Constructive Conversations: 5 Guidelines for Fostering Them in Your Course

by Felice Nudelman

President, Net Edge Training, LLC

I am sitting in a large meeting space at a university in Texas with tables spread across the room. Each table has six to eight students and they are tackling the hot topic of gun control. This could end up being one of the most contentious conversations I have witnessed. But because the faculty facilitator is employing a well-constructed and intentional approach to a deliberative dialogue the students are having thoughtful and constructive conversation that is informed by fact and reason, acknowledges cognitive bias, and is respectful of the multiple perspectives and views in the room.

It can seem nearly impossible to surmount the biases that are so ingrained in each of us and to rise above our partisan and polarized landscape. But by utilizing Constructive Conversations, we found that students were more engaged, strengthened their critical thinking skills, and built connections across ideological divides.

Constructive conversations connect academic rigor with credible sources of information, utilizing an intentional process for dialogue in a way that is approachable to students and yields significant results. It is a creative and hands-on experience that is suited to any discipline.

So, how in the world did these students accomplish this level of discourse?

There were guidelines and processes in place that made this and other constructive conversations possible.

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    Create a Culture of Exploration and Inquiry.

    By creating a culture of exploration and inquiry, we can equip and inspire students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences to tackle society’s most pressing problems. A culture that engages students, promotes critical thinking, and supports their ability to take in the complexity of multiple perspectives, political ideologies, and lived experiences ultimately ensures that all have a voice and can share without threatening or feeling threatened.

    Building this type of culture is developed over time. A consistent process will help lay the foundation and is easily embedded into your pedagogical approach so that when you introduce the constructive conversation exercise your students have a sense of agency and the skills for productive engagement.

    Good Moderation Is Key.

    Intentional and well-planned facilitation is key to a successful constructive conversation. In higher education, students are often asked to engage with complex and thorny issues that can provoke strong feelings and diverse opinions. Whether discussing ethical dilemmas in medical research, debates around free speech on campus, or the challenges of balancing environmental sustainability with economic growth, students must navigate sensitive topics thoughtfully. A skilled moderator can introduce these difficult subjects, set a neutral and focused tone, and ensure that respectful and productive dialogue processes are in place. By learning to discuss these issues effectively, students can develop critical thinking skills and become more empathetic and informed citizens.

    Come prepared with issue guides that lay out the problem and include the process for constructive conversation. Show how the hot topic issue relates to what they are studying, is integrated in the curriculum, and has relevance to everyday life. Faculty moderators are in the perfect position to encourage students to be self-aware and cognizant of their own biases and blind spots and to be open to challenging their own assumptions. The moderator remains neutral, frames the issue, maintains consistency of process, and creates a climate for constructive conversation.

    Access Credible Sources of Information to Frame the Conversation.

    Help students understand how to access credible sources of information and how to spot problematic information, i.e., “inaccurate, misleading, inappropriately attributed or altogether fabricated” (Jack 2017).

    This includes the use of AI to manipulate and fabricate misinformation like the famous video of President Obama. Setting a solid foundation built on reliable information will go a long way.

    Understand Cognitive Bias, Elicit Normative Responses, and Build in Time for Reflection.

    Surmounting deeply ingrained biases can feel impossible, but by utilizing constructive conversations, we found that students were more engaged, strengthened their critical thinking skills, and built connections across ideological divides.

    As an example, in Stewardship of Public Lands, a project led by AASCU, faculty experienced constructive conversations as a powerful pedagogy of democratic engagement. They listened to the bitter antagonisms on either side of an issue at Yellowstone National Park. Each warring party had valid points, and each came to the conversation unwilling to accept the other, but ultimately, the ability to listen and engage led to compromise.

    Faculty studied the techniques of constructive conversations and the importance of building the culture for it to succeed. They identified a controversial issue relevant to their own campus or region and constructed a similar experience for students.

    Students studied the components of the issue—like the environmental impact of plastic in the Chesapeake Bay—and then used constructive conversation. They were able to take in the complexity of the multiple perspectives, political ideologies, opinions, and lived experiences. The students used this technique as part of an academic project to work with the Bay community and governance structures and were able to achieve an agreement to reduce use of plastic.

    Trust the Process.

    Oftentimes the most engaging and substantial constructive conversations utilize complex problems. Follow the process to ensure that all students have a sense of efficacy and agency, develop empathy and respect, value credible information and data, and provide space for all voices. The process will ensure that you have a solid foundation upon which to build and help students engage in constructive conversation without veering into debate.

    As an example, the moderator can establish a consistent process that includes the following key steps and elements:

    • Statement of the issue without interjecting opinion or assumptions
    • Review of data and credible information sources to get at the facts and avoid misinformation
    • Individual reflection time, followed by pair and share and/or small group discussion
    • Inclusion of students’ lived experience to enhance perspectives and give the issue relevance to everyday life
    • Finding common ground
    • Identifying potential next steps for resolution of the issue

    Constructive Conversations are a dynamic and innovative approach and an ideal way to help students connect what they are learning to the world around them and ensure they develop the skills and attributes to tackle some of most pressing problems.

    About the Author

    Felice Nudelman is the president of Net Edge Training, LLC, a higher education consulting firm. She also serves on the boards for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Education Writers Association,  Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, and CN World Foundation.

    Previously, Nudelman served as the associate vice president of Academic Innovation and Transformation at AASCU. She originally came to AASCU in January 2019 as the executive director of the American Democracy Project (ADP), which supports member campuses in programming to encourage students to be informed, engaged citizens for our democracy.

    Prior to assuming her role at AASCU, Nudelman served most recently as the executive vice president of the Weiss Institute/Say Yes to Education, the Chancellor of Antioch University, and the chief global officer for innovation and partnerships.

    She has spent the majority of her career in education, both on college campuses and for 12 years with The New York Times Company. In her final role there, she served as executive director of education.

    Before joining The Times, Nudelman served as executive director for Pace University’s School of Education , and she spent nearly a decade in academic affairs at Bloomfield College.