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How to manage ‘hot moments’ in class?

Last updated on 14 May 2024
When students with diverse perspectives interact, ‘hot moments’ can occur: this arises when people’s feelings – often conflictual – intensify to a point that threatens to derail teaching and learning. It is an emotion-laden moment of conflict or tension.

Dealing with these moments can be challenging, as emotions sometimes run high. Think of discussions about political ideologies, religion, ethnicity, gender identity or social justice. For example, subjects such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, or when students do not function well as a group. Muftugil-Yalcin et al. (2023) showed that many teachers fear these moments to the extent that they want to avoid them altogether. Through their research, they developed guidelines that offer teachers insights into dealing with such situations. Here, we provide you with 6 tips to further develop your skills in managing ‘hot moments’ and turning them into learning experiences.
Tip 1: (re-)define hot moments as opportunities
Teachers should be prepared for and make use of hot moments. It can make your education both inclusive and challenging. If you reframe a hot moment as an opportunity for learning, the situation can turn 180 degrees. For yourself as well as for all your students. The hot moments offer situations for practicing reflexivity, open-mindedness, debating skills, and critical thinking. Helpful strategies are examining one’s own reaction and thoughts; helping students to think and reflect on the moment or deferring to a later moment (Warren in Caroll, 2015).

Tip 2: create a safe learning environment allowing for discomfort
Students need a safe environment to participate and learn, particularly when discussing sensitive, personal, or emotional-laden topics. A safe learning environment is an integrated safe space, where all participants feel safe to share their views and where there is engagement with diverging and oppositional perspectives. The condition is that all students feel like full and equal participants. When disrespectful remarks are ignored, students learn that such behaviour is tolerated, and they are not protected from it.

At the same time, learning and academic debate go hand in hand with discomfort. It is crucial that, while intellectually everything can be challenged, at the same time, everyone is accepted as ‘worthy of respect and consideration as anyone else and as fully competent to participate in society as any other.’ Critical and reflective open-mindedness, a component of academic thinking, requires unsettling and shifting assumptions and beliefs. 

The VU Mixed Classroom Educational Model offers approaches and learning activities that support establishing an inclusive, safe learning environment, such as making ground rules for interaction and discussion, monitoring learning climate, and reducing anonymity (Ramdas, Slootman, & Van Oudenhoven-Van Der Zee, 2019).
Examples are:

  • Do not allow personal attacks. Set a good example by engaging in challenging discussions with an open attitude. This is done by being open to different viewpoints and asking students to defend their opinions responsibly.
  • Let all students seek to understand each other’s perspectives. Ask students to reflect on the situation and what they might learn from it, possibly in the form of a reflective writing assignment or research on the subject.
  • Talk to individual students outside class.
  • Acknowledge when a student is emotionally struggling and offer support. For instance, mention the Student Wellbeing Point.

Tip 3: see teacher discomfort as a call for reflection-in-action
Feelings of discomfort and unease are often seen as undesirable and are hence prevented, disregarded, or stifled. Instead, they should be seen as signals that call for reflection-in-action: a concept formulated by philosopher Donald Schön in his book "The Reflective Practitioner”, 1983. It refers to the process of thinking about and evaluating one's actions while they are happening. These moments allow you to react outside of routinized patterns to a moment of surprise and adjust your response on the spot. Investigate on a meta-level what exactly lies behind this hot moment and read between the lines to understand the arguments or feelings underlying someone's remark. It is never too late for such reflection: even after the incident, you can still turn a hot moment into a learning opportunity.

Tip 4: share your experiences with colleagues
Connecting with colleagues and sharing experiences in the form of stories is highly valuable for enhancing each other's professional self-confidence and ‘hot moment’ skills. This is how you discover that your colleagues also experience hot moments in their teaching practice and how this exactly unfolds (Harlap 2013: 226). Listening to their experiences and how they deal with them provides insight and self-confidence (Hughes et al. 2010).

Tip 5: be patient and ask for help
Acquiring and refining the professional and personal skills that help us deal with hot moments is hard and takes time. Be persistent, and patient but be kind to yourself. You do not have to do this alone. The VU Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers Hot Moments workshops to learn to manage tension for deep learning in different environments. The Mixed Classroom Team at the CTL has for example developed a teacher guideline for discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the classroom, which you can find here.

If you need any (more) support or advice in dealing with hot moments, please send an e-mail to


The tips for active blended learning are provided by the VU Centre for Teaching & Learning.