Addressing Difficult Events in the Classroom
Charged and stressful events occurring on campus or in the national or global community can create challenging classroom dynamics and distract students from their academic work. As an instructor, your action or inaction sends a message to students. This page provides pedagogical tools and resources for addressing difficult events—for example: intensely charged, existentially awful, or politically intractable issues—while remaining sensitive to the range of opinions, emotional reactions, and potential for student harm.
Generally, research suggests that most students find it useful when instructors acknowledge issues of deep concern on campus. Moreover, when instructors do not address these issues, some students report feeling frustrated or disappointed (Hosek & Austin, 2016; Huston & DiPietro, 2007; Linsenmeyer & Lucas, 2017). There are a variety of different pedagogical approaches to addressing difficult situations that can reduce tension and distraction in the classroom, including:
- Acknowledging the situation and the pain some students may be feeling, communicating care for them, and connecting them with campus resources for additional support;
- Hosting class discussions to enable collective processing of the issue or event; and
- Shaping lessons around the situation when it connects to disciplinary concepts, including fundamental concepts as well as strategies for analysis and thoughtful reflection.
The first two pedagogical approaches provide pathways to help students cope without pursuing any particular learning objectives or disciplinary concepts and skills. See the MIT faculty guide for recognizing and responding to students in distress after a tragedy or loss for related suggestions.
Decide how you will address the difficult issue in class
Before deciding whether or not to discuss the issue or event with your students, take time to think about your motivation for having this discussion.
- Reflect individually on, and/or discuss with a colleague, your feelings and concerns surrounding the issue or event. Consider both your concerns for students and your personal reactions to the moment.
- Consider how or whether a conversation about the issue or event aligns with your learning goals or your discipline’s role in the issues affecting the campus community, including:
- Which topics within the subject and/or your discipline might require special attention in light of the difficult situation?
- What are the diverse perspectives and voices that characterize your field related to these topics, and how can you maintain some balance in presenting them?
- Consider how student life might be affected on or off campus. The event or issue may be polarizing and create conflict among students. The interpersonal stress may be an additional source of distraction and the tension may carry over into peer relationships in the class.
Facilitating these kinds of conversations may be challenging because not all disciplines will have explicit ties to the challenging issue or difficult event that is affecting the campus community, and you may have little practice in leading such conversations. Emotions—of students and instructors—can run hot. Yet, because the absence of any acknowledgment sends its own message, these types of events or issues affecting the campus community must be addressed.
As you plan these conversations, be aware that different things are at stake in these conversations for different people, which may include:
- Academic Risks & Consequences: Do students perceive that there will be academic consequences for sharing their perspective during (or opting out of) the discussion?
- Experience of Vulnerability: Might this discussion bring to the surface students’ deeply held beliefs, assumptions, and worldviews? Might it make visible their personal experiences or their political investments? How are the stakes of vulnerability different for members of different groups (e.g., BIPOC, LGBTQ, disabled communities, and other groups)?
- Changes to Relationships: How might the relationships between students, or between you and your students, change in the course of this discussion?
- Belonging & Exclusion: What are the stakes of this discussion for students from marginalized and underrepresented groups? What are the stakes for you if you are a member of such a group? In what ways can this discussion signal to these students that they belong (or don’t belong) in the classroom community, in the discipline, or at MIT?
- Experience of Harm: What forms of harm could be produced in real-time for students during this discussion? What harms related to systemic injustice should be avoided? How will you help your students distinguish between these actual harms and the feelings of productive discomfort that arise when students are challenged to learn?
- Recency of event: Some students may initially be hesitant to discuss the issue or event, particularly if you are leading this conversation in the days after the event. You may want to provide additional opportunities for engagement in the days and perhaps weeks after the event.
Plan learning objectives and structure for the class
Have a clear purpose that you communicate to students
Starting a discussion with clearly articulated objectives can help shape the nature of the discussion, communicate its purpose to students, and link it to other course goals, when relevant.
Examples of general objectives include:
- Simply acknowledging the tragedy/pain that some are feeling (without engaging in a discussion of the specific events
- Connecting the topic with course material, including fundamental concepts and strategies for analysis and thoughtful reflection
- Increasing awareness about the topic by providing information that is not generally addressed in informal discussions
- Promoting critical thinking by helping students to understand the complexity of the issues
- Enhancing skills for dialogue that students can take into other venues
- Relating classroom discussion to the roles that students have as citizens within the university community and larger society
- For additional resources, see MIT’s faculty guide to Responding to Students in Distress.
More specific objectives for discussion about social conflicts, especially those involving language of hate or bias, may focus on policies, social conventions, or civic responsibilities, including the following:
- Examining and developing positions on issues of social policy, university policy, or social convention.
- Identifying a core problem underlying social conflicts and exploring possible answers to the problem.
- Analyzing the root causes or reasons for a social conflict (i.e., a past-oriented discussion).
