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Sensitive content is an unavoidable element in many areas of study across the University. This can include discussion of events, artefacts or ideas that are generally offensive, but may especially affect students who have experienced trauma related to the topic, or who belong to a group that was or is directly affected by it. Approaches to sensitive content will be different for every discipline, but the guidance below should help departments and programme and module leaders begin to consider how to teach this content in effective and inclusive ways.

Department- and programme-level approaches
  • Adopt principles for both staff and students throughout the department/programme. Introduce the principles at induction and in the student handbook, and reinforce them during all teaching sessions, in online communications and in assessment feedback. A few examples of principles might be:
    • Staff and students will: treat others as they want to be treated, with respect, trust and equity.
    • Staff and students will: be responsible for their own and others’ learning and development in all academic activities by participating with an open mind and contributing constructively.
    • Staff will: prepare students to engage with challenging content in timely and sensitive ways.
    • Staff will: ensure that discussion of challenging content is handled respectfully, robustly and reflectively.
  • Set ground rules for discussions, based on the principles, and apply them consistently across modules. You may wish to adapt the University’s Respectful Engagement Agreement:
    • All communication will be respectful and considerate of people from different cultural backgrounds.
    • We will respect everyone’s pronouns.
    • We will be kind to each other and will not insult or put down others.
    • We will contribute to the discussion with a constructive and positive approach.
    • We will not make exclusionary jokes or harass others.
    • We will take a step back if necessary, so that all people can engage.
    • We will respect people’s accounts of their experiences of marginalisation and will not dispute their lived experience.
  • New students may require explicit instruction in participating in academic discussions in your discipline, approaching different kinds of learning materials (e.g. problematic historical texts, disturbing images or narratives), and critically addressing troublesome concepts. This could be built into induction or an early core module, supported by the principles and ground rules above.
Before a module or session
  • Identify topics that might cause general discomfort or offence, affect those who have experienced trauma, or impact those who belong to certain groups.
  • Choose your learning resources carefully. Do not shy away from important aspects of the topic(s), but consider which resources are crucial for learning, which can be provided as optional materials for students to access independently, and which (if any) are not appropriate (e.g. photographs of unconsenting individuals, findings from unethical studies).
  • Consider whether University policies and/or UK laws might need to be consulted in this instance (e.g. safeguarding, Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act).
  • For teaching sessions in which students will not be interacting very much, you can plan ahead by carefully considering how you will discuss the sensitive topic (e.g. imagine that someone who would be directly affected by the topic will be present), including any background information or research that will further prepare students for the topic, and anticipating questions or comments that students might have during the session.
  • Before each session in which you discuss sensitive topics, let students know in advance what will be discussed and how it fits in with their learning. You may also remind them of the ground rules at this time, and/or quell any potential misconceptions about the topic before the session.
  • If you are aware that some students may have valid reasons not attend due to the nature of the topic, provide robust alternatives to attending the session, and build in alternative modes of communication (e.g. follow up in-class discussion with an asynchronous discussion online).
During the teaching session

The following advice pertains to seminars or other sessions that consist mostly of discussion. For other types of teaching sessions, however, they may be useful to keep in mind in regards to students’ questions and comments.

  • Avoid techniques that might increase student stress (e.g. singling out a student to answer a question or contribute to the discussion) or encourage students to take an antagonistic position (e.g. debate-style activities).
  • Model good practice yourself, including acknowledging when you are unsure of something.
  • Give students the opportunity to lead the discussion as a group, but be prepared to step in (e.g. if errors are left unchecked; if the discussion diverges too far from the learning goals of the session).
  • If students are struggling to articulate their ideas in a clear or academically appropriate way, intervene by encouraging them to expand on what they have said, word it in a different way, or connect it to the learning content.
  • Keep students (and yourself) to the ground rules. If students seem unable or unwilling to do this after several reminders, it may be necessary to shut the discussion down and explain why.
  • Leave time to debrief at the end. Emphasising how the discussion relates to the topic, broader ideas and research in the field, and to the module as a whole may help students to readjust their perspective and reflect after an intense session.
After the session
  • Take some time to reflect on how the session went and if anything you did seemed to work particularly well, or may need to be done differently in future.
  • Follow up on anything about which students may need additional input (e.g. further details about a confusing concept or issue, wider contextual information, readings from multiple perspectives, etc.).
  • If individuals were clearly upset, or contact you afterwards, take their reactions seriously and let them know that you will work to address whatever caused their response, within your role. It may be appropriate to point them to their college and other University support services as well.
Further reading and resources

Cebula, K., Macleod, G., Stone, K. & Chan, S.W.Y. (2022) Student experiences of learning about potentially emotionally sensitive topics: trigger warnings are not the whole story, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 46:8, 1120-1134.

Plath, L. (2013) ‘Looking at lynching: ethical and practical matters faced when using lynching photographs in the classroom’ in Historical insights: teaching North American History using images and material culture. Ed. Catherine Armstrong. HEA, October 2013.

Standard Graduate School of Business: Handling planned or unexpected class discussions involving sensitive topics

University of Liverpool: Teaching sensitive topics and dealing with emotionally charged content