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Inclusive and Equitable Discussions

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Discussions are commonly used in actively engaged learning environments. These strategies can help to improve the quality of discussion in online as well as in-person formats.

Support students when examining potentially upsetting content

For education to be transformative, students must feel comfortable sharing their life experiences, disagreeing, and making mistakes, while also being challenged to reconsider and revise their current attitudes. Consider the acronym JUSTICE when planning a course or lesson to help ensure that students can learn from upsetting material and assume greater agency in their course experience.

  • Justified—Do your course materials best serve your course learning goals?
  • Underscored—Are students adequately warned about encountering upsetting material?
  • Scaffolded—Are students adequately prepared to engage with upsetting material?
  • Transparent—Are students aware of your pedagogical justification for using the material, and your concern for its impact on them?
  • Informed—Do students have the motivation, information, and skills to learn from upsetting material?
  • Chosen—How much agency do students have in how they engage with upsetting material?
  • Evaluated—Do you solicit regular feedback on student learning and well-being, and do you reflect after the course is over on what you can improve for next time?

See Strive for JUSTICE in Course Learning for more details.

Use prompts or questions that elicit a variety of perspectives

Prompts that encourage higher-level critical thinking and encourage students to connect to personal experiences or other domains of knowledge can yield deeper discussion.

  • Put authors or studies in dialogue with one another, or ask students to craft imaginary dialogues between opposing views.
  • Pose problems to be solved. 
  • Pose provocative questions.
  • Pose questions that evoke personal values.

The Discussion Book (available online through Stanford University Libraries) offers fifty different ways to structure discussions. Consider question brainstorms, debates, quotation-based discussions, understanding checks, drawing discussions, and many others that can be adapted to the online format.

Ensure equitable participation

Equitable class participation doesn't just happen, it takes deliberate and attentive practices. Oftentimes some individuals might dominate group discussions, while other perspectives remain underrepresented. Consider these strategies for ensuring equitable participation.

Assign roles to students

Assigning roles will help students start the conversation and support equitable participation. Possible roles include:

  • The first speaker initiates a discussion by responding to the prompt first.
  • The timekeeper monitors how much time the group has left.
  • A reporter reports to the larger class at the end of a small-group discussion.
  • A facilitator launches and maintains discussion, periodically summarizes, and synthesizes main ideas at the end.
  • A questioner raises alternatives to consider.
  • An equity monitor encourages all members to share their ideas.
  • A scribe tracks and records ideas.

Randomly assign or select students with an equitable prompt

Use a variety of prompts when assigning or selecting a person such as whose first name is closest to the end of the alphabet, who is wearing the shortest sleeves, whose birthday is coming up the soonest, or whose hometown is closest to campus. This may have the added benefit of acting as an icebreaker.

Be considerate about putting students on the spot

If you want a student to share a contribution that you overheard in a breakout room or saw in an assignment, contact them in advance, or over private messaging in the Zoom live chat function, to ask if they would feel comfortable sharing their contribution with others when you reconvene as a whole class.

Be flexible about participation

Zoom fatigue or unforeseen circumstances can make online group work very unproductive and even stressful for some students sometimes. Perhaps instruct students to send a private chat message to you if they need accommodation, or allow them to choose whether to participate verbally or in writing.

Evaluate discussions along various dimensions

It can be difficult to monitor and assess learning in discussion groups. Consider seeking out input from the students in determining how successful a discussion activity is.

  • Ask students to submit brief reflections on the main takeaways from particular discussions.
  • Encourage students to reflect metacognitively on what they did or can do to get the most out of discussion activities.
  • Ask students to periodically assess the success of discussions relative to the class norms, through a discussion thread or poll.
  • Provide, or have students create, a rubric for assessing their contributions in the discussion.

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