Teaching after tragedy: What can instructors do to support students?-Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Teaching after tragedy: What can instructors do to support students?

Teaching and learning can be difficult for both instructors and students following a local, national or international tragedy. Tragic events may take an emotional and cognitive toll on students, disrupt their lives, and interfere with learning for extended periods. Students’ proximity to a tragic event does not always determine their response. For example, students may be seriously affected by events that involve total strangers. Additionally, students’ surface responses may not be indicative of the actual effect.

As an instructor, it’s important to consider the impacts such events have on students as human beings and learners. What can instructors do to support students in the wake of tragedy or crisis, regardless of what they are teaching in their courses?

What can I do in my course?

  • Acknowledge the tragedy during class and recognize that students may be experiencing distress and distraction. An acknowledgement might include:
    • observing a moment of silence
    • offering an opportunity for students to privately reflect on the event in writing
  • Offer supports to mitigate resulting stress/anxiety/distraction, as appropriate, such as:
    • extensions for all students or any students who request them
    • offer a review session or additional office hours
    • provide supplemental resources to support student learning
  • Remind students of available campus resources to support them emotionally and academically (see links below)
  • Provide (or brainstorm with students) avenues for students to respond positively or develop agency (e.g., how to volunteer time or contribute meaningfully)
  • Allocate time to discuss the tragic event(s) with students, with or without explicitly linking it to course content (see below for resources on specific discussion strategies)

Don’t hesitate to contact us to discuss potential strategies specific to your teaching context.

What does research suggest about these strategies?

Studies of students’ perceptions of instructors’ responses (Huston & DiPietro, 2007) suggest that:

  • Acknowledging tragic events is helpful, regardless of course size or format
  • To prevent additional student frustration or disappointment, avoid cursory or superficial acknowledgement (e.g., “X is tragic, but we need to press on to stay on schedule.”)
  • Offering additional instructional supports or accommodations helps students cope with tragedy
  • Various responses can be equally helpful, whether interventions are simple and brief or complex, personalized, and connected to course content
  • Students appreciate responses that foster a sense of agency or hope

Where can I go or send my students for help?

CMU resources:

Other resources: