How To Manage Classroom Conflict


bruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

Have you experienced conflict in your classroom? Are you aware of conditions that can disrupt a productive learning environment? Adjuncts often find that discussions can be a source of conflict because students may share diverse views, personal beliefs, or opinions, and that creates a potential for miscommunication, heated debate, and negative responses. It is important to monitor class conditions as unresolved conflict can have a negative impact on students’ performance, their developmental progress, and the working relationships they have with other students and the instructor. Instructors can create a positive classroom environment by understanding the difference between dispute and a conflict and developing responsive interactions that promote meaningful communication.

A starting point for monitoring class conditions is looking for visual cues. In a traditional classroom an instructor will notice when there is growing tension among students. There may be reoccurring disagreements and disruptions that prevent students from interacting effectively together. For an online classroom these visual cues may be observed within the discussion boards. Students may post emotionally-charged messages or they may become non-responsive during confrontational occurrences. Instructors can monitor these interactions and take a proactive approach towards diffusing situations that may be potentially disruptive.

When observing communication in the classroom, for the purpose of monitoring interactions and productivity, it is helpful to make a distinction between a dispute and a conflict. A dispute occurs when there is a disagreement about something a student has offered as an opinion, belief, fact, or position about a topic and it is short-term in nature. When the dispute is left unresolved or it becomes escalated, then it can become a conflict that is disruptive to the overall classroom learning environment. Further complicating the resolution of a long-term conflict are perceptual factors that students develop about each other and their instructor. If students perceive that conflict is allowed to continue unchecked they may also have strong emotional reactions that make resolution more difficult.

The first sign that there is a potential for a dispute among students is a breakdown in communication. This does not mean that a conflict has occurred, provided that the instructor intervenes and addresses the situation in a timely manner. In their article Tending the Fire: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Online Classroom, Julie Higbee and Kathy Ferguson have noted that “maintaining an active facilitative presence is essential not only in shaping discussion but also in helping defuse conflict before it escalates.” For any classroom environment a short-term disagreement can be addressed quickly, before it becomes a deeply rooted problem that results in conflict. Instructors can address disputes by helping students move past their initial reactions and find a common language that allows them to work together effectively.

When working with students to resolve disputes it is helpful to separate facts from opinions and feelings so that the real issue can be addressed and a plan for resolution developed. For example, a dispute may occur because of something that was taken out of context and resulted in miscommunication. Shari Saunders and Diana Kardia have found that “it is important to normalize the experience of conflict in the classroom, particularly in classes that focus on controversial topics,” and “this can be accomplished through explicit discussion of student experiences with conflict and the use of structured discussion exercises.” The development of a plan of action is helpful for these situations, whether it is a real dispute or a perceptual misinterpretation, as disputes and conflicts engage the minds and emotions of students. A successful conflict resolution plan should work towards addressing the issues and restoring productive working relationships.

To maintain an effective learning environment an instructor can take the lead during conflict resolution discussions and model dynamic communication. The first step is to acknowledge what has occurred and discuss the reasons why miscommunication, perceptions, or feelings may have resulted. As stated by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “ignoring or dismissing a student’s comments can also sour the attitude of the entire class toward the teacher.” What has a powerful impact on the resolution plan is the sincerity of the instructor, the choice of words used, and a focus on issues rather than emotions, while encouraging an open and respectful dialogue. The process of collaboration can help to address short-term disputes and miscommunication, which in turn can prevent long-term conflicts and a disruptive classroom environment. Instructors who are proactively reviewing students’ interactions and guiding the flow of productive communication are likely to find that they are prepared to effectively manage conflict in the classroom.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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