Teaching & Learning


Teaching difficult and sensitive topics in higher education: some starting points

Helen Knowler, Associate Professor (Teaching), the Eugenics Legacy Education Project, offers thoughtful advice on how to help your students constructively tackle difficult or sensitive topics.

12 April 2024

MediaCentral Widget Placeholderhttps://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/Player/Cd00GDie

What are difficult and/or sensitive topics? 

Defining and agreeing what constitutes a difficult and/or sensitive topic can be hard to agree on because what is ‘difficult’ for some, is not for others. A key aspect for success in the classroom is dependent on some careful thinking and planning as well as challenging some ‘taken for granted’ aspects of our practices. Generally, difficult topics are characterised by engagement with curriculum content that can make learners feel discomfort, where disagreement becomes a feature of the classroom space, perhaps in ways it was not in previous modules or sessions. So, talking to colleagues about the ways you define and understand ‘difficulty’ can be a really valuable first step in understanding how best to teach these areas. 

Why do we need to think about this? 

Higher education classrooms are diverse and dynamic and, while this can bring many benefits for learners, it can pose tensions and dilemmas for educators introducing difficult topics within a short space of time (such as one module session). We cannot always do justice to the complexity of the topic. Conversely, working with colleagues to introduce or revise teaching to incorporate direct engagement with difficult topics can be creative and drive innovation – because we need to think about issues such as inclusive learning, culturally relevant teaching, authentic assessment and preparing students to work in institutions where difficult topics and conversations may be the norm. Teaching difficult topics offers enormous potential to teach critical thinking skills, using evidence and reasoning to agree on productive solutions and to think about wider concepts around social justice and equity. 

What can we do? 

There are three key strategies important when thinking about and planning for teaching topics that could be described as difficult or sensitive. 

Prepare your students

Firstly, it is helpful to think about the ways that students encounter potentially difficult or sensitive topics across a module or a programme. It is useful to think about the timing of the introduction of difficult content from the perspective of students. The research shows that introducing content too early or too late restricts opportunities to prepare students to learn about difficult content and for us to ensure we have laid the groundwork in terms of skills and understanding.

For example, we might want to teach students to understand the legacy of eugenics at UCL and ask them to present their research on the topic. If this topic is introduced in a way that leaves students unprepared to do the task, to understand the rationale behind including this work, and not understanding why this is relevant to learning outcomes, we are more likely to encounter a lack of engagement or strong emotions related to wanting to question the inclusion of such content. 

Explain your approach 

Linked to mapping, offering and explicit educational rationale and justification is critical. In my experience, when colleagues offer a short overview of their teaching approach, explain the inclusion of content and their choices for learning strategies, students understand the decision-making around the inclusion of difficult content, and can see the connections between teaching philosophies and practical approaches.

This doesn’t have to be a huge piece of work – I have seen examples of this done well as part of module introductions on Moodle or as part of introductory sessions with students where tutors have explored, with students, the use of approaches and their intended aims. This is important if we want our sessions to be productive and engaging for students and it also enables us to work with students before difficult topics appear. 

Alignment pedagogies 

The final tool that I see used by educators relates to alignment. Reflecting on times when I have seen things ‘go wrong’ in teaching session, I have worked with colleagues to explore and identify places in their work where there is a small misalignment in their teaching. This is usually almost imperceptible, but its impact can be significant for students.

For example, we might be wanting to teach an area that is sensitive, and our goal is to support students to understand many perspectives and to think about empathy, and develop their critical thinking skills. So, these are lofty aims for one session and when we add a pedagogic approach that is not quite aligned, we might find that students do not engage. So here, we’d want to think about reducing the content and aims of the session, and choosing a pedagogic approach that offers students time and space to think about the complexity. We would want the students to understand and experience that the goal is NOT to decide for or against, or offer simplistic solutions to complex issues. 

Find out more

Access a range of resources relating to the Eugenics Legacy Education project, including recordings of many of our sessions.