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Teaching Sensitive or Controversial Topics

Types of issues that can be sensitive | The responsibility of the tutor | Pre-session preparation | During the session | Post-session | Resources

Creating a ‘safe’ and positive learning environment enables students to participate confidently and appropriately in small group work. Good practice in classroom management and group facilitation is essential to achieving this.

Freedom of expression, critical thinking, the scrutiny of evidence and underlying assumptions are all highly valued in the academic environment and we need to support our students to develop the skills associated with these by facilitating and encouraging reasoned and balanced discussion. This can be significantly more challenging to achieve when the topic of discussion is sensitive, controversial and for which students may have experience of or hold deeply ingrained personal beliefs about.

Types of issues that can be sensitive

Careful planning and management plays a particularly crucial role when teaching and learning involves students discussing sensitive or controversial issues. Typical examples of these include (but are not limited to):

Race Sexuality Domestic violence
Gender identity Mental health Disability
Politics Abortion Rape/sexual violence
Incest Paedophilia Torture
HIV/AIDS Drugs and alcohol Death/bereavement
Faith/religion/belief systems Suicide Research ethics

The very nature of these topics can evoke thoughts and feelings at a very personal level which can result in the expression of strong and sometimes extreme opinions which other members of the group may agree with or find abhorrent. Equally, other students may feel so uncomfortable about opinions expressed, the manner of their expression or other students’ reactions (or lack of) that they feel unable to participate at all. Crucially, some of your students may have personal experience of the issue under discussion.

For example:
According to the Hidden Marks report published by the NUS in 2010, 1 in 7 women students have experienced serious sexual or physical violence during their university education. Discussions around these topics are likely to have a very personal impact for students in this position. Tutors need to take these factors into account both when planning and managing the teaching session.

The responsibility of the tutor

It is the tutor’s responsibility to facilitate a balanced and reasoned discussion; developing strategies to achieve this is therefore essential. It is not uncommon for students to express a viewpoint which is likely to be controversial and distressing to others but remains unchallenged by the group, for example:

  • “If you have been drinking and you are dressed like a slut then you are asking for it”
  • “Anyone who takes drugs for recreational purposes is a loser”
  • “People who claim disability benefits are lazy”.

Letting statements of this nature pass by without explicitly considering the supporting evidence and alternative arguments will shut down the discussion and prevent a reasoned and balanced academic debate of the issues and evidence. Consequently, the opportunity for students to really consider the issues and examine their personal assumptions is lost. Censorship of any kind is counterproductive; no matter what views a student holds, they should feel able to express. However it is important that students develop the skills to put their point across in a clear, sound and respectful manner and that the tutor is able to manage the learning situation to support this.

Hints and tips

Pre-session preparation

  • Identify potentially sensitive and controversial topics before the start of the module and alert students to them from the outset; note that there may be topics which do not seem sensitive to you, but are for your students
  • Give students the opportunity to express any concerns they have with you confidentially outside of class (including the possibility of not attending) without them having to explain their back story to you
  • Note in the module outline/descriptions that discussions around difficult topics will be handled sensitively
  • On module outlines/web pages raise awareness of the support services available to students in the event that the prospect of discussing the topic or the discussion itself has a personal impact. For instance, details of the Counselling Service or specialist support services. This shows students that you take their thoughts and feeling seriously and also promotes awareness around the issues.
  • If the module is compulsory, ensure that the topic in question is not a compulsory part of the assessment for the module. For example, an alternative question on a different topic should be offered in exams and assessments and students should know if they do or do not have to learn the information on the relevant topics (as noted above, it should not be necessary for students to explain their back story)
  • If it is an optional module, ensure that students are aware of the topics covered so that they can make an informed decision about whether to choose the module
  • Have clear learning outcomes for the session and identify the role that the discussion has in achieving these
  • Anticipate the difficulties that may occur in the session (as discussed above) and devise a range of strategies to address them. For example, have a ‘silent’ discussion - this involves a position/topic being written up on the board and students being given the opportunity to write anonymously their views on it. Then the anonymous views can be discussed openly without the difficulty of attributing potentially problematic views to individuals in the group
  • Think about how best to group students throughout the session e.g. working in smaller groups before moving to a wider group discussion
  • Examine your own assumptions and views on the topic to reduce the risk of allowing your own stance influencing the discussion inappropriately. This will also help you identify any areas of personal discomfort that might occur for you when facilitating
  • Talk to colleagues who have experience of teaching sensitive and controversial issues; ask them about their experiences and strategies that have worked for them and their students

Worth considering: Develop a set of phrases you can feel comfortable using when different situations arise such as:
“This is beginning to sound a bit personal, let’s focus on the issue/problem which we agreed was…”
“What are the assumptions underpinning that statement?”
“What is the counter argument to this?”
“What evidence is there to support this proposition?”

During the session

Establishing boundaries and guidelines

  • Provide concrete opportunities for students to develop positive working relationships from the first session and throughout the module. Open discussion will be difficult to facilitate if students do not feel comfortable working together.
  • Where feasible, in the first session provide discussion and interaction opportunities on an issue which is less sensitive but controversial enough to enable ‘a trial run’ by problematising an issue and promoting a balanced discussion
  • State the learning outcomes for the session and explain how the discussion is related to achieving these so students understand its purpose
  • Make the parameters and context of the discussion clear, in particular specify and check students’ understanding of any concepts on which the discussion should be based. This could include providing key definitions, or using materials such as video clips or pre-reading to ensure students are working with similar information.
  • Preface discussions of sensitive and controversial topics by reminding everyone that some members of the group are likely to have had personal experience with the topic or issue (even though this may not be obvious)

Worth considering: Be upfront with students in advance of and at the start of a session about the issues associated with discussing sensitive issues and topics, and agree strategies you and they can use to ensure:

  • Respect for the opinions, experiences of others
  • A reasoned expression of stance, views and opinions
  • An expectation that their views will be challenged
  • An expectation that they will challenge the views of others appropriately
  • A willingness to examine and evaluate their own stance and be open minded to alternative and opposing positions
  • A focus on the ideas being expressed and rather than the person expressing them (avoiding personalisation)
  • That the group can ‘agree to disagree’ when a consensus cannot be reached or is not sensible or appropriate due to the nature of the issue

Managing the discussion

  • Proactively monitor any break out discussions (pairs, smaller groups) to ensure constructive examination of the issue
  • Avoid the singling out, or victimisation of individual students for the views they put forward
  • If views are expressed in a disrespectful manner the tutor has responsibility for mediating the situation; this can be achieved by refocusing on the agreed ground rules
  • Consider calling a ‘time out’ when participants are showing signs of fatigue and or stress; this will provide them with a brief break and can give you an opportunity to take stock of the situation and decide how to proceed
  • At the end of the session, acknowledge the challenges associated with participating in this type of discussion and invite students to think about their experiences of the session


  • Encourage students to provide feedback about their learning experience; this may provide you with valuable insight which can inform your future teaching practice


Bullet Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences Vol 2 Issue 3 includes a number of articles around teaching sensitive issues, including HIV, sexually explicit materials, race, religion, crime, terrorism and death.

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