Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Strategies for Equity and Inclusion in Virtual Instruction: Strategies for Addressing Behavior that is Detrimental to the Learning Environment

Instructional Continuity

Any one of an array of events can disrupt faculty’s ability to teach courses via on-campus, in-class sessions. Cal Poly’s commitment to students includes making sure that we provide students an opportunity to complete courses despite disruptions, whenever possible. The steady advancement of communication and instructional technologies has greatly enhanced faculty’s opportunities to provide quality virtual learning experiences in these situations. With  planning, training on selected user-friendly technologies, and available mentoring on effective instruction, faculty can be better prepared to continue instruction through many forms of instructional disruptions.

Strategies for Addressing Behavior that is Detrimental to the Learning Environment

This section considers suggestions and strategies for responding to words or behavior that may be intentionally or unintentionally harmful to the course climate, to the instructor, and to students who are targeted or marginalized by the words or actions of others.

Although each situation will be context-specific and require a tailored response, there are some general recommendations that you may apply in variety of scenarios. This section contains suggestions for responding to behavior that you feel is offensive, racist, and otherwise detrimental to learning. In these situations, you can always: 1) interrupt and question the behavior; 2) correct misinformation; 3) educate and share knowledge or opinions; 4) explain why the behavior may be offensive, hurtful, and/or damaging; and offer support to students in your class who may feel targeted.

The suggestions included below are intended to be used in either synchronous or asynchronous situations, though they may need to be altered depending on the particular context of the situation. 

What should I consider before responding to behavior that is detrimental to the learning environment?

How can I address behavior that detracts from the learning environment when it happens?

What actions should I consider after a difficult situation has happened in my class?


What should I consider before responding to behavior that is detrimental to the learning environment?

Prepare Ahead of Time

Expect that you will encounter difficult or disruptive situations in your virtual classroom. Even if you do everything you can to prevent these situations from happening, consider ahead of time the most likely scenarios that you may encounter. Collect your thoughts and any applicable resources for dealing with these scenarios and keep them for reference should a difficult situation arise. Carefully reading this document is a great first step toward being proactive. We also recommend perusing the extensive resources on responding to difficult moments provided by University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT). In particular the Michigan CRLT’s Making the Most of ‘Hot Moments’ in the Classroom provides concrete suggestions, similar to those in this document, for responding to and working through moments of tension in the classroom. 

Consider Parallel Situations in an In-Person Course

When you are suddenly faced with a difficult situation in the virtual environment it may be helpful to briefly reflect on a parallel in-person scenario before responding. For example, if you see a heated conversation in an online forum, consider the strategies you might use to diffuse a difficult moment in the face-to-face classroom. If a student displays inappropriate content through screen-sharing or live video, consider how you would react to similar content shared on a t-shirt or placard in an in-class scenario. More information on how to respond to scenarios such as these is included below. 

Consider How You Will Respond to Situations Involving Your Own Identity

Student actions or words may be personally harmful to instructors, and thus difficult to respond to. Instructors may encounter situations that involve student opinions, beliefs, or actions that are personally hurtful or that elicit a range of emotions. It is important to think ahead of time about scenarios in which your response will be emotional and to consider how you might react in a way that is self-protective. University of Michigan’s CRLT provides several suggestions for handling issues that involve the instructor’s identity. For example University of Michigan’s CRLT recommends that if you find yourself in a situation that involves your identity or is personally hurtful or difficult for you, you may want to: provide time for both you and the students to slow the conversation down and to reflect, come back to the situation instead of addressing it in the moment, and/or take the opportunity to refer back to the course’s community guidelines. Additionally, should a difficult situation occur that involves your emotional response to a situation, you may want to seek support from trusted others after class in order to process the situation and to make decisions about how to proceed. 

