Teaching in Turbulent Times Toolkit
We are teaching in turbulent times, a context characterized by economic insecurity, political tension and violence, ongoing military conflicts, climate change, social uprisings, and heightened student stress and anxiety, among other significant factors. This context impacts teaching and learning in a variety of ways.
How can we engage these turbulent times in our teaching? That is, how can we engage this context in our classes in a way that’s productive for our course goals, supportive of students and their learning, and mindful of our own time and well-being? How can we do this with foresight and care, especially through multiple modalities ranging from in-person instruction to online, hybrid, or hyflex classes? Moreover, for those who regularly bring turbulent contexts into courses by teaching controversial, sensitive, or politically charged content, how can we facilitate focused, critical, intimate student engagement and dialogue that is productive?
Fortunately, many of the approaches and instructional moves that work for in-person classes can also work in remote and online spaces, albeit with a few adjustments. At the very least, we advise all instructors to acknowledge our present context, build class community, support student success and well-being, and be proactive and flexible.
This toolkit also offers strategies for instructors who are experienced in teaching charged content and facilitating difficult discussions, but who are concerned about doing so in online, hybrid, or hyflex classes; for instructors who are newer to teaching such content or providing such facilitation; and for instructors who simply want to be more proactive during challenging times. There’s no magic formula for teaching in turbulent times, but adopting just a few new tools can help.
Acknowledge Context & Build Community
One does not need to be a content expert or news junkie, or even plan to include specific discussion of current events, to acknowledge that our societal context poses significant challenges, heightens uncertainty, is stressful for almost everyone, and almost certainly will impact students' learning experiences in the class—not to mention our ability to teach in the manner we prefer. The basic act of acknowledging this reality may help normalize students’ feelings of disorientation, humanize you as an instructor, and help build rapport with students. It also establishes a basis for community—the fact that we as a class are in this together and need to create ways to interact, work, and learn productively even as we navigate turbulent times.
- Tools to Acknowledge Context & Build Community
Inclusion & Equity: Inclusive teaching is a pillar of teaching excellence and can be enacted through a variety of practices that build community while supporting student belonging and promoting equity, such as learning students' preferred names and pronouns and encouraging personal connection with you. You can explore additional ideas for inclusion and equity in virtual classrooms here.
Syllabus Statement: Include a statement on your course syllabus or Canvas welcome page that acknowledges our current context, reinforces important values of learning supported by the course, and articulates any specific course goals related to the present moment. You can adapt the modified course description and goals on TEP’s Starter Syllabus
Welcome Message or Video: Craft a welcome message or video introducing yourself and the course that includes an explicit note about the current context and highlights any ways the course will engage it, along with indicating support resources for students. An example instructor welcome video can be found in TEP's Welcome Module.
Class Introductions & Connections: Have students introduce themselves as part of an icebreaker activity, which can be done in class or as part of a Canvas discussion post. This can include a short reflection about the present moment, which can involve writing or sharing something like “who I am, where I am, how I am" or "one fun thing I've learned to do" or something similar.
Base Groups: Consider using base groups in which 3-4 students meet at least once each week to connect socially and share how they are doing in the class and beyond. Groups can have their own space in Canvas, and you can provide friendly prompts to focus their interaction and help them build community.
Support Student Success & Well-Being
Instructors can play a key role by providing students with information about key resources on campus that support student well being, and by offering guidance about development of the skills students will need to succeed in their course work and as a university student. Time devoted to sharing and discussing resources, developing study skills, time management strategies, planning, and reflection, will be well spent.
- Tools to Support Student Success & Well-Being
Student Success Toolkit: TEP has developed a Student Success Toolkit with various assignments and activities - available as modules to import into your Canvas course site - that you can use or adapt to help students with study skills and planning, reflecting on classes and university life, and knowing and using campus resources.
Student Well-being Toolkit: TEP has also developed a Student Well-being Toolkit that includes helpful information about student well-being and its role in learning, along with a variety of tools and activities that instructors can embed in their courses or provide to students to enhance their well-being.
