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Teaching in Times of Crisis

Whether local, national, or international in scope, times of crisis can have a significant impact on the college classroom. The students need not be directly related or personally involved in the crisis in order to experience anxiety or trauma. While proximity (a local event) may lead to a more obvious impact on your students, the effects can be just as difficult based on “the sheer magnitude and scale (national events with wide media coverage)” and “the degree to which students are likely to identify with the victim(s) of the tragedy and feel like ’vicarious victims’” (fellow students, fellow women, fellow members of a group targeted by a hate crime, fellow Americans) ( Huston & DiPietro, 2007, p. 219 ).

As documented by psychological, cognitive, and neuroscience research, the resulting anxieties students—and teachers—bring into the classroom in response to a crisis can affect student learning.  Individual crises, such as coping with the loss of a family member or recovering from a difficult break-up with a significant other, can affect an individual class member’s learning and performance. However, communal crises - such as the unexpected death of a fellow student or teacher, the COVID-19 pandemic, and school shootings - can affect everyone’s well-being—personal and academic.

"It is Best to Do Something."

A 2007 survey by Therese A. Huston and Michelle DiPietro (2007) reveals that “from the student’s perspective, it is best to do something. Students report that “just about anything” is helpful, “regardless of whether the instructor’s response required relatively little effort, such as asking for one minute of silence…or a great deal of effort and preparation, such as incorporating the event into the lesson plan or topics for the course” (p. 216). The exception, the least helpful and even most problematic responses are a “lack of response” and “acknowledging that [the crisis] had occurred and saying that the class needs to go on with no mention of opportunities for review or extra help” (p. 218).

There are many possibilities for addressing a crisis in class, from activities that take only a moment to restructure your entire course and plenty in between. Again, consider that students appreciate any action, no matter how small.

Taking a Moment of Silence

A moment of silence interrupts a course very little but gives everyone a chance to reflect as a community and demonstrates the instructor’s sense of humanity.

Minding the Cognitive Load

Such events affect students’ cognitive load, as “working memory capacity is reduced immediately following an acutely stressful experience” (p. 218). This awareness may make you lenient with due dates or adapt your syllabus for the week following the crisis to accommodate a reduced workload, rather than introducing new concepts and expecting students to exercise typical study habits. Holding a review session for material covered during the crisis may also be helpful.

Assigning Relevant Activities or Materials

Huston and DiPietro cite specific activities that helped students cope after 9/11:  “College students who participated in a journal writing exercise or who listened to a story that addressed themes relevant to the terrorist attacks showed greater improvements and fewer signs of trauma” (p. 209). Consider how you may “use the lens of [your] discipline to examine the events surrounding the tragedy,” such as assigning a relevant poem, connecting it to a similar historical moment, or examining the engineering concepts involved in a relevant structure (p. 219).

Asking Students What Support Looks Like for Them

Ask students what support might look like during a difficult time by asking them through an anonymous written or online survey. Discuss student feedback to the class to show your care for what they may be experiencing. Be transparent about what small changes you have made to adjust to the crisis and why you made those changes. 

Facilitating a Discussion

If you want to talk directly with your students about the crisis, consider contacting UMSL Counseling Services for ideas on approaching such a conversation. The information below may also be useful in discussing a tragedy with your students.  Several factors can affect how a conversation about a crisis might go.  As Deborah Shmueli (2003), a professor at Haifa University in Israel, has suggested, some things to take into consideration are as follows:

  • Students’ perceptions about how the crisis has affected them personally
  • Students’ perceptions about others whom they consider to be affected
  • Issues deemed important to each person or group
  • Institutional, financial, and other impediments to successful communication

Taking these factors into account, researchers and practitioners who study communication make the following suggestions for difficult conversations (Chaitlin 2003):

  • Consider how much time the conversation might take: Teachers who wish to create safe places for communication need to consider how much time a difficult conversation will take and how much time they can provide for that conversation within the semester. Since a single conversation may not be enough to address the issue fully, teachers should be willing to be flexible, extending the conversation into future class sessions or over the semester, as needed. The teacher should allow enough time for each conversation so that students who have difficulty opening up to the class or need time before they can begin talking about their experiences may also be included.
  • Acknowledge verbal and nonverbal communication: In a discussion or conversation, silence can make a teacher uncomfortable, but silence and other non-verbal behaviors can be just as vital to a productive conversation as words are. It is tempting to fill the silence with variations on the question asked, but doing so can inhibit students’ ability to think through the issue and prepare to share their thoughts with their classmates. If students repeatedly need extremely long silences, the teacher should invite conversation about why students feel uncomfortable sharing with their classmates.
  • Let students set the ground rules: Allowing students to set the rules can help them create a space where they feel safe to share their thoughts, emotions, and ideas and can also help them feel empowered when the crisis has left them feeling powerless. Ground rules should be set before the conversation begins and reiterated every time the conversation is continued.
  • Encourage students to be empathetic listeners: In conversation, people often think about what they want to say in response rather than fully listening to the person talking. In addition, if the crisis at hand is difficult to handle emotionally or if classmates feel defensive, empathic listening becomes all the more challenging. Pointing out such dynamics to students can encourage them to think about their positions as listeners.
  • Allow freedom of participation: If students feel uncomfortable, allow them to leave. If they feel coerced into the conversation, then they are likely to withdraw from the conversation or guard closely what they say. Provide multiple means of participation in the discussion such as an engagement tool like Mentimeter, or if online through the Zoom chat.
  • Balance the power in the classroom as much as possible: Ensure that no student or group has more rights than others and that everyone receives equal respect.
  • Provide a predictable forum: For continuing conversations, provide a format and space that is familiar and predictable for your students so that they feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.

Remember that you are not expected to be a counselor, that is not within your scope of practice. It is important to point students to the appropriate resources (see below) to seek the help and support they may need.

Take Care of Yourself

It is important to acknowledge that you, as a faculty member, may also be experiencing trauma. Reach out to trusted colleagues, and practice what self-care may look like for you. UMSL has an employee assistance program to support your mental health

Providing Resources

If you are unsure of your ability to provide emotional support but feel the need to show that you are aware of its impact on your students, acknowledge the crisis by providing them with resources for dealing with it.  Below are a few suggestions:

  • Submit a CARE referral if you have concerns about a specific student. 
  • Ask a professional from UMSL’s Counseling Services  to talk to your students.
  • Counseling Services’ Social Justice Library has resources to educate the campus community about coping with critical incidents, among other topics related to social justice. 
  • Send students a link to the Virtual Relaxation Room with several activities to practice mindfulness or relaxation. 
  • Provide the class with the contact information for local counseling, support, or activity centers.  (See “Campus Resources” below.)

Depending on the nature of the crisis, the following offices on UMSL’s campus may be able to offer individual support to your students or be willing to come to class to speak to your students as a whole:



This work, "Teaching in Times of Crisis," is adapted from "Creative Commons Teaching in Times of Crisis" by Vanderbilt Teaching in Times of Crisis” used under CC BY-NC. "Teaching in Times of Crisis" is licensed under CC BY-NC by UMSL’s Center for Teaching and Learning.