Structuring Classroom Discussions about Elections

This content is adapted from a three-part series co-developed by Ginsberg Center and CRLT outlining strategies and resources for instructors teaching about the 2020 Election. For reproduction and permissions, please contact or [email protected]

Leading up to any election, we encourage instructors to spend time thinking about disciplinary investments, as well as what is at stake for students and instructors during classroom conversation about election issues and results. Drawing from resources by Ginsberg Center and CRLT on high stakes discussions, ‘hot moments’ in the classroom, and civic learning, this step-by-step planning guide provides one template for planning election-related discussions in the classroom. 

Instructors will host a range of election-related conversations in their classrooms, from analyzing the election through a disciplinary lens to making space for students to debrief their reactions to the election results. Some instructors may also be thinking about what they’ll do if an ‘unexpected’ conversation arises in their course even when the election is left off the official agenda. While all of these scenarios involve ‘elections’ as the discussion topic, each of these examples invokes a different set of stakes for students and instructors. We encourage you to make a plan for a specific classroom scenario in order to promote close alignment between your goals for discussion and your instructional choices. 

Who do you trust to share ideas with and to offer you helpful critiques? All instructors can benefit from having someone to offer feedback on their discussion plan. Consider identifying a colleague or booking a consultation with CRLT or the Ginsberg Center to get feedback while you develop your approach to discussion.


Before addressing the logistics of your discussion plan, consider what may be at stake for you and your students during an election discussion. Like other "high stakes" topics, an election discussion may implicate students' and instructors' personal experiences and identities, connect to firmly held values, surface hidden opinions, impact one's sense of belonging in the course/discipline, or produce other impacts that we might describe as risk. Should the discussion be facilitated well, it can also produce benefits. It might correct misperceptions, increase critical literacies, promote responsible dialogue across difference, and strengthen students' course learning.

  • What risks will students take on in the process of participating in an election debrief?
  • What are the risks for as an instructor in my particular Department/discipline?
  • How might the risks be experienced differently depending on the social identities held by students and instructors, or their relationships to institutional power and authority?
  • What can be gained (e.g. for learning, a sense of belonging, classroom community) if this discussion is facilitated well?

The range of stakes that you anticipate in your specific teaching context should shape your discussion goals. One way to think about discussion goals is to ask yourself: What do I want to ensure happens during the discussion? What do I want to avoid? Defining and sharing with students your clearly articulated objectives can help set participant expectations and link your discussion to other course goals. Here are some possible discussion goals:

  • Connecting the election with course learning objectives; for example, by exploring disciplinary connections and investments in the issues raised by the election.
  • Making space to acknowledge the range of emotions (fear, disappointment, elation, confusion, anger, relief) that may be present within your class.
  • Enhancing skills for dialogue across differences.
  • Practicing the skills of critical literacy and the ability to evaluate bias in text and discourse.
  • Analyzing the root causes or reasons for a social conflict (past-oriented discussion).
  • Exploring possible consequences of the election (future-oriented discussion).
  • Planning actions to reduce harms experienced by students targeted by election rhetoric.
  • Relating classroom discussion to the roles that students have as members within the university community and larger society.

Structure refers to the formats, activities, guidance, and resources that you will use to support your election discussion. Too often, instructors choose structures without first establishing goals or reflecting on the stakes involved. Aim for a close alignment between your goals and the structures you choose. For example, if a goal you have is to make sure every student has a voice in your election debrief, a more structured discussion activity that diversifies participation would be better than an open format that relies solely on students to volunteer. Ask yourself:

  • What discussion formats/ activities will best further your goals?
  • What discussion guidelines will be important to provide or establish with student input before starting discussion?
  • How much time should I devote to this discussion?
  • What resources do I have in place to support your students beyond this discussion? (office hours, supplementary readings, referrals to events & organizations)


Facilitation strategies refer to the instructional moves you make during discussion to promote the learning goals, provide transparency, set (and reset) the tone, respond to student contributions, share your own thinking, and reduce harm. Facilitation strategies are often instructors' focus, but remember that the preceding steps create the conditions for effective facilitation. Ask yourself:

  • How will I explain to students my decision to devote class time to the election?
  • How will I explain to students my decision not to spend time? 
  • What words will I use to acknowledge the high stakes of the discussion?
  • How will I provide a common starting point (shared learning goals, definitions, etc.) for students to engage in discussion?
  • What words will I use to respond and guide students through moments of silence, tension, emotion, or conflict?


Throughout an election season, students may experience a range of reactions that may impact their bandwidth for learning and participation in your course. Regardless of the time you dedicate in class to talking about election issues, students may still be focused on managing the impacts of an election on their own lives and thinking about what happens next. One way that you can support students in this moment is to highlight civic engagement as an ongoing, active practice that includes, but is not limited to, voting in an election. This Ginsberg Center resource on Pathways to Civic Engagement and Community Change offers six, intersecting paths for you and your students to explore. We describe each pathway and offer a few examples of strategies instructors can use to support students exploring each pathway.


Teaching during an election season will undoubtedly be challenging. Ginsberg Center consultants are available to talk with any instructor about planning courses or class sessions -- or responding to difficult moments if they arise. You can make an appointment through Ginsberg Center's Support Request Form.