describing your openness to viewpoint differences and explain how the exchange of viewpoints is essential to your discipline and helps everyone to learn. You might clarify the teacher’s role, the learner’s role, and the purpose of your classroom space. You can elaborate on this verbally during class or engage students in a class discussion on why the expression of ideas is important. 

Share community agreements and set expectations:

Set expectations for classroom communication. You might consider creating a list of classroom guidelines to support respectful behavior for these conversations. You can also engage students in an activity to develop and adopt agreements together. This class involvement can help bring an extra layer of accountability during facilitated discussion, particularly during lively debate and should hot moments arise in the classroom.

Implement ice breakers/activities:

Building rapport early in the semester can help students feel comfortable sharing values, opinions, and perspectives and build trust. Active learning activities can foster interaction while still using course content to achieve learning outcomes, and icebreaker activities, whether related to the course or not, can also cultivate community and belonging.

Identify students' current understanding of the topic:

Get an idea of your class’s existing awareness, baseline knowledge, and initial values, opinions, or assumptions about topics relevant to your course. Address content knowledge gaps with foundational readings or course material to help prepare and enrich future discussions.

Practice foundational skills:

Consider not jumping into very difficult conversations right at the start of the semester. Instead, focus on building the right classroom culture, including fostering relationships based on respect and accountability, which are crucial for navigating upcoming challenging discussions.

Foundational skills to practice:

  • Active listening
  • Recognizing assumptions
  • Backing up claims with credible evidence
  • Assessing other people’s claims
  • Sharing purposefully with an audience in mind
  • Challenging each other with respect

During the Semester:

Planning for discussions that may be difficult:

  • Identify and clarify the purpose/goals for the class/discussion/activity: You can include your students in this process. For example, ask them to help answer:  Why are we doing this? What skills will this help us practice? Make explicit the relevant learning outcomes for this discussion.
  • Provide a framework or rubric for guidance: Give learners an idea of how these discussions work and what’s expected of them in the context of that day’s course, and/or in terms of participation. What does success look like? If students haven’t seen effective academic discourse or dialogue before, model it for them.
  • Revisit community agreements and roles. Remind students how they, together, have invested in the class, in each other, and in each other’s learning, and created a shared framework for what respect looks like in their unique learning environment. 
  • Provide content warnings where needed: When approaching potentially triggering or controversial topics, giving learners a heads up of what might be coming up is often appreciated. Communicating this in advance can allow for personal psychological readiness and preparedness when embarking on challenging ideas and discomfort in a classroom.
  • Try out the following facilitator tips for live discussions. Providing a structure for discussion can help students and instructors alike navigate challenging topics. Consider the following techniques, among others, for engaging in challenging discussions:
    • Moving the discussion from the personal level to an analytical level. This can help students identify the particular truth claims, assumptions, and evidence or lack of evidence in play in the discussion. 
    • Amplifying minority viewpoints in the discussion, if it feels like one position or point of view is not being heard. 
      • Note: Be careful not to put a student with a minority viewpoint relevant to the day's discussion on the spot or force them to participate if they have not volunteered to do so, as some discussions are deeply personal and related to lived experiences, and students may not feel comfortable being vulnerable in that way in the classroom. 
    • Modeling respectful engagement with ideas you, or students, might find offensive. Demonstrating the ability to consider, analyze, and criticize ideas and perspectives is important for student learning and growth. 
  • Reflect: Facilitating these conversations is hard, and nobody does it perfectly. You will likely make mistakes, but mistakes are meant to be learned from and provide a path to growth as an instructor. The best way to improve as both an instructor and a learner yourself is through practice and reflection. 
    • Here are some prompts to consider for reflection
      • What went well? How did learners seem to leave the discussion? 
      • Was there anything that could be improved for next time?
      • What did you specifically do well? Is there anything you as the facilitator might do differently?
      • Were there any lulls or heated moments? How might you address or manage these in the future?
      • Are there ways to add roles or structure that could take some of the pressure off of you? Perhaps there are student roles and tasks to help facilitate or maintain the flow. 
      • How did it go for learners? An anonymous survey, exit slip, or a minute paper on how it went for them can go a long way. You can learn so much in just one survey that you can take with you for years.
      • If something didn’t go so well or you are concerned with students' psychological safety, you can acknowledge or apologize next class and share how you are working to address it. You can also connect students with campus resources and reach out to directly impacted students individually.

Facilitating difficult discussions:

  • Dealing with the unexpected: Handle hot moments as they come up. Classroom conflict can be upsetting and feel difficult to navigate for students and instructors alike. However, with a few deep breaths, some thoughtful consideration, and an atmosphere of respect, hot moments can also be an opportunity for growth and student learning.  Sometimes topics arise in class or hot moments occur that instructors didn’t anticipate.

    Lee Warren’s “Strategic action in hot moments” offers us a model for instructors to use to help gain perspective, take stock, and move forward in such moments. Warren writes, “Most of us, when hot moments occur, simply react. Our minds stop working. We revert to our oldest fallback behaviors, usually some version or other of fight or flight. Some of us lash out and say things that we later regret. Others retreat, check out, and take themselves and their ideas out of play. The objective, instead, is to be strategic—to get one’s mind working again and to devise a response or an intervention that is effective” (620).

    What are some strategies for responding in the moment?

