Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Acknowledge the event and student distress

Studies of students’ perceptions of instructors’ responses to tragic events suggest that acknowledging the event is helpful, regardless of course size or format (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). Instructors who didn't respond at all to the tragedies were seen as insensitive and appeared to demonstrate little concern for the students, and there is informal evidence that this result generalizes to other tumultuous events. Various instructor 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 event’s impact on students and/or, 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.
  • You can also acknowledge how you feel about an event, to normalize vulnerability and emotional processing.
    • This can be as simple as acknowledging the gravity of the event and that you are having to process your emotions regarding it, or you can explain (to whatever extent you feel comfortable) how the event impacts you and what you are specifically feeling.
    • If you do not feel comfortable disclosing aspects of your identity or your reaction to an event, that is absolutely okay! It is valuable for students to see that youan adult with experience and authority—may also be uncertain about how to talk about an event and the ways it impacts you and others.
  • To prevent additional student frustration or disappointment, avoid cursory or superficial acknowledgement (e.g., “I know X happened, 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 in Tumultuous Times