- Exploring possible consequences or implications of a conflict (i.e., a future-oriented discussion).
- Planning effective actions to reduce such incidents and/or to support vulnerable populations.
Structure class time to address the event
Once you’ve identified the benefits and pitfalls of different approaches and set a clear purpose for addressing the outside issue in your class, plan how you will introduce the topic, facilitate the discussion, and transition back to course content. Below, we offer suggestions and resources to inform how you might structure class time to address charged events in the classroom.
Facilitate the conversation
We suggest the following steps for planning and facilitating your class discussion. As you consider your class schedule, think carefully about when you want to facilitate this conversation during a class session.
- State why you are having this conversation and how long it will last.
- Mention that the discussion is optional (students do not need to participate) and that difficult topics may be discussed. You may even allow some students to leave the room for the specified amount of time.
- Share your goals for the conversation:
- To acknowledge that something has happened and that you understand this is likely impacting them.
- To allow students to share how they are feeling.
- To share resources for students.
You can use the example below to begin the conversation but should feel free to adapt and expand depending on your own goals:
It is difficult for all of us to learn when we are stressed out. I recognize that reckoning with [the ongoing difficult event or issue] is a challenge that some of you are facing. We’re going to take some time for anyone who wants to share how they are feeling, but no one should feel obligated to say anything if they don’t want to. I want to better understand how the event is impacting you, give you a chance to share, and share resources with you that you may want to seek out if you are having trouble.
Set the stage for an inclusive and respectful discussion by creating community agreements about guidelines that foreground valuing all students. Make it clear that personal attacks or attacks on students’ identities are not permitted. If you have not already constructed or shared discussion guidelines, you can either work with students to generate discussion guidelines or present a set of guidelines and work with students to accept or modify them (see post on Discussion Guidelines for details and examples). Referring back to these community agreements can be very helpful if discussion becomes tense.
2. Discuss reactions
- How are you feeling? How is this impacting you?
- What do you feel like you need for yourself?
During this time, your role is not to respond to every student’s concern at the moment, but to say that you hear them and make a note of common themes or resources you can direct students to.
You should be clear in advance how much time will be allotted for students to share their reactions and hold to that time, but mention that students may speak to you later or that you can direct them to more resources if they don’t get a chance to share.
3. Share your perspectives
If you are comfortable, share your reflections or reactions with students. Think carefully about the extent to which you want to share these opinions. While it might make some students feel supported to know that you are on “their side,” it may erode students’ trust who have different opinions.
4. Direct students to resources they may need
The most comprehensive collection of available resources can be found via Division of Student Life, Student Support Services (S3) for undergraduate students, or GradSupport for graduate students. It will also be beneficial to familiarize yourself with some of the resources described in these websites to better direct students to the support they need.
Remind students also that this is the time to prioritize self-care (e.g., getting enough sleep and healthy food, exercise, and taking time to relax).
5. Plan a transition back to your regular content
With the same intentionality that you planned for this conversation with your students, consider how you will guide students back to refocusing on your class content.
Suggestion for a brief acknowledgement of event
In place of a synchronous conversation during class time, you may opt to briefly acknowledge the event, communicate care for students, and connect them with resources. You may choose to make this announcement in class or to contact your students electronically via email or through Canvas. Feel free to adapt the email template below, originally developed by Student Support and Wellbeing to address the 2020 election.
I know that we usually spend our time talking about [insert course name]. However, I anticipate that many of you may be thinking a lot about the [identify the difficult event or issue]. I am too. No matter what your beliefs or opinions, you deserve support at this time. That might mean talking to friends or family, reaching out to one of the many support resources at MIT, or taking some extra time for self-care. Please know that while your learning is, of course, important to me, your well-being is most important. If you need anything from the rest of the teaching staff or me, please let us know.
Resources from the Division of Student Life
- Tips for Leading Productive Community Conversations
- All support services
- Student Support Services (S3) for undergrads
- GradSupport for grad students
- Take Care of Yourself During Challenging Times
- Helping Students Cope with Challenging Times
Articles on facilitating difficult conversations in times of political or other stress
- Teaching in a Tense Political Climate, Teaching + Learning Lab, MIT
- Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or High-Stakes Topics, Center for Research on Learning & Teaching, University of Michigan
- Difficult Dialogues, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University
- Navigating Difficult Moments, The Derek Bok Center for Teaching & Learning, Harvard University
- Facilitating Controversial Discussions, The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching & Learning, Brown University
This post is adapted from an earlier post which discussed handling controversial topics in the classroom.
Hosek, A. M., & Austin, L. (2016). Exploring pedagogical and emotional responses in higher education classrooms during the Boston Marathon bombing crisis. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 17 (1), 68 – 76. https://doi.org/10.1080/17459435.2016.1143386
Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students’ perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25 (1), 207-224. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.2007.tb00483.x
Linsenmeyer, W., & Lucas, T., (2017). Student perceptions of the faculty response during the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 29 (3), 524-533.