Be Proactive & Flexible
Being prepared for teaching in turbulent times requires proactive planning and flexibility to alter plans as needed. For those who teach charged content, it is helpful to anticipate the challenges that students often face, and resistance they often exhibit, when engaging such material, and then think through how to frame it and guide students in their engagement with it. It is also useful for all instructors to build in mechanisms to receive feedback from students about their learning experiences in the course; such input is invaluable for informing helpful changes to make along the way. Indeed, being open to students’ input and keeping track of events that are shaping our societal context, will allow one to adapt and course correct—to be flexible, in other words—in ways that help students achieve course goals.
- Tools to Be Proactive & Flexible
Explicit and Transparent Framing: Be up front if your course will address controversial, sensitive, or politically charged content, or ask students to engage in activities or assignments that they may find uncomfortable, unsettling, or ambiguous. This provides you an opportunity to emphasize what is at stake in your course and to indicate the value and significance of such work for achieving course goals, enacting the aims of your discipline or field of study, or perhaps even giving students an opportunity for a life-transforming experience in their outlook or thinking.
Framing things explicitly and transparently also allows you an opportunity to articulate clear parameters about what is up for grabs—and what’s not—in terms of ideas, viewpoints, or behaviors. Such framing can be included in the course description on the syllabus, in a welcome message or video, or even as a prompt for a discussion or reflection exercise.
Clear Objectives and Structure or Process: As much as possible, articulate for students the objectives for the various components of your course—not just the course-level learning objectives, but weekly objectives and the purposes for assignments, activities, and course materials. This is particularly true for challenging content or potentially fraught activities—why are students being asked to learn such knowledge or do such work? Clarity of purpose helps students understand the value of the work, make connections, and see alignment of your course components; it also helps them focus on what is most important, prioritize their time, and articulate their questions when contacting you for assistance.
In addition, outline a clear structure that indicates specific steps students should (or can) take as the process for working toward completion of objectives or engaging in critical inquiry or reading. This helps students learn how to do what you are asking, including the all-important first steps, which many students can struggle identifying. Moreover, having a clearly specified task or process also helps you (and your teaching team, if you have one) formulate a streamlined assessment and feedback process, for example creating a rubric with components that mirror the key steps of a task. The transparent assignment design template is an excellent way to articulate clear objectives and structure.
Regular Check-Ins and Feedback: Check in with students for course feedback about their learning. This can be a midterm survey or regular weekly check-in survey, for example. Discuss student feedback with the class, noting adjustments you’ll make or clarifying aspects that may be unclear for students. In addition, you can include community building questions each week (e.g. “Share 1-2 tips you would give others to study more effectively” or “What is one thing from our class this week you found most helpful?” etc.) and share these with the class (anonymize student responses).
Due Date Flexibility: As was the case in the context of remote teaching, general instructor flexibility and reasonable workload—including more flexible due dates—can be helpful for student learning during turbulent times. It is therefore useful in this context to think carefully about due dates, their purpose, and possible alternatives to one’s typical assignment schedule or due date policy. In addition, consider checking in with students periodically (see above) to inquire about time pressures and due dates.
Connect Context with the Work of the Class
There are many reasons to connect parts of our global, national, or local contexts to the goals and content of the class, and most instructors (and most students) already do this in some way. Many instructors also, however, have moments of discomfort around whether and how to connect context to the class when the context feels charged to them. We encourage instructors to examine possible intersections between the learning objectives of your course and the local to global contexts many of us are navigating as people and as practitioners in the discipline. We encourage instructors to make these connections (and to invite students to make these connections) as part of the fabric of the course, in part because building these connections may support:
- The creation of more richly detailed and well-organized “knowledge structures,” the type Michelle Miller describes in her chapter on memory in Minds Online.
