Respectful Discussions in the Classroom: 2020 Election & Beyond*

Respectful Discussions in the Classroom: 2020 Election & Beyond*

In 2016, many of our students came to class the day after the election with questions and/or concerns about how the outcome of the election might affect them personally, or their families and friends. Regardless of what you teach, acknowledging the outcome of the election (or the likely lack of a known outcome in the days after Nov. 3) and your students’ different perspectives and concerns is likely to be important to them.

Below, we provide suggestions for facilitating civil and constructive discussions about the election in your classrooms. We have also provided a few reliable sources of information on the election that you might want to consult if you have questions. And feel free to contact any of your W&M colleagues listed below; they have each offered to answer questions you or your students might have and to do so quickly in the days leading up to and immediately following the election.


First things first

• Election day and the days that follow will impact students very differently AND people process things differently.
• Uncertainty over the election results could persist for several days, if not weeks. It is important to recognize that we may all experience ongoing stress and anxiety during this period.
• Even if your class does not focus on effective communication or civil discourse, these are overarching values of a liberal arts university and a W&M priority.
• It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” and lean on colleagues, particularly those listed below.

If you are not comfortable with opening up conversation related to the election in class

• Note that it’s likely been a long night for many and that different people have strong emotions regarding the election. Recognize that it may be difficult for some to focus and it’s okay to step away if they need to attempt to refocus.

• Take a moment of silence at the beginning of class for silent reflection.

• Offer brief writing prompts at the beginning of class to help students process their feelings. You may collect these or not. These prompts may provide some inspiration for you: “What is one hope and one fear?” “What is one question you have about the election?” “I wish my professor knew…”

If you want to address the election in class

• Productive conversation begins with you modeling civility and openness to differing viewpoints.

• Establish ground rules for civil discourse in the classroom, perhaps grounded in W&M values, including belonging, flourishing, and respect. You might consider including students in developing a set of shared ground rules to govern the conversation.

• Suggestions for guided constructive discussion

– Consider setting up a discussion circle with students having the opportunity to talk based on prompts. Encourage student responses that express their curiosity, including: Tell me more about… It sounds like …  I’m curious about how that made you feel. I’m grateful for your willingness to share. 

– Consider a class-wide discussion using a Poll Everywhere prompt that allows each student to contribute a one word answer to a a word cloud. For example, prior to the election, “What is one word that describes how you are feeling about the election?” or after, “What is one word that describes your feelings about the outcome of the election?” This is anonymous, so if something is posted that is problematic, you can call out the idea itself (i.e. white supremacy) and not the student who expressed the idea.

– At the end of a group discussion, thank students for participating and refer back to W&M values, reminding students that we are all part of a shared community.

• If some students are struggling or the discussion becomes too emotionally charged, consider allowing the students to take a five minute break to leave the room of sit quietly (or turn off Zoom camera) and then come back to room after they (and you!) have had some time to process and think about how to pick up the discussion. You can then “restart” by framing whatever topic or comment caused things to become problematic, to help the conversation move in a productive direction.

• If a “hot” moment occurs, encourage students to take a break, silently reflect, and journal before proceeding–you could pose a question for a short writing exercise such as, “How has our class discussion fit with your own views on the election? Is there a more productive way we could have talked about the election?”

W&M Faculty Resources

The W&M Government Department and Law School faculty listed below are happy to serve as a resource if you have a question on the election process or outcome. 

Staff Support

There are several staff and administrators who have expertise in facilitating discussions and are able to come into a class as needed to guide a discussion: 

*This guide was developed by Chris Nemacheck (Govt and CLA), Mark Hofer (STLI), Rebecca Green (Law), and Drew Stelljes (Student Engagement and Leadership).