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Managing the Emotional Aspects of Dialogic Engagement: Five Tips for Faculty

January 13th, 2023 • Laura Heymann

Dialogic engagement – the process of facilitating learning by asking a series of focused questions in the classroom – can be an emotional experience for both students and faculty. Students accustomed to learning through lectures might experience dialogic engagement as unsettling, and instructors who typically deliver prepared lectures might worry that this method will result in less control of the classroom.

There are things you can do to ease the transition. Here are five tips for managing the emotional aspects of dialogic engagement.

    1. Preparation reduces the stress of uncertainty.   Dialogic engagement involves some uncertainty about what will happen in the classroom. But you can prepare for uncertainty. Explain to students that dialogue is not meant to trip them up – it’s a way to learn how to think critically. As they complete assigned readings before class, they should imagine a dialogue around those readings and the questions they would ask to explore the material. 

    For your part, don’t be afraid to script out the questions and responses for each class session to give yourself a path to follow. You won’t follow the script precisely, but thinking through the responses you expect students to offer – and responses that might take things off track – will leave you better prepared to guide the discussion.

    2. Consider how you’ll call on students. You can reduce students’ stress by giving them time to prepare to participate. For example, you can let a group of students know in advance that they’ll be “on call” for a particular class session but without identifying the questions they’ll be asked.

    If you cold-call, a helpful technique is to give the student a chance to focus before starting the conversation. Here’s one example: “Rosa, I’d like to engage with you about the first discussion problem in our book. [Turning to the class:] As you’ll all recall, the problem asks us to take the role of a city council member who is deciding where to locate low-income housing, so we’ll need to consider our readings from last week in making this determination. [Turning back to the student:] OK, Rosa — let’s bring you into the discussion. What do you think is the most important priority to take into account here?”

    Regardless of technique, ensure that all students have the opportunity to participate. Don’t always call on the first student with their hand raised, and don’t abandon a student who isn’t as adept at dialogic exchange as their classmates.

    3. Tell students what to do if they’re not part of the dialogue. Students who are not currently engaging in dialogue with you might think: (1) This doesn’t affect me or (2) Why should I care what one of my classmates thinks? Help students understand their role as observers. They should listen to the questions, think about what they might have said in response, and learn from your follow-up exchanges with their classmates. 

    4. Create an atmosphere where experimentation with new ideas is welcome. Students might feel apprehensive about seeming foolish, giving a wrong answer, or being judged. This can be particularly true for students who already feel isolated in the classroom. Reinforce that engagement is the goal, not having the “correct” answer. (Indeed, dialogic engagement is best used for topics where there is no correct answer.) You can foster a supportive atmosphere by:

    – Communicating in the syllabus and at the start of the semester the ground rules and expectations for discussion.

    – Reminding students to approach each class session with grace and understanding toward their classmates.

    – Demonstrating your own openness to ideas by engaging with all reasonable student responses.

    – Planning other activities that allow students to think critically, such as small group discussions.

    – Inviting feedback from students on their classroom experience and acknowledging your own missteps in the classroom to model professionalism and civility.

    5. Adopt a growth mindset.  Even with advance planning, a dialogic class session might not feel successful, particularly if students respond in unexpected or challenging ways. The relationship you establish with the class at the start will go a long way toward creating an environment where you are exploring ideas together.  But even if a session doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, take the time to reflect on how things went and make notes for next time. Approach each session as you hope students will: with a mindset that sees feedback as an opportunity to grow and develop.

    © 2023 Laura Heymann. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

    Meet the Author

    Laura Heymann 

    Chancellor Professor of Law and Kelly Professor of Excellence in Teaching, School of Law

    Laura joined the Law School faculty in 2015. She currently teaches Copyright Law, Trademark Law, and Contracts and serves as a Senior Advisor to the Dean. In her current role as Kelly Professor of Excellence in Teaching, she facilitates workshops for the Law School faculty on effective teaching. Professor Laura Heymann is a 2022-2023 STLI Fellow for Excellence in Teaching.