Center for Educational Innovation

Academic Affairs and Provost

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Below are seven key elements to masterfully delivering a course with potentially sensitive content. 

  • PREPARE students for sensitive course content 
  • ESTABLISH a psychologically and emotionally safe learning environment
  • DEVELOP an inclusive and positive classroom climate
  • INCORPORATE Universal Instructional Design principles to support all students
  • RECOGNIZE and MANAGE signs of student distress
  • INTEGRATE best teaching and learning practices, including with international students
  • FACILITATE and MANAGE sensitive discussions

 

PREPARE students for sensitive course content 

  • Provide a clear explanation about the potential for exposure to sensitive course content in person during your first class session. 

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ESTABLISH a psychologically and emotionally safe learning environment

An emotionally and psychologically safe classroom atmosphere is one that is deeply respectful of differences and fully acknowledges different perspectives, values, opinions and beliefs.

  • Establish and post ground rules to ensure respectful communication. Students can own the ground rules by helping to generate the list on the first day of class. Sample ground rules:
    • We attack ideas, not people.
    • One person talks at a time.
    • One can speak twice and then waits for all to speak before speaking a third time.
    • Supporting evidence must be provided for any comment contributed.
    • Ensure confidentiality: What is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.
    • No put-downs, name calling, or verbal attacks.
    • Respectfully voice differences of opinions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs.
    • No mobile devices unless permitted.

Resources: 

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DEVELOP an inclusive and positive classroom climate

An inclusive and positive classroom climate exists when:

  • students’ experiences and contributions are equitably shared and acknowledged
  • no student is marginalized, minimized or excluded, and students with diverse backgrounds, experiences and needs feel valued
  • the intellectual, social, emotional and physical aspects of the classroom are mindfully considered and addressed.

classroom climate
Source: Classroom Climate, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Indiana University

  • Intellectual: Provide engaging, organized, and challenging materials and activities highly representative of the discipline. Students receive frequent, constructive feedback on their work.
  • Social: Deal with problematic classroom interactions immediately. The PDF iconattached pdf has suggestions from the State University of New York-Plattsburgh.
  • Emotional: Value all student backgrounds and experiences, providing clear behavioral expectations, and consistently demonstrating instructor accessibility. Maintain respectful, engaging classroom interactions. 
  • Physical: Ensure that all students can access course content in an equitable manner. Format classroom activities that enhance learning and reduce distractions. 

Resources: 

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INCORPORATE Universal Instructional Design principles to support all students

Universal Instructional Design (UID) refers to the design of course materials, activities, and strategies that help students from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and abilities achieve the course goals/outcomes.

  • Use a variety of active learning strategies such as case studies, demonstrations, group work, paired students, individual projects, mini-lectures, discussion strategies, and flipping the classroom.
  • Use a variety of assessment strategies to check student understanding and mastery of course competencies such as: performance assessments, presentations, online quizzes, projects, papers, and authentic assessments.
  • Provide course materials in various formats: print, online, on reserve, large print when needed.
  • Briefly review previous course session content at beginning of class session.
  • Summarize session content at the end of each session.
  • Connect course content to students’ lives with personal stories, case studies, news stories, etc.
  • Encourage student class support such as peer buddies and study pairs/groups.

Resources:

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RECOGNIZE and MANAGE signs of student distress 

Mental health concerns across college and university campuses have become a significant public health issue. Many higher education students live with conditions that influence their mental health. Faculty and staff search for ways to recognize potential signs of distress, and respond effectively to challenging circumstances in the educational setting. The PDF iconattached chart delineates behaviors of concern and best practices for classroom intervention and support.

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INTEGRATE best teaching and learning practices, including with international students

International students can provide unique perspectives to discussion of sensitive course content, provided you take into account factors which may help facilitate their participation in your course:

  • Consider whether students of all cultures are likely to have a background in the material. Certain topics may not be sensitive to those from other cultures because the topic is not an issue in their cultural context, e.g., the death penalty.
  • Let students know from the very beginning that their thoughts have a place in the classroom, that we all have unique perspectives, and that these different perspectives are an important component of the learning process.
  • Never make assumptions about an individual based on the racial, ethnic, or cultural groups to which he or she appears to belong. Treat each student first and foremost as an individual. Get to know each student individually.
  • Avoid creating situations where students are placed in the position of being representatives of their culture.
  • Be aware that what is sensitive for you may not be sensitive for your students, and vice-versa.  A case in point is the visual representation of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish magazine several years ago. For some Muslims, a visual depiction of the prophet is considered highly offensive.
  • Keep observing your students for any signs of distress.  If someone does become distressed, respond to the situation as calmly and quietly as possible without drawing extra attention to the student.
  • Provide alternative formats for students to communicate feelings of distress, such as written feedback on the topics or ways in which they have been covered. Some international students may feel more comfortable writing feedback rather than talking face-to-face.
  • Provide opportunities for students to write and reflect on the topics covered in class, and provide sufficient time for written reflection for those for whom English is a second language.
  • When appropriate, encourage students to share their thoughts about the subject, acknowledging their statements as they are made.
  • When appropriate, create opportunities for students to personalize course content with examples from their own history/culture so that domestic students can be exposed to perspectives other than those of their own culture.
  • Try not to react emotionally or in a judgmental way to anything students (whether domestic or international) may tell you, even if what is being discussed is not consistent with your own values or cultural background.
  • Use the “one-step-removed” strategy. Use hypothetical situations that allow students to distance themselves from the topic and view it from all angles. For instance, instead of asking, “What would you do in this situation?” you could ask “Suppose this happened to a friend, what would you advise them?”
  • Provide time for students to discuss in pairs or small groups prior to all class discussions.
  • Discuss cultural expectation that differences of opinion are healthy.
  • Provide students with language for expressing disagreement respectfully.
  • Ensure that you call on international students to the same extent as native-born students.

Sources:

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FACILITATE and MANAGE sensitive discussions

A primary strength of the University of Minnesota is the rich diversity of backgrounds and experiences of our students. In a higher education setting, difficult discussions about topics like violence, religion, classism, sexism, politics, racism, etc., routinely occur. Discussing sensitive content during class can result in conflict and feelings of discomfort. Difficult discussions can provide the opportunity to enhance student learning when facilitated and managed in a positive, proactive and productive manner.

When a student feels discomfort or distress during discussion of sensitive content, or if they break down in class:

  • Acknowledge it and let the student choose to take a small break or stay in the classroom.
  • Share your willingness to help any student feeling discomfort during any classroom discussion.
  • Check in with the student at the end of the class session or meet together soon after class
    • Tips for conversing with a student in distress (shared by Matt Hanson, PhD, LP, UMN Boynton Mental Health)
      • These can be difficult conversations to have with students, and it may be helpful to approach the conversation from the point of "I'm really concerned about this behavior because if it continues it's going to get in the way of you being successful" versus something more adversarial. Taking a more "collaborative" stance (how can we fix this together) can help with some of the uncomfortable feelings since students will very likely respond more favorably if they feel understood.
      • Consider having someone join the conversation (colleague, chair, Mental Health Advocate, police, etc.) to help provide perspective and support, especially if there's some concern that the student is at risk to self or someone else.
  • Remind students of your ongoing support by inviting them to follow up with you one-to-one after class and during office hours. Ensure accessibility and support through F2F options, email, video chat, Skype, etc.
  • Encourage the student to touch base with a counselor.
     

This document contains helpful techniques for facilitating a sensitive discussion.

 

Resources:

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