Discussing with Closed-Minded Students

Guidelines for being challenged in class by closed-minded extreme students.

Posted Jun 20, 2018

While it is important is to expose students to ideas that contradict their current beliefs as part of teaching them how to think, an increasing event experienced by university professors is having students disagree with the professor and challenge many of his or her assertions.  The issue is how to manage closed-minded students with extreme political views, either right or left, when they comment in class. I have eight recommendations:

  1. First, be respectful.  Do not discount them as people or treat them impolitely (such as cutting them off or not calling on them).  This does not mean letting them give long speeches, you need all class members to know that their time is limited by the need to cover the course content.  Make it clear that every class member has a right to his or her position, but it does not mean that any one else has to agree with them.  The more defensive a closed-minded person feels, the less he or she will be willing to consider other perspectives and conclusions.  
  2. Listen to students carefully.  Make it clear to everyone (especially closed-minded students) that you are listening and comprehend what they are saying.  Paraphrasing the key aspects of their comments always helps.  If students feel understood by the professor and classmates, they may tend to be more open-minded.  
  3. In disagreeing with the students, keep the focus on the issues, not on the persons commenting. Anytime the focus is on a person, step in and intervene.  Issues may be discussed in class, but not people.  Mutual respect and objective listening should be the class norms, not the character or intelligence of the students themselves.  
  4. Demonstrate that you can see the issue from the students’ perspective.  To respond in an objective, non-adversarial way, you need an accurate assessment of the validity and relative merits of the students’ position. Doing so requires “standing in each student’s shoes” and viewing the situation from the student’s perspective. Perspective-taking is essential to ensure relevant information is presented in ways that class members can understand and that other members’ messages are comprehended accurately. Perspective-taking facilitates the achievement of creative, high-quality problem solving.  Perspective-taking also promotes more positive perceptions of the information-exchange process, fellow group members, and the group's work.  
  5. If students are angry and personally attack you for something you said, ignore the anger and attack, and stay focused on the issue.  If you respond with an angry counter-attack, students will tend to become more defensive and closed minded.  In addition, if students succeed in making you angry and defensive, on one level they have won the debate and discredited you in front of the rest of the class.  Give them the opportunity to present their view and listen to it respectfully with neutral emotionality.  After a while, they may do the same.  
  6. Periodically invite their participation.  If you think they wish to comment, invite them to do so.  The more welcome they feel in expressing their views, the less closed minded they will tend to be.  
  7. Model how you want them to behave.  Whenever possible, find some aspect of their message that you can publicly agree with. This focuses on what everyone has in common, not only on the differences.  If you demonstrate a willingness to change parts of your position and see some issues from their perspective, their fear of reconsidering their views may be reduced.  It is a good idea to model what you want them to do.  
  8. Finally, strive to make them your friends.  The surest way to reduce the conflict and open their minds to other points of view is for them to consider you their friend.  In addition, having a discussion among friends is far different that having a discussion among adversaries.