Weekly Teaching Note
Sep 26 2012
Learning from Conflict in the Classroom

“The study of conflict should be viewed as a basic human requirement and the practice of constructive conflict as an essential set of interpersonal skills” (Wilmot and Hocker, 2011, p. 2)

There are several approaches that instructors can adopt for addressing conflict in the classroom as a learning opportunity for students.  One way to begin preparing students to engage in conflict moments is to have them identify their approach to conflict and their conflict style (Wilmot and Hocker 2011).  By having students read through the following statements and identify which statementaligns with their views on conflict, students gain valuable insights into their preferred communication mode— competing, avoiding, compromising, collaborating, and/or accommodating (Thomas and Kilmann, 1974):  

  • I love peace and harmony and will go to great lengths to avoid conflict.
  • I sometimes will willingly engage in conflict, but only if I can see no other good choice.
  • I like the give-and-take of a good verbal conflict and am not particularly wary of getting involved.
  • I enjoy constructive conflict.  My adrenaline gets going and I like to see what can come of it.  I even seek out conflict at times.
  • I count on conflict to help clear the air, solve problems, and get us to a “different place.”

Additionally, instructors can implement activities where students brainstorm constructive and deconstructive approaches for addressing conflict.  One activity, adapted from “The Complete Guide to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace” by Marick F. Masters and Robert R. Albright,  asks students to think of a recent conflict they have had with a peer, superior, or subordinate; write down what the conflict was about; and list the various ways they could have handled it.  Finally, they identify how they handled it and why it worked or did not work.

Utilizing role-play is also a helpful strategy for generating helpful proactive and reactive strategies for conflict communication.  This active learning strategy gives students the opportunity to solve a problem, apply skills, explore/change values, develop empathy, and to become aware of their assumptions (Nickerson 2007).  Role-plays are well-suited for exploring conflict communication because they help students experience “stressful, unfamiliar, complex, or controversial situations” (Bonwell 1991).  Students can reflect on the words and actions of each character to determine the effectiveness of communication in addressing the conflict and the particular conflict modes present in their scenario.

Facilitating difficult conversations on controversial topics is a common practice among instructors from almost all disciplinary backgrounds.  By incorporating proactive and reactive strategies for conflict communication into the course content and modeling constructive ways of handling conflict, instructors can better prepare students to learn from all aspects of difference in the classroom.


  • Bonwell, Charles C., and James Eison.  “Active Learning:  Creating Excitement in the Classroom.”  ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, 1991.
  • “Managing Classroom Conflict.”  Center for Faculty Excellence, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  November 2004.
  • Masters, Marick F., and Robert R. Albright.  The Complete Guide to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace.  New York:  American Management Association, 2002.
  • Nash, Robert J., Bradley LaSha, DeMethra, and Arthur W. Chickering.  How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus.  Jossey-Bass, 2008. 
  • Nickerson, Stephanie.  “Role-Play:  An Often Misused Active Learning Strategy.”  Essays on Teaching Excellence 19.5 (2007-2008). 
  • “Role-Play Exercises.”  Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence:  Penn State University, 2007.
  • Thomas, Kenneth W., and Ralph H. Kilmann (1974). Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument.  Tuxedo, NY: Xicom, Inc, 1974.
  • Wilmot, William, and Joyce Hocker.  Interpersonal Conflict.  8th ed.  McGraw-Hill, 2011.


To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.



Dr. Amanda G. McKendree, Assistant Director

Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning

University of Notre Dame



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