Encourage Empathy, Respect, and Inclusion

Provide students with examples of how to enact empathy, respect, and inclusion. Just as modeling inclusive language is important for promoting an inclusive classroom environment, it is also important to model community values in your classroom, particularly when difficult situations occur. The suggestions in this document provide concrete ways for instructors to engage with students in ways that promote curious questioning, conversation, and education. It is also important to emphasize to the rest of the class that they should have these values in mind when they interact with each other. Imagine, for example, a situation in which a student makes a mistake or inadvertently shares something embarrassing on live video. In these situations, instructors have the opportunity to reaffirm community values, to remind students to have empathy for each other, and to respect their peers by not sharing embarrassing moments outside of the classroom. 

Prepare to Respond in a Way that Reflects an Awareness of Students’ Rights to Freedom of Expression 

Remember that the First Amendment protects all speech that does not violate university policy. This means that students have the right to express themselves through offensive speech as long as it does not violate university policy. Students also have the right to disagree with, debate, or respond to speech that they feel is offensive, racist, xenophobic, or otherwise harmful. 

As an instructor, it is important that you do not censor a student’s speech; that is, restrict a student’s speech because of content. Instead, you should apply any guidelines or preventative measures equally, without regard to content. It would be appropriate to disable the chat function entirely in a synchronous session, but not in response to a comment with which you do not agree.  However, just as a student may not materially disrupt the learning experience for others in an in-person class, neither may a student create such disruption in the virtual classroom.  Your response to such behavior should address the disruption, not the content of the speech.

Allowing students to express their opinions free of censorship does not mean that you cannot respond when a student says something you believe is racist, offensive, or otherwise oppressive during the course of your class. Suggestions for how to respond to this type of scenario are included below.

Be Prepared to Respond to “Zoombombers”

Think through how you will respond to the rare cases in which an outside participant disrupts your virtual synchronous meeting. This interruption is commonly referred to as Zoombombing—a specific type of online harassment in which an outside participant enters a meeting and shares inappropriate content, harasses the presenter or participants, or otherwise disrupts the meeting. Read about how to prevent and respond to zoombombing.

How can I address behavior that detracts from the learning environment when it happens?

Remind Students of your Community Guidelines or Recommendations

If you have developed a set of community guidelines or if you have shared Cal Poly’s Recommendations for Students in Virtual Learning Environments, remind students of these guidelines and recommendations when a difficult moment occurs in class. For example, if a student uses humor in a way that may be offensive, you might say “You may have intended to communicate humor in your comment, but I want to remind you of the recommendations that I shared. It is important to be mindful of how humor can be interpreted in multiple ways. I believe that you may have not intended to be hurtful, but your words are harmful because…” Repeatedly coming back to your community guidelines or to Cal Poly’s Recommendations for Students in Virtual Learning Environments can help you to build a culture of empathy, respect, and inclusion in your classroom. 

Ask Questions and Engage in Conversation

If you witness student behavior that is offensive, racist, or otherwise harmful, consider how you can use questions to deescalate and move forward. Clarifying questions can help you to engage in a conversation with the student about precisely what they said and about their intent behind their statement. It can also help you to determine whether the student is open to a dialogue about the harmful impact of their comment. In the case that the student’s actions were unintentional, you have the opportunity to explain to the student that although intentions may be positive, words or actions may have a harmful impact on others. 

You might first ask questions to clarify what the student said, why they said it, where they got the information they are sharing, or what their intent was in communicating the way that they did. Try asking questions such as: “Did I understand correctly that you said…?” “Why do you feel that way?” “I am wondering where you got that information. Would you be willing to share?” “What exactly did you mean by that?” “Could we talk some more about what you were intending to communicate when you said that?” Beginning with questions may help you to deescalate the situation—you may find that the student is receptive to a discussion about how to be more inclusive. 

This line of questioning can be particularly effective in responding to microaggressions in the classroom. In responding to microaggressions, it can be useful to learn one of many communicative frameworks for responding. Two helpful frameworks are Souza’s (2018) ACTION framework in Responding to Microaggressions in the Classroom and Harris and Wood’s (2020) RAVEN framework in their webinar on Addressing Racial Bias and Microaggressions in Online Environments

The ACTION framework for responding to microaggressions suggests that after asking clarifying questions, you can communicate your feelings to the student (“In my experience, that comment can perpetuate negative stereotypes and assumptions about… I would like to think that is not your intent.”),  and request that action be taken (“I’d appreciate it if you’d consider using a different term because it is inconsistent with our course agreement regarding X… Would you be willing to use another term?”) (Souza 2018). If a student responds by choosing not to use another term, you might say “I understand, but I do want to let others in the class know that I am aware that the term you are choosing to use may be harmful” and then move on. The RAVEN framework (Harris and Wood 2020) is outlined in the graphic below. 

