The first defense is to have had good offense. Did you set the rules for the discussion before it began? If not, stopping the conversation and laying out some ground rules isn’t a bad idea.
If you did layout discussion ground rules, then when the conversation gets out of control it is a good idea to remind the students of what the rules of engagement are.
The rules can vary according to your class and your teaching style, but the following are some good rules that you can incorporate into your discussions.
Answer respectfully and expect to be answered respectfully. There will almost always be differing opinions. However, students can respectfully disagree with each other.
If students feel their contribution is significant to the conversation, they will be more likely to engage in the discussion. Listening carefully to other students arguments will allow responding students to provide a more suitable response.
Support your arguments.
Disagreeing to disagree doesn’t bring anything constructive to the conversation. Ask students to provide support for their arguments. Be sure they understand that responses that oppose arguments are part of the learning process and that all students can learn from feedback.
No coarse language.
Coarse language doesn’t add anything to the discussion.
Disagree with the argument, not the person.
This keeps the discussion focused on the topic and not the people.
If the rules are being followed, but the topic of conversation has diverged from the original topic, use question prompts that get students back on the topic of conversation. Be respectful but firm. Give students the opportunity to get back on topic but let them know that the topic has diverged too far from the main topic.
Here is an example of respectful language you could use to keep the conversation on track:
“I understand that you have some strong feelings towards the government’s new health care implementations. I see that you feel strongly about it, and agree with you that it has its flaws, but I am hoping to focus our discussion more on the electoral process, and not on the specifics of each party's stance. I hope to delve into that conversation in a few weeks when we cover the major political party’s campaign platforms. I will set up a discussion board on the Moodle site in which you can continue this conversation after class so that you can express your thoughts on this topic.”
Then follow up with a question that actually gets them back on topic.
“Is the Canadian electoral process working for Canadians? “
If students seem disengaged at this point provide them with a statement that they could agree with or refute. Try and get them to engage in discussion with you. Once you get a response try polling the students informally by asking if anyone agrees or disagrees with the previous student’s response. This provides you with an opportunity to get the students engaging with each other again.