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Developing a Shared Language: CDI at William & Mary

According to Dr. Stelljes, classes felt easier to manage and students were able to engage in these discussions with more comfort and confidence.


I was curious to see the extent to which the students would find it useful as they’re emerging into adulthood, and the short answer is that yes, they found it very useful, very applicable, and they introduced it into class discussions.

Dr. Drew StelljesAssociate Vice President of Student Affairs, William & Mary

The Challenge

Dr. Drew Stelljes, Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership at William & Mary, is a professor and administrator who oversees programs that encourage student engagement and personal development. He had recently joined a committee organized by the Virginia Bar Association® (VBA) whose purpose was to foster more constructive dialogue across different backgrounds, values, and viewpoints in the state of Virginia.

Together with Dr. Ron Crutcher, the outgoing President of the University of Richmond, who also served on the VBA committee, Dr. Stelljes formed the Commonwealth of Virginia Institute for Open-Mindedness. The institute is focused on equipping high school students throughout Virginia with skills to communicate across differences and understand perspectives that differ from their own.

Dr. Stelljes had also faced challenges over the years in managing difficult conversations between students, both within his own courses at William & Mary and across the campus more broadly. “I was tired of the inertia of us not making progress around hard conversations on the college campus,” he stated.


Why Constructive Dialogue Institute

Dr. Stelljes was introduced to Constructive Dialogue Institute through Dr. Crutcher. “It really just was exactly what I needed,” Dr. Stelljes said.

He appreciates that the Constructive Dialogue Institute program is research-based, which he felt would resonate especially well within an academic community. In addition, he appreciated the thoughtful way in which the online learning content was broken up into easily digestible chunks and presented opportunities for reflection and absorption of the material ahead of in-class discussions.


Key Outcomes

Speaking a Shared Language

Both in the Institute of Open-Mindedness and in his classes at William & Mary, Dr. Stelljes found that the Constructive Dialogue Institute program provided participating students with a shared language that fosters mutual understanding. Students used metaphors from the program while speaking with each other to prevent hard conversations from becoming heated and ineffective. According to Dr. Stelljes, classes felt easier to manage and students were able to engage in these discussions with more comfort and confidence.

Finding Community

In evaluations of the Constructive Dialogue Institute program, students reported how much of a sense of community they had developed with the other participants. Specifically, they reported how they became friends with students they normally would not have bonded with in class. “That’s something that’s important to me,” Dr. Stelljes expressed.

Classroom Engagement

In the numerous settings where Constructive Dialogue Institute was employed, Dr. Stelljes found that students across the ideological spectrum participated enthusiastically in the program. At the Institute, nearly every group of high school students shared that they wished they had even more time together to continue their discussions after their class time had ended.

At William & Mary, in a discussion-oriented seminar that met weekly for 3 hours and relied heavily on Socratic method discussions, the college students used strategies from Constructive Dialogue Institute and found it very useful and applicable.

Looking Forward

Dr. Stelljes has used Constructive Dialogue Institute with 66 students across 3 different cohorts. The program has been used at William & Mary in a senior-level college course on leadership and democratic engagement and at the Commonwealth of Virginia Institute for Open-Mindedness, an online program for high school students led by college student facilitators.

The program will be used this summer in a class on courageous leadership and at the DC Summer Institute for Leadership and Community Engagement for undergraduate college students. In addition, Dr. Stelljes reports that the Student Affairs Division at William & Mary will be implementing Constructive Dialogue Institute among their entire staff, “Members of the student affairs senior team really like the platform. We will require all 160 staff in the Division to complete the modules over a 3-month period in the fall with the first two modules due to start the fall kickoff. This is great news!”


Try Out Perspectives

CDI's interactive, online program, Perspectives, teaches students how to engage in constructive dialogue across differing backgrounds, beliefs, and viewpoints.

The entire 8-lesson program is free for educators. Try a sample section from the course to see how we present research-based skills in an engaging format that resonates with students.

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