The RAVEN Framework for Responding to Microaggressions (Harris and Wood 2020).

Redirect. Intervene with the intent of stopping further harm from taking place. "I want to pause for a moment and address what you just said."

Ask probing questions for clarity. "I want to make sure I understand what you were saying, were you saying that...?"

Values Clarification. "You know, in this department we work hard to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all students. What you just said is not in alignment with those efforts."

Emphasize your own thoughts and feelings. "When I hear your comment I think/feel..." "Many people might take that to mean..."

Next steps. "The next time you encounter this situation, you may want to..." "Would you consider changing your language in the future?" "I would like to share some resources so that we can all learn more about this."

Correct Misinformation

Anticipate that students may repeat misinformation they have heard in class. The classroom is place where students are able to try out new ideas, question information or opinions they have heard, and engage in productive dialogue with their peers and instructor. Be aware that students may repeat misinformation they have heard or test out opinions they are developing in the classroom. At this moment, it is likely that this may happen in relation to the topic of COVID-19, quarantine, social distancing, etc. It is important that you stay informed and be ready to provide factual information to correct any misinformation that is being shared in the classroom. Misinformation may be shared about many other topics, as well. 

Misinformation should be corrected for the benefit of the entire class, whether the student who has presented the misinformation is open to conversation or not. When misinformation is shared that fits within or is related to your subject area or that you otherwise feel confident addressing, you can correct the misinformation, emphasize the importance of distinguishing between fact and opinion, and share your knowledge. You might say, for example, “the statement you just made is your opinion, but it is at odds with the facts about this situation that show that…” or “what you just said is a common misconception about x, research on this topic shows that not to be true; rather…” In cases where you believe a student is sharing misinformation, but are unsure, you can express your feelings and get back to the group later. For example, you could say, “I am uncomfortable with what you are saying and I do not believe that it is correct information. I would like some time for all of us to research this further. Let’s come back to this conversation during our next class.” You can then take some time to access resources to help you facilitate a productive discussion. We recommend the extensive resources on responding to difficult moments provided by University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT); these resources include a set of guidelines for discussing difficult topics.


Converse with individual students and with the class with the intent of educating. When you determine that a student is open to engaging in conversation, consider how you can educate them by presenting factual evidence, conflicting opinions, additional perspectives, or by discussing the impact their words or actions may have on others. 

How you educate will often have to do with the context of the comment or behavior and its connection to the course material or your subject area expertise. In cases where the comment or behavior is unrelated to course content, it is still important to respond and educate, but you may choose to do so briefly. 

If the harmful comment or behavior is connected to course content, or if you are prepared to facilitate a conversation on the topic, you may choose to take the opportunity for a deeper learning opportunity for all students. One effective strategy when a student uses words or expresses an opinion that is contrary to scholarship in the discipline is to emphasize the difference between opinions and disciplinary knowledge. For example, you might say “In this course it is important that we differentiate between personal opinions and disciplinary knowledge. My role is to help you learn about knowledge in our discipline and experts in our discipline would argue that…” If you are interested in taking the conversation deeper, we recommend perusing the extensive resources on responding to difficult moments provided by University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT); these resources include a set of guidelines for discussing difficult topics

While it is always best to address difficult situations when they come up, you may not be ready to educate in the moment. In this case, you can always proactively acknowledge the situation by questioning and communicating your feelings or opinion and then come back to the conversation when you have had the time to collect the information you need to have a productive conversation on the topic. 

