Engaging Student Opinions Without Imposing Your Views

By Martha Thompson

Having passionate debates is nothing new to any college campus; however, helping students engage in discussions about controversial topics in a way that your own opinion does not shut down the dialogue can be a bit of a challenge in its own right.  Maybe it is the therapist in me or the part of me that has always liked a good debate.  My mom thought I was going to be an attorney.  I enjoy facilitating in class discussions on many topics, including those that have been near and dear to our very own students, such as the protests on campus last year.  In training to become a therapist, one strives to be open, empathetic, authentic and nonjudgmental while clients share everything from the most mundane to bizarre and even horrific stories.  These same qualities help in the classroom when talking about everything from theories to politics and current events. Personally I am a fan of using a few techniques from Drs. Miller and Rollnick, the founders of Motivational Interviewing.

In 1983, the first journal article about Motivational Interviewing (MI) was published in Behavioural Psychotherapy. The research focused on problem drinkers’ motivation to change and resistance to change.  MI has become very popular when investigating all types of motivation, change, and human behavior.  A quick Google search will produce more than three million hits.  I tend to use a few strategies from MI in the classroom when moving the conversation towards controversial topics or in order to increase the depth of a discussion.  The spirit of MI is to be person centered, allowing for very direct challenging without imposing your own values or judgments.

O.  Open ended questions–Asking students to elaborate is a great way to get the ball rolling on any topic. “Tell me what your thoughts are” or “Give me some examples” are two of my favorites. If the students are slow to start, try having them talk to their neighbors or in small groups and come up with an idea or two to share with the whole class.  From there you can ask the class what their thoughts are. This will move the conversation forward and create depth.  It also makes it easy for us to use some of the steps below all while keeping our opinions to ourselves.

A.  Affirm–We all like to hear the words “Good job!” Even a simple head nod or “Tell me more” will show the students you are encouraging them to share.  As a result, you are setting the stage for others to engage when they may not normally speak up.  Affirmations help students to see you are open to their opinions and viewpoints without sharing your thoughts on a topic.  This is especially important when creating a safe space for students to talk about sensitive or controversial topics.

R.  Reframe–Using this technique in class discussions can be tricky.  Our goal is not to change a student’s view or opinion but to help them see many sides of a topic, as well as understanding the breadth and depth of issues.  Instead of pointing out the opposite view when reframing, try asking students to explore other angles or sides of a given argument.  A good follow up here is another open ended question such as “Let’s explore how that would look from the other side” or “How does that apply in the real world?”

S. Summary –  Pulling many ideas together and making meaning out of them can be a challenge in its own way.  Reflecting the ideas of the students by saying things like “What I hear you saying is . . . ” allows for clarification and highlighting of key concepts.  I will at times summarize the key points the class made and then have the students rank them in order of importance or relevancy to the topic at hand.  Using affirmation and open ended questions fits right in line with summarizing their ideas.

Open ended questions, affirmation, reframing, and summarizing–OARS.  The OARS steps are not new to us individually; however, using them together gives us focus and some structure when handling difficult or intense class discussions.  The order does not matter as much as watching how you deliver your messages, ask your questions and prompt the students for follow up.  Remember, when you are up a creek without a paddle or you find yourself having an interesting conversation, you can always remember your OARS.

Miller, W. R. (1983). Motivational interviewing with problem drinkers. Behavioural Psychotherapy, 11(2). 147-172.