With contributions from 2020 - 21 CITLS Student Fellows Fatimata Cham ‘23, Anna DeVault ‘21, Monica Rizk ‘22, Allen Wu ‘24, and Hamna Younas ‘22, and CITLS
To share student recommendations as well as resources to professors who teach courses with potentially distressing material
Perhaps a familiar system that demarcates distressing material is the Motion Picture Association of America’s classification scheme of movie ratings. Movies are rated G for a general audience when they are designated as not containing offensive material; PG, if parental guidance suggested; PG-13, when parents are strongly cautioned; R, if restricted and those 17 and under must attend with a guardian; and NC-17, when no one under 17 can be admitted because of the adult content. These ratings serve as forewarnings and can assist movie watchers in deciding whether or not to view the film. College courses may also involve potentially distressing or offensive content. Such sensitive material on topics such as racism, sexism, and violence may trigger strong, negative emotions in students given the varied experiences and perspectives learners brought to the classroom. However, no systematic system of course content ratings exists across higher education, and thus instructors choose whether and how to let their students know whether material is distressing or not, which can have direct impacts on their learners.
CITLS staff members asked 2020 – 21 student fellows their suggestions for how professors can effectively teach course material that is potentially distressing. Student fellows offered four main pieces of advice, in which CITLS staff also incorporated relevant resources to support teaching efforts.
Not having forewarning that sensitive material will be presented or discussed in class can be distressing for students. Therefore, before such activities, be sure to prepare the students for what is to come. Below are a few strategies.
If the course involves any potentially distressing material, let students know on the syllabus and the first day of the class. Students may also prefer to have a forewarning prior to when their professor presents such content or before they engage with it in other ways. Interestingly, a research group found that providing trigger warnings was neither helpful nor harmful with regards to correlating to the distress that students reported feeling after being exposed to sensitive material (Sanson and Strange, 2019). Thus, distressing material can be challenging independent of the trigger warning, however, students still often prefer such warnings.
Because of students’ varied experiences and perspectives, learners can appreciate when the instructor acknowledges such differences, and starts at the level of the class, providing background and context on the sensitive topic as necessary. One option is to assign a reading, video, or article that can explain the topic so that the class starts on a common ground before the discussion or lecture.
Students may have differing perspectives on the topic, highlighting the importance of the professor voicing how it is essential that all students interact with civility and respect. Please see the Creating Collaborative Classroom Guidelines resource developed by Professor Angela Bell, a prior CITLS faculty fellow, to consider strategies and examples on how to co-create classroom guidelines with students.
If material has the potential to alienate and be traumatic to students, provide other avenues by which students can still engage with the topic but through less distressing activities. This flexibility may be welcomed by some students and still allow them to accomplish the learning goals for the course. For example, there may be less distressing readings, films, or other media that can substitute for the material and still help students achieve the learning goals for the course.
Consider varying the presentation of the course material so that it can resonate with students in different ways, and clarify points. For example, consider a mix of videos, podcasts, or articles, depending on what is available for the topic. Allow students the opportunity to ask clarifying questions.
When students participate in class discussions involving potentially distressing material, affirm them and build on their thoughts. Such affirmations can help students be more open, and show that their contributions are valued.
Implement trauma-informed pedagogy and social-emotional learning in courses to help students work with emotion around the distressing material, and feel a sense of safety in the classroom. For strategies, see the How to Foster Social-Emotional Learning Skills in the Classroom: A Guide to Validate Your Students Emotionally as well as the recording of the CITLS session Social-Emotional Learning in Higher Education with guest speaker Dr. Mays Imad.
Using contemplative teaching practices such as breathing exercises can help students work through the distressing course material. See the CITLS Media Channel for a recording of 2020 – 21 CITLS Distinguished Teaching Fellow Professor Chris Phillip’s Small Contemplative Teaching session on this topic.
If after using strategies described in this resource, students are still experiencing much distress over the material, let them know that the Counseling Center is also available as a resource. Lastly, the level of discomfort that the instructor has with the material might differ from that of their students. Therefore, prior to presenting such material, reflecting upon how the content could potentially affect students, as well as obtaining input from others, can be useful exercises.
Sanson M, Strange D, Garry M. Trigger Warnings Are Trivially Helpful at Reducing Negative Affect, Intrusive Thoughts, and Avoidance. Clinical Psychological Science. 2019;7(4):778-793. doi:10.1177/2167702619827018