4. Student-Student Interaction

Recommendation 4.2: Inclusive St-St Communication
Establish guidelines for productive and inclusive student-to-student interaction and communication, addressing issues that may arise with care.

Synopsis from Self-Review

Promoting and maintaining inclusive interaction and communication takes effort. We may not get it right every time, but by setting carefully considered ground rules for our students and consistently checking in with our class, we encourage a culture of a more open, inclusive, and dynamic learning environment.

How to Put Into Practice

Fostering inclusive interaction and communication involves a willingness to recognize, name, and address language and behaviors that intentionally or unintentionally marginalize individuals or groups (whether or not those individuals and groups are known to be “in the room”). 

As the instructor, you are in a position of power to model and facilitate inclusive practices of communication; that power is mediated by the social identities you inhabit, especially when any of these are underrepresented in your field or subject area.

There are many strategies for modeling and facilitating inclusive communication, but they don’t all need to be added at once; incorporating a few to your course each semester will improve students’ learning experience over time. Do not underestimate the power of small gestures—students often report that minor steps taken by an instructor have a big impact in helping them feel welcome in the class and in the discipline.

Strategies for prior to or early in the semester

Belonging 

  • Prioritize building a sense of the class as a community as the foundation for an inclusive, learning-focused environment (See Recommendation 4.1 Community and Presence)
  • Create or co-create and share ground rules for classroom interaction. 
    • Understand the limitations of common ground rules—such as “presume good intentions”—because they can invalidate the perceptions of students who correctly observe, for instance, that racial bias has informed a peer’s statement. 
    • Provide and model concrete questions that students can ask to engage productively with bad-faith arguments. For additional context and strategies for establishing ground rules, see Sensoy and DiAngelo, 2014.
    • Consider including “netiquette” guidelines specific to online spaces. Examples include being mindful of message tone and length, avoiding the use of ALL CAPS, expectations for how to address instructors and peers, etc. Explore more Netiquette guidelines.
  • Affirm and use students’ names and gender pronouns. Give students the option to share their pronouns in a private venue such as in a Welcome Survey or other written format. Let them know that they can add pronouns to their Canvas profile if they wish.

Microaggressions

  • Prepare to intervene in the case that students engage in inappropriate or harassing behavior, such as microaggressions, which can include well-intended comments like “Your English is so good!”.
    • Preemptively and consistently remind students of the ground rules and expectations, and provide opportunities for students to reflect on their own and their group’s adherence to these expectations.
    • Periodically review digital forums and share with students what you observe, with the goal of highlighting generative behaviors and intervening in harmful behaviors.
    • Consider the mix of full-class communications and private communications (targeted to individuals). For example, if microaggressions occur in an online forum, post a reminder to the full class of the expectations (and harms that can result from the behavior you observed), and send individual messages to students involved with a warm invitation to chat with you.

Strategies for during the semester 

  • Create openings for students to connect their experiences, interests, and skills to course material. 
  • Ask students what they find most interesting, confusing, surprising, frustrating, urgent, or relevant in the readings or lectures. Listen with curiosity—for adjustments you may make, and for opportunities to encourage higher order connections.
  • Recognize spaces where students may feel exposed in their writing or linguistic abilities (e.g., some international students when participating in an English language discussion forum). Continually highlight the goal of communicating in such spaces (e.g., build relationships, develop a rigorous analysis); draw attention to substantive contributions.
  • Use asynchronous discussions or build “wait time” into synchronous meetings to allow students to think or write before responding.
  • Invite both verbal and written contributions (e.g., the chat tool in Zoom). If it’s hard to monitor a chat while facilitating synchronous discussion, ask students to help.
  • Don’t ask students to represent a group they visibly belong to (or that you may assume they belong to).
  • If your course engages with potentially traumatic or emotionally fraught content—such as representations of war, sexual violence, racial violence, or racist language—note this in advance so that students can feel prepared before being confronted with the material. Provide options and identify approaches that will allow all students to engage safely.
  • Guide groups in working together, and check in on groups periodically.
  • Anchor discussions in open-ended questions or problems to foster diverse responses and encourage participation and active listening.

Acknowledging and/or engaging high-stakes or sensitive topics and events

Some courses and disciplines regularly engage topics that are widely recognized in the U.S. context as sensitive or high-stakes, in that they touch on issues of power, identity, or historical inequity. For other courses and disciplines, such high-stakes topics may emerge only intermittently, or surface in people’s responses to current events, such as examples of racial violence, or events related to politics.

  • Acknowledge the potential impact of current events. Students feel more trust in the instructor and will be more prepared to engage in course content when you acknowledge and normalize the range of emotions and reactions they may carry with them. 
  • Connect to current events.The Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence (MTLE) program offers a structure for self-reflecting on your capacity to connect to current events in the classroom; while it is focused on the 2020 election, this structure can be applied to many other events and contexts, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Carefully structure discussions of difficult or high-stakes topics (University of Michigan).

Additional Resources

Background Information

What is this?

Creating an environment where productive interaction and communication can occur, while being sensitive to power dynamics, involves many factors, including syllabus policies, co-authoring community guidelines, providing frequent reinforcement, building supportive relationships, and showing flexibility.

Why is this important?

We strive to foster learning experiences that are inclusive of and welcoming for everyone. Doing so involves recognizing how our identities, experiences, privileges, and challenges shape our approach to learning, our engagement with course materials and our interactions with one another.

Where is this?

Community guidelines and diversity statements may be found in the syllabus while other practices are part of course management and delivery throughout the semester.

Success Factor 4: Student-Student Interaction

The course is designed to include regular and substantive interaction among students. A fully-realized educational experience provides students with ample opportunity to actively engage and collaborate with their peers.