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Jun 14 / Carl Sorgen

OTL offers resources for teaching through tragedies

As part of a metropolitan research university, the diverse members of the Wayne State University community can be affected by local, regional, national and global events when a disaster or devastating events strike. It is possible that there will be occasions in our classrooms when students and instructors may benefit from acknowledging such upheavals and addressing appropriate opportunities for talking about aspects of tragedies. Huston and DiPietro (2007) suggest that instructors’ responses need not be complicated, time-intensive, or personalized for students to perceive them as helpful. They offer the following strategies as useful to consider:

  • Be yourself. Students appreciate an instructor who responds in a unique and humane way. Faculty should not feel pressured to homogenize their responses or have the perfect answer.
  • Acknowledge that members of the class may quite possibly have a direct relationship with the current event.
  • Consider holding a minute of silence at the beginning of class.
  • Be self-reflective yet neutral. Students unsure of how to relate to tragic events may benefit from seeing a mentor model open-ended reflection and self-control.
  • Understand that these incidents might resonate with prior experiences of violence (both in our own life and in our students’ lives).
  • Cognitive research informs us that working memory capacity is reduced during times of enhanced stress, making students less capable of focusing and learning new material:
    • Consider supporting anxious students by offering to grant an extension on current assignments for those who request it.
    • Offer to review course material again in a future class session in case students’ are preoccupied or distracted.
  • Faculty responses that required high levels of effort were also viewed as helpful, so those who wish to use the lens of their discipline to examine the events surrounding a tragedy are also encouraged to do so. Such strategies might include journal writing, listening to a story that addresses relevant themes, reading selected poems, and other activities that allow students to address the events surrounding the tragedy (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).

Huston, T. A., & DiPietro, M. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy 25, 207-224.


The Office for Teaching and Learning (OTL) staff is available to consult with instructors on teaching strategies and learning-related outcomes associated with addressing sensitive and emotionally charged issues when these emerge in the classroom in either anticipated or unplanned ways.

We are available in person, by phone, or virtual meeting spaces (e.g., Skype or Blackboard Collaborate).  To schedule an individual consultation, click here or call (313) 577-0001.


Sometimes, more comprehensive social and psychological support is warranted. Additional resources include:


Selected Campus Resources:

Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

(313) 577-3398

The Thompson Home

4756 Cass Avenue


Office of Multicultural Student Engagement (OMSE)

(313) 577-9193

Student Center, 7th Floor


Selected Resources on Classroom Strategies:

American Psychological Association. Managing Your Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting. A Tip Sheet with useful self-care strategies prepared by members of the APA after the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northeastern Illinois University. (


Counseling Services. Coping with and Responding to Traumatic Events. University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. Brief description of typical responses, signs that counseling might be indicated, strategies for self-care, and possible actions with others. (


Warren, L. (2002). Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. Describes a series of concrete strategies instructors can implement to facilitate learning in the midst of emotions and “hot moments.”  (

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