Offer your Own Response and Support Those who Feel Targeted

If a student in your class expresses ideas or behaves in a way that you believe is racist, offensive, or otherwise harmful, and does not engage with you when you question and educate, you have the option to offer your own knowledge and/or opinion, and to clarify the impact of the situation on other students in the classroom. You might say, for example, “I understand that that is your opinion, and you are free to express your opinion, but I would like to acknowledge that your opinion does not consider (describe data, historical evidence, scholarship, theories, or other knowledge).” You can then acknowledge the range of opinions in the room and support those who may feel targeted by saying something like, “There may be a range of viewpoints on this topic among students in this class. I would like to let you know, though, that I feel uncomfortable with what you have said and I want to point out that it may be harmful to other students in this class.” After this brief intervention, you may choose to pivot to another topic or to move on in the conversation. 

Acknowledge the Feelings in the Room

When a tense situation happens in the classroom, consider acknowledging the variety of feelings in the room. If you feel comfortable sharing your own feelings about the situation and you think that sharing is appropriate in the context of the situation, you might simply say “I want to acknowledge that I am feeling X in this moment.” Then, you can acknowledge the range of feelings that students may be experiencing in the moment—for example, you could say “I expect that some of you may be feeling X right now, while others may be feeling Y. A variety of feelings may arise in us at a time like this. Take note of how you are feeling and know that I am available if you would like to share your feelings about the situation with me.” After acknowledging the complicated feelings in the room, let students know how you plan to proceed for the rest of the class—will you move on with the content for the day, pause so that students can collect their thoughts and then continue the conversation, or will you come back to this topic at a later date?

Stop the Conversation when Necessary

There will be times when the above strategy of questioning, conversing, and educating will be unsuccessful or the situation requires more direct intervention. There may be cases where a student appears to be intentionally disrupting the class, trying to direct the conversation away from the course material, or directly attacking members of the class or segments of the population at large. If this happens, you have the option of allowing the student to express their views and then discontinuing the conversation with the student. You may simply say, “That doesn’t relate to the discussion we are currently having, we are going to pivot back to our discussion of x and move on with class.” Or “That comment offends me and I am going to close discussion on that matter and we are going to shift our conversation to x.” In the rare scenario that the situation escalates to the point that it is a willful, material, and substantial disruption to the learning environment, then you can end the course session and report the conduct to the Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities.   

What actions should I consider after a difficult situation has happened in my class?

Speak to Students One-on-One When Needed

Follow up with students one-on-one just as you would in an in-person classroom environment. When difficult situations arise in the virtual classroom environment, there are times when you will want to follow up directly with individual students. For example, if a student says something in a discussion forum that you feel is offensive, racist, and otherwise detrimental to learning, you may want to first use the suggestions above to respond publicly to the student and then follow up directly with the student to discuss further. You can then decide whether and how you might address the issue with the entire class. Similarly, if a student feels targeted or seems withdrawn when a difficult situation occurs in the virtual environment, you may want to reach out to them individually to understand their perspective and to offer support. 

Report When Appropriate

Remember that you remain a mandatory reporter, even in the virtual setting. Potential violations of the Cal Poly Standards for Student Conduct must be reported to the Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities. Allegations of discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation in violation of university policy must be reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) ​​​. If you have experienced or witnessed an act of bias in our campus community, please report it to the Bias Incident Response Team.

Seek Assistance and Support

Seek support from colleagues, the CTLT, or other campus resources in processing difficult situations, preparing a response, and moving forward with your teaching.  No matter how much you prepare, there will always be times when you leave a classroom situation and aren't confident in how you have handled a difficult situation. There will also be times when you feel unable to respond to a situation in the moment and need help thinking through what to do next. There may also be times that you are emotionally affected by what has happened in your classroom and need additional support talking through the situation. In all of these scenarios it can be helpful to lean on others that you trust for guidance and support.

In addition to your colleagues, friends, campus resources, and departmental supports, the CTLT can assist you in dealing with sensitive or difficult situations. Dr. Sarah Macdonald, CTLT specialist in diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching is available for individual consultations to discuss difficult issues that may occur. You can contact Sarah directly to set up a consultation by emailing her at smacdo05@calpoly.edu. You can also contact your department chair, or leadership in your college for assistance dealing with difficult situations that may arise.



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