We Can Do Hard Things: Facilitating Discussions on Social Issues in the Online Classroom

In the age of social media, where ideas are unmediated but often gauged by “likes” and “hearts,” it can be intimidating to try to foster critical thinking in discussions of social issues in the online classroom. As instructors, we may be apprehensive of engaging in topics that evoke deep-seated opinions and emotions or reflect painful experiences. However, education and social research tell us that these discussions are important for fostering personal growth (Ford & Malaney, 2012). In his studies on “race talk,” Sue (2013) argues that “participants in successful racial dialogues report less intimidation and fear of differences, an increased compassion for others, a broadening of their horizons, appreciation of people of all colors and cultures, and a greater sense of connectedness with all groups.” In their research of gender and sexuality discourse, Jearey-Graham & Macleod (2017) reflect on Freire’s notion that “true learning only occurs through dialogue” in which “teacher – student dichotomies are broken down, with all members of the dialogue being understood as both learners and teachers who engage in mutual investigation and critique of a problem.” Discussing relevant social issues such as these in academic settings allows us to continue to develop critical thinking skills and uncover personal and social biases.

Discussion forums are a common method of teaching and learning in the online classroom. For some, the purpose is to simulate a classroom discussion in a traditional setting, where an instructor prompts students with a statement or question. This encourages extemporaneous application. Asynchronous discussions, however, give students time to access materials, assess them, and synthesize their learning with personal experiences. In either case, discussions encourage student engagement. How can instructors navigate these discussions involving relevant but sensitive subjects? I offer the following guide for facilitating discussion of social issues in the online classroom.

Establish parameters early on.

It is important for instructors to establish both the tone and expectations for discussion forums. Is there a required number of responses or an expected word count? Are students expected to cite or simply mention sources? Structure can relieve some of the anxiety students may have, especially if they have never discussed topics in an online educational setting. In an article on engaging, effective, and equitable discussions, Abney & Conatser (2020) write, “When preparing for a virtual discussion, take time to mentally walk through the learning objectives, driving questions, and key takeaways. Students flounder in the face of poorly articulated questions or unexpected shifts of activities.” Instructors may want to require not only initial responses to discussion prompts, but also a specific number of peer-to-peer responses to encourage open communication between students.

Emphasize inclusiveness.

The tone of class discussions on social issues should be one of inclusion. Before discussions of social issues, such as race, class, and gender, I tell students that having emotions and opinions on these topics is natural, and to please share their experiences where comfortable. However, they are expected to dig into why they hold these beliefs and should reflect on current research in their field of study. I urge respectfulness and thus, should inappropriate comments arise, I will intervene and redirect the discussion. Inclusivity should also extend to course materials, incorporating scholars who may have previously been marginalized. Course design should reflect the diversity of the student body.

Ask questions.

Instructors often walk a fine line between not enough and too much interaction in course discussions. In asynchronous online learning environments where the curriculum is pre-loaded, responses to students in the discussions may be one of the best ways for instructors to share their knowledge of the subject matter. Asking probing questions as well supports further interaction and critical thinking. Beyond the who, what, when, where, why, I ask students ‘Have you considered…’ and ‘How do you think this applies to…?’ Consider also teaching students how to ask respectful questions of each other. The idea is to help them move beyond simple agreement or disagreement to be able to analyze their own ideas and their peers’ ideas.

Include personal narratives.

Personal narratives allow us, as instructors, to guide students in sharing their own experiences, while identifying with both the subject matter and the students in the human experience. Students are not necessarily looking to develop personal relationships with faculty members, but they do appreciate when instructors can relate to the course material and apply concepts to real-world events (Turner, 2021). For example, I might discuss my experience as a planning commissioner when examining community representation or social dynamics. We can examine the dynamic forces of gender norms through accounts of my career as a female academic and educator during the pandemic. Social presence is critical for engagement in an online environment as instructors develop rapport with students through technological tools that enhance the student’s engagement and satisfaction in the online classroom (Park & Kim, 2020).

Provide resources.

In introductory courses covering social issues, the textbook may provide only a cursory review of the issues. Students wanting to dig deeper will need trustworthy resources for their exploration. Providing them with book titles, journal articles, films, organizational websites, and descriptions of historical events and locations will enhance the discussion by bringing in other voices. For example, I often refer students to the PBS Frontline website to watch “A Class Divided,” a 53-minute documentary film about Jane Elliot’s 3rd grade classroom experiment on discrimination in 1968. This interesting and easy-to-watch docufilm introduces current students to the perspective on race and discrimination of students from a predominantly White area during the Civil Rights era (Peters, 1985). We are then able to discuss how this applies to race relations today and our discussion is often reinvigorated. Course content, length, and level may determine the depth of discussions on various social topics, so offering ways to further explore is crucial.

Discussion forums are important teaching and learning tools in the online environment. Social issues, often divisive on social media, can be navigated in the classroom to facilitate critical thinking and application of course concepts to real-world events and experiences. By inclusively guiding the narrative and providing additional resources, instructors can successfully engage students in discussions that are both academic and relevant to everyday life.

Stacey U. Tucker, PhD, MSP, is an associate professor and department chair of sociology with American Public University System (APUS). She holds a master’s degree in urban and regional planning and a PhD in sociology from the University of Tennessee. Her biggest passion is helping people find the resources they need to achieve their goals. Her aim is to help students and others understand how society and its systems (culture, politics, the economy, education, religion, etc.) affect our values, worldviews, and behavior.


Abney, J. & Conatser, T. (October 2, 2020). How to Make Your Virtual Discussions Engaging, Effective, and Equitable in Eight Steps. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/how-to-make-your-virtual-discussions-engaging-effective-and-equitable-in-eight-steps/

Ford, K. A., & Malaney, V. K. (2012). I Now Harbor More Pride in My Race’: The Educational Benefits of Inter- and Intraracial Dialogues on the Experiences of Students of Color and Multiracial Students. Equity & Excellence in Education 45 (1), 14–35. doi:10.1080/10665684.2012.643180.

Jearey-Graham, M. (2017). Gender, Dialogue and Discursive Psychology: a Pilot Sexuality Intervention with South African High-School Learners. Sex education 17 (5), 555–570. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2017.1320983

Park, C. & Kim, D. (2020). Perception of Instructor Presence and Its Effects on Learning Experience in Online Classes. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research 19, 475-488. https://doi.org/10.28945/4611

Peters, W. (Director). (1985). A Class Divided [Film]. PBS Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/documentary/class-divided/

Sue, D. W. (2013). Race Talk: The Psychology of Racial Dialogues. American Psychologist 68 (8), 663-672. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-42570-019.

See also Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence : understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Wiley.

Turner, M. W. (2021). Students’ Perceptions of Faculty Social Presence in Online Gateway Classes. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.