Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Acknowledge tragedy and student distress

Studies of students’ perceptions of instructors’ responses (Huston & DiPietro, 2007) suggest that acknowledging tragic events is helpful, regardless of course size or format. Instructors who didn't respond at all to the tragedies were seen as insensitive and appeared to demonstrate little concern for the students. Various responses can be equally helpful, whether interventions are simple and brief or complex, personalized, and connected to course content.

  • An acknowledgement might include:
    • (1 min) Observe a moment of silence.
    • (5 min) Offer an opportunity for students to privately reflect on the event in writing. They can optionally submit them anonymously to you or you might ask one or two people to share their thoughts with the class.
    • (10+ min) 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).
  • Students appreciate responses that foster a sense of agency or hope.
  • 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.”)


Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. In D. R. Robertson & L. B. Nilson (Eds.) To Improve the Academy. Vol 25. Resources for faculty, instructional, and organizational development (pp. 207-224). Bolton, MA: Anker.


GO TO:  Teaching after Tragedy