Teaching sensitive topics

The University aims to create a secure and positive learning environment for all its students. At the same time it is committed to upholding academic freedom. When teaching politically, culturally or other sensitive topics, it can be challenging to maintain both of these important principles. This guidance provides advice on planning and managing your teaching to establish secure learning and teaching environments where all are able to engage.

Guidance on teaching politically and culturally sensitive topics: China

Participants at a learning and teaching staff development event

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In the UK academic freedom is considered a key tenet of a university education both for staff and students. The Sheffield Graduate Attributes emphasise the importance of students developing critical thinking skills. We expect our students to be able to appraise, question, analyse and interpret a variety of evidence. Equally, the University aspires to its students having a global awareness and being able to take an inclusive approach in which they are able to recognise and value different abilities, backgrounds, beliefs and ways of living.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that some students will find certain topics particularly sensitive and potentially upsetting and may find these topics difficult to engage with.

Potentially sensitive topics include but are not limited to the following:

  • Race
  • Gender identity
  • National identity
  • Politics
  • Incest
  • Faith / religion/ Belief systems
  • Mental health
  • Paedophilia
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Suicide
  • Domestic violence
  • Death / bereavement

These topics can evoke thoughts and feelings at a very personal level which can result in strong and sometimes extreme opinions. Equally, other students may feel uncomfortable talking about these topics. Others will have had personal experience of the topic under discussion which may evoke distress.

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Key principles when teaching these topics

  • Uphold the principle of academic freedom. Do not self-censor or avoid these topics if they are an important part of the programme.
  • Take an inclusive approach.
  • Consider what in your teaching could be sensitive to some students and consider the most appropriate way for students to engage with it.
  • Focus on the academic skills (e.g. using evidence to support your claims, being able to see things from different perspectives) you want students to develop rather than getting into difficult discussions about whether certain claims are right or not.
  • Provide clear communications to students about the content of modules or programmes and how you expect them to engage with the module or programme.

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Preparing for teaching

  • Consider whether any of the content is likely to be sensitive to students in your class.
  • Examine your own assumptions about a particular topic to reduce the risk of your own viewpoints influencing discussion inappropriately.
  • Review your reading list - is there a balance of scholars from different countries / cultures with different perspectives on the issue you are covering. This is important for creating a more inclusive curriculum.
  • Include a statement in your programme information to tell students that the programme / module may contain sensitive topics. You may also want to let students know about any aspect which may be particularly sensitive in advance of it coming up during the semester. You may also want to signpost students to the relevant support that the University offers in the event that discussion of a certain topic has a personal impact.
  • Give students an opportunity to express concerns with you confidentially.
  • Consider how to group students for discussions. Pairs or small groups are likely to be more conducive to students taking part.
  • Consider whether you need to record your teaching sessions. You are strongly advised not to record seminars involving discussion of sensitive topics. This means there is less risk of recordings being shared inappropriately and students may feel safer engaging in these sessions. Consider alternative ways to provide a record of the seminar for students. If you are recording a session, remind students that they cannot share the recording.
  • Provide scaffolded approaches to supporting students in difficult discussions. Students may need some additional help with the language needed if English is not their first language.
  • Provide ways for students to contribute to discussions anonymously. Blackboard Collaborate chat and Blackboard discussion boards can both be set up so that students can choose to post anonymously. Here is some further guidance:
  1. Amend Blackboard Collaborate session settings.
  2. Edit Blackboard discussion board settings.
  3. Direct students to guidance on how to post anonymously.

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Establishing expectations

  • Provide opportunities for students to get to know each other and develop positive working relationships from the beginning of a module or programme. Open discussion will be difficult to facilitate if students don’t feel comfortable working together.
  • Start a new module / programme with a discussion about expectations. This should include;
  1. the importance of academic freedom within the culture of the University and the fact that some sensitive topics may / will be covered.
  2. how to navigate disagreements in class. Explain to students that in discussions people will have different views and that’s ok - the key is to respect the view of others. Emphasise the importance of listening to others and seeing it from their perspective. Encourage students to criticize ideas not people.
  • Where feasible, at the beginning of a module consider getting students to have a discussion on a controversial topic that is unlikely to be very sensitive to enable a trial run of the types of strategies they can use to ensure a balanced discussion.
  • Remind students of the learning objectives at the beginning of a class and how discussion will enable them to achieve these.
  • 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).

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Managing 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.

Further guidance on managing difficult discussions.

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Assessment and feedback

If you are aware that the subject matter of an assessment might be sensitive to students, consider ways to introduce choice for students. This is good inclusive practice. For example:

  • Students can complete an assignment on a range of topics.
  • Students can choose from a range of assessment formats provided that these all enable them to demonstrate the learning outcomes.
  • Students choose their own topics for assignments with an opportunity to discuss these on a one to one basis with a tutor.

When providing feedback, focus on the learning outcomes of the task and provide feedback on these. For example, if there are a lot of unsupported claims, focus on this as an important skill to develop rather than factual knowledge that may be contested.

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Further information