Teaching students to engage in constructive dialogue in class
While the college classroom has traditionally been a place where students and professors can gain new perspectives while engaging in conversation, many students feel uncomfortable expressing their views on controversial topics. In a February 2021 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, one in five students disagreed, at least somewhat, with the statement “I feel comfortable sharing my opinions in class.” Broken out by respondents who are Republicans or lean that way, that response increased to three in 10.
The free online Perspectives program from the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) aims to help students of all viewpoints to better understand and appreciate each other, in spite of their differences, through lessons teaching the mind-set and skills needed to engage in such dialogue.
Lindsay Hoffman, an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware, has embraced this approach in her communication and political science courses.
The challenge: While Hoffman believes students want to have conversations about social issues, she has noticed students “are increasingly nervous about where other people they are talking to stand on those issues,” Hoffman says. “COVID certainly made those kinds of discussions difficult, if not impossible, in a virtual learning environment.”
She has found that giving students an anonymous partisanship survey—indicating views held by those in class compared with the American electorate—and then sharing the result helps them see the diversity of viewpoints. Then they tend to be “more careful about making assumptions about other students’ views,” Hoffman says.
Lessons in perspective: Hoffman has incorporated CDI’s Perspectives program into a course that is also part of the National Agenda speaker series. Reading social scientist Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) helps students learn about their own cognitive biases and how to work with them. Through Braver Angels debates, students gain concrete tools for communicating across differences.
In her Media & Politics course, Hoffman has seen how Perspectives can “enhance student-to-student interaction in a larger lecture.”
Constructive dialogue practice: Using Perspectives program conversation guides, Hoffman’s students get paired up to practice their skills through weekly 45-minute conversations. “Many students have told me that their partner was someone who disagreed with them, but once they began talking every week, they realized there were more things they held in common than [things that] divided them,” she says.
Discourse success story: Do constructive dialogue skills stay with students? Hoffman recalls a student who, early in fall 2017, privately “confessed that she was conservative, but not even her best friends knew that,” she says. “I assured her that she would learn some skills to become more confident and also to learn how to listen to other perspectives without quick judgment.”
That semester, two major mass shooting events occurred, in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs, Tex. The day after that Texas shooting, the student asked for permission to tell the class about a planned Students for Second Amendment Rights meeting. “I hesitated at first, then realized that if any group of students was able to have that discussion on that day, it was my students who had essentially been preparing for just such a conversation,” Hoffman says. She used discussion prompts from the Living Room Conversations guide on talking about gun rights and gun control.
A student who came to the U.S. as a refugee from western Africa at age 12 shared that she couldn’t understand the view of guns being used for hunting or target shooting, because in her country seeing a gun only invokes fear that “its sole purpose is to kill you.” In the silence after that statement, deep thoughts were clearly happening.
While the conservative student did not come away from the class with a changed opinion about guns, she did thank Hoffman “for giving her a life-changing experience and the confidence to be herself,” she explains.
The following year, Hoffman was proud to hear that student sharing who she is and why she cares about the Second Amendment in an NPR All Things Considered piece. “Just months before,” says Hoffman, “[she] couldn’t share her views with her best friend.”
Can you recall an uplifting moment related to a student facing a challenge, something that has made you feel proud to be working in higher education? Share your “All in a Day’s Work” story.