    • Slow down, listen, and reflect.
      • Take a deep breath, note how you are feeling, and take steps to slow the conversation down.
      • If you or students need a minute to gather your thoughts, consider asking them to take a couple of minutes to write down their thoughts and feelings (see more about the “minute paper” strategy). This is similar to calling a time-out to let the situation cool off and to give everyone a moment to think about what they would like to communicate to each other and how to frame their words in a way that others can receive.
    • Respond.
      • Acknowledge and normalize the presence and importance of emotions, from which we can learn about ourselves and others.
      • Notice and name what is happening when conflicts begin to appear. Cue students that active listening is important and that we can learn something valuable by exploring different ideas. Refer back to your community agreements to affirm the stated values and necessary behaviors to engage with difficult topics. Affirm that disagreement brings opportunities for learning and that being able to share and listen to diverse viewpoints is valuable.
      • When possible, scaffold risk levels. Begin with time for private reflection and/or writing. Next, invite students to share with a partner they choose. If appropriate, consider moving the dyads into small group discussions of four or six, and, finally, consider the benefits of a large group discussion.
      • Honor the personal story and also link to the systemic, and, where appropriate, take the focus off the individual. (“Jaime says he believes, as do a number of people, that… Are there other perspectives on this topic?”)
      • When a comment slips by, acknowledge that it did so, and affirm how you will come back to address it. When something happens or gets said right at the end of class, make it clear that you’ll come back to it in the next session: signal clearly you’re not avoiding or ignoring what just happened. (“I want to think about what just happened/got said and we’ll come back to this first thing in our next class.”)
      • Include yourself! Many students talk about how meaningful it is when instructors share a bit about themselves as learners and people.
    • Handle mistakes and seek feedback.
      • If you make a mistake (and we all do), acknowledge it, apologize, and share how you will strive to do better. We all will make mistakes at some time or another, and we may or may not know how something we said has impacted others. Sharing responsibility for educating ourselves and each other is a great place to start. See “How to Apologize.”
      • During some moments, it might be appropriate to seek feedback from students or reach out to individuals to offer support. As an instructor, these opportunities to model taking responsibility, being open to learning, and normalizing emotions helps importantly in creating an inclusive environment.
        Familiarize yourself with a few conflict management strategies; see, for example: Getting Started with Managing Classroom Conflict. For a deeper exploration of this topic, consider enrolling in Teaching & Learning in the Diverse Classroom course. See also, Strategies for Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom and other insights from University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations.
  • Events happen in the world, on campus, or even at home, and the emotional and cognitive impact of these events filters into the classroom. Students in your classroom can react to events and incidents in different ways, which can impact their ability to learn or focus, while other students may not even be aware that something has happened. For moments like this, consider the following guide on how to respond to incidents that have occurred outside the classroom

Other structured activities for the exchange of ideas:

  • These activities aim to help students practice critical thinking, empathy, and effective communication skills. Continue to use community agreements, rubrics, and modeling behaviors as a foundation for students as they participate in the following:
    • Debates: Assign controversial topics and have students debate them. By assigning topics, you may weaken the link between a topic and the student’s personal views. Explore different perspectives, research arguments, and articulate thoughts effectively.
    • Fishbowl discussions: Arrange students in a circle where a smaller group discusses a topic in the center while the outer group observes silently. Rotate roles to involve all students. Allows for focused dialogue and observation.
    • Role-playing: Assign student characters with different opinions and have them engage in a role-play scenario. This kind of activity helps learners to understand multiple perspectives and strengthens their argumentation skills.
    • Socratic seminars: Facilitate a discussion where students take the lead in questioning and responding to each other. The goal is to explore a topic deeply through open-ended questions.
    • Case studies: Provide real-world examples that involve ethical or controversial decisions. Have students discuss and analyze the cases, considering various perspectives and potential outcomes.
    • Structured controversy: Divide the class into groups, assigning each group a position on a controversial topic. Have them research and present their arguments. Afterward, encourage cross-group dialogue to promote understanding. 
    • Jigsaw technique: Break down a complex issue into subtopics. Assign each student or group a subtopic to research and develop expertise in the context of the class. Then, reorganize the students into new groups where each member shares their expertise to gain a comprehensive understanding of the larger issue.
    • Town hall meetings: Simulate a town hall meeting where students represent different community members with diverse viewpoints. This allows for a structured yet open dialogue on issues affecting the community.
    • Critical response papers: Assign students readings or media that present conflicting perspectives. Ask them to write critical response papers where they analyze the arguments and articulate their own stance. Encourage them, as part of their response, to engage with a relevant counterargument in relation to their stance.
    • Reflective journaling: After engaging in difficult dialogues, encourage students to reflect on their experience in a journal. This can help them process their thoughts, identify areas of growth, and set personal learning goals.

End of Semester:

Integrate what you’ve learned:

Skilled facilitators continue to reflect on difficult conversations and refine their strategies and approaches each semester. Aim to identify areas for growth and opportunity in your course design, learner preparation, classroom management, discussion activities, and facilitator strategies. Trying new ideas and seeing how they go each semester is part of the teaching process and keeps your classroom fresh. What might you try next semester?

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Additional Resources

Cornell University Resources

External Resources

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Brookfield, S.D., & Presill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

The Program on Intergroup Relations. (n.d.) IGR Insight handouts. University of Michigan.

Warren, L. (2005). Strategic action in hot moments. In M.L. Ouellett (Ed.), Teaching Inclusively: Resources for course, department and institutional change in higher education (pp. 620-630). Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

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