How can we better support student learning of sensitive topics in distance education?



Kintsugi Bowl image by Max Pixel 

In the arts and social sciences, topics can frequently touch upon violence, injustice, and oppression that many in our university community directly experience and are affected by. In this context educators think carefully about how to teach these topics whilst also safeguarding and supporting students, or whether it is safer to avoid topics that are just too difficult and sensitive. These challenges become deeper in distance learning. Educators and students are typically not in the same room: distance students study their learning materials flexibly at home, work and everywhere in-between. For those responsible for creating distance learning materials, it can be very difficult to anticipate the emotional impact of content on students until it is too late. The onus is on universities to deliver on our duty of care and appropriately equip students to engage with the learning materials that educators create for them.  

We are Julia Downes (Senior Lecturer in Criminology), Ruth Wall (Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences), and Anne Alvaer (Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences) and we met when we were all working on producing a new level one undergraduate criminology module Introduction to Criminology at The Open University. On hearing that some students were finding topics (e.g., deaths in custody, sex work, immigration, and homelessness) on other social science modules distressing (and finding case studies in the criminology curriculum we were part of developing upsetting for us) we decided to get together to see what could be done to better support students who are regularly required to engage with these kinds of topics.  

As an interim measure we introduced new study skills guidance ‘Studying Emotive Topics in the Social Sciences’ and got some content notes included at the start of each block of study and selected videos on the module. However, we knew that much more needed to be done. So, with support from the FASS scholarship centre, FASSTEST, we designed a scholarship project to address a gap in what is currently known about what diverse distance students actually do when they encounter sensitive and emotive topics in their learning materials. We chose to partner with the first two groups of students to take the Introduction to Criminology module starting in October 2019 and February 2020. Our project aimed to explore and understand undergraduate criminology students’ emotional responses and emotional resilience skills, to evaluate our interventions (the guidance and content notes we put in place), and to co-produce recommendations and solutions to guide future practice. Students were invited to take part in multiple ways including online surveys, semi-structured interviews, and collaborative workshops. 

So, what did we learn together?  

We learned that students arrived with skills, capacities, and strengths to navigate the emotional aspects of their lives that they could then use to reduce risk and increase resilience in their study of sensitive topics. Exactly what students felt and did was unique to them and could range from stepping back and taking a break, getting support from a partner or friend, escaping into a Disney movie, box set or video game, planning to study and taking a different study approach. We call these ‘emotional resilience skills’ and understand these as a universally relevant academic skillset for all educators and students. 

Not surprisingly, we found that many students expected to study sensitive and emotive topics in criminology. In fact, the ability to engage with difficult topics was considered an important employability skill for students who currently worked, or aspired to work, with people in contact with the criminal justice system. Some students also told us that they deliberately chose to study criminology as a distance learner to make sense of crime, injustice, or harm that they had directly experienced or been affected by. It is therefore crucial for educators to always assume that someone with lived experience of a case study or topic they are teaching will be in their classroom, be it a virtual, print, or face-to-face relationship.

Educators are understandably concerned about the detrimental impact of negative emotional responses on students. However, we learned that when confronted with topics that students found sensitive, students reported experiencing a much wider range of emotions across the affective spectrum as illustrated below.


The range of emotional responses reported by student participants 

Whilst students commonly reported feeling sad and upset this was often accompanied by acknowledgements of how engaging with these case studies also benefited them. Benefits included gaining a deeper understanding, an ability to look at a situation differently and a reminder of their purpose and motivation for study. Engaging with sensitive content could also spark a passion and curiosity to find out more and make sense of the world around them. This echoes previous studies that found positive and negative emotions are inevitable, productive, and necessary for learning (O’Byrne 2014; Lowe 2015; Connelly & Joseph-Salisbury 2019). 

We learned that, in practice, the content notes and guidance we put in place enabled students to better engage with, rather than avoid or ignore, emotive and sensitive content. Content notes were a signal of care that worked to enhance engagement by activating emotional resilience skills including preparation and planning, self-care, and self-awareness. The guidance acted as a valuable space to normalise emotional responses, which could reduce feelings of isolation. Students told us that they wanted more spaces, activities, and resources that acknowledged their emotional responses, affirmed, and strengthened their emotional resilience skills across the student learning journey.  


At The Open University, the largest UK provider of distance education, the development of innovative and digital tools to embed and sustain emotional resilience skills within learning will equip educators with ways to remove potential barriers to learning and maximise engagement, deep learning, and a positive study experience for all. How we do trauma-informed distance learning is an exciting new area for higher education, particularly as many universities have shifted to hybrid and online forms of delivery during the pandemic. This is the focus of the next phase of our work: to develop our recommendations into an emotional resilience skills toolkit for staff and students as part of the Office for Students funded Positive Digital Practices project (2020-2022).  

In closing, we learned a lot during our project, and we are looking forward to writing up our findings in more detail to share in academic journals, conferences, and as part of the British Society of Criminology Teaching and Learning Network. We want to express our gratitude to the students who generously shared their experiences with us, FASSTEST for supporting our project, as well as staff and students who we continue to learn with and alongside of. If you are interested in getting in touch, or trialling any of our digital outputs in your teaching and learning, feel free to email us at: 

Julia Downes, Senior Lecturer in Criminology; Ruth Wall, Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences; Anne Alvaer, Associate Lecturer and Consultant in Social Sciences 


Connelly, Laura & Remi Joseph-Salisbury (2019) Teaching Grenfell: The role of emotions in teaching and learning for social change. Sociology, 53(6): 1026-1042 

Lowe, Pam (2015) Lessening Sensitivity: Student experiences of teaching and learning sensitive issues. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(1): 119-129, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2014.957272  

O’Byrne, Darren (2014) The Places and Spaces of Human Rights Education. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences, 6(1): 66-74, DOI: 10.11120/elss.2014.00021 

Recommended reading 

Zembylas, Michalinos (2020) Against the psychologization of resilience: towards an onto-political theorization of the concept and its implications for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1711048 

Carello, Janice & Lisa D. Butler (2015) Practicing What We Teach: Trauma-Informed Educational Practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3): 262-278, DOI: 10.1080/08841233.2015.1030059 



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