- Additional metacognitive opportunities for students to construct meaning between their experience in their current context and course content, and which also allow students to link new (to them) discipline-specific information to information that is already familiar to them (their local to global context). Miller and many other scholars have underscored the effectiveness of these strategies in learning
- What Joshua Eyler calls “cognitive authenticity and situated cognition” in his book How Humans Learn. As he notes (pg 153) “The human brain is pretty adept at detecting the degree to which an activity, assignment, or exercise is authentic or artificial. The greater the authenticity, the deeper the learning.”
- Community-building, as it gives both students and instructors space to acknowledge parts of their human experience that go for a moment beyond solely discipline-specific content.
In addition, where the skills and practices we focus on building support students’ ability to engage in the current social context, we can continue highlighting this, and invite students to do the same. Affirmation of student agency in the face of uncertainty can help ground them in their own efficacy and power.
- Tools to Connect Context with the Work of the Class
Syllabus Statement & Course Framing: Include an explicit statement or even learning objective on your course syllabus that highlights how the course engages or connects with the current societal context. You can also note this connection on the first day of class when previewing what is to come and reinforce it along the way as the term proceeds.
Support Metacognition Work: As most students are already doing class connection work mentally at some level, it can be useful to formalize it in brief, low-stakes, regular reflection assignments; these could take the form of a written paragraph, a short video or audio recording, or a link to an article or post from spaces they are already engaging that feels connected. In addition to routinizing and incentivizing this reflection, it allows instructors to see connections students are making that might not come up in a public space but that may help us be more responsive to students’ learning needs. In classes where reading each response isn’t feasible, instructors can let students know that this type of reflection enhances their learning, that you read through and appreciate a handful of responses each time, and they will have an opportunity to build on these reflections during in-class discussion.
Plan a Powerful Ending: Create a plan for ending the course on a powerful note that calls up the important learning—knowledge, skills, experiences—students have accomplished. Build into this moment an explicit emphasis on the connections between the work of the course and the larger societal context. This might involve a creative exercise in which students represent the big picture of the class, identify the most significant ideas, map the most salient concepts, narrate a story of their learning, indicate how they might articulate their learning to future employers, etc. A variety of ideas for powerful endings one can adapt can be found in this post.
Facilitate Productive & Respectful Interaction
Creating opportunities for students to engage actively with course content is essential for their learning. Instructors can organize a variety of ways to engage students. However, it is helpful to be proactive in establishing a supportive class climate that fosters respectful student interaction in the context of turbulent times, especially in classes that feature charged content or will address turbulent social issues directly. The tools for creating such a class climate can also help any class context be more interactive and productive.
- Tools to Facilitate Productive & Respectful Interaction
Collective Guidelines for Participation: Establishing or inviting students into collaboration to develop guidelines for participation--sometimes called ground rules--helps everyone be more prepared for exploring challenging content, navigating difficult discussions, or working together more respectfully. You can give the class the task of generating guidelines or ground rules. One possible format is to have students prior to class think about a course in which they learned a great deal, and to identify in writing what they, their peers, and the instructor were doing that created conditions for learning. After students submit their responses in Canvas, the instructor in class (or in a discussion post for online classes) can pose another prompting question that leads the class to creating community agreements, such as “What are up to three beliefs or actions that seem helpful for creating a classroom where we can learn together, be curious, and voice and engage different perspectives with respect?" Students can reflect on this individually and then share ideas in small breakout groups or in a discussion forum, generating a collective list to then share with the rest of the class. The class can then review the ideas and, through facilitated discussion, clarify meaning, note any patterns, consider what is missing, and explore questions or concerns. The list can then be posted to Canvas for a final period of review and refinement before debriefing at the next class. Once agreement is in place, refer to the guidelines often and call up the various skills in them--the "conversation moves that matter”--as things to practice and debrief regularly. Also remember that guidelines apply to instructors, too. Note that in larger classes, it may be more feasible logistically for instructors to post guidelines and have students review them, offering possible revisions and additions. You can see example guidelines in TEP's Strategies for Engaging with Difficult Topics, Strong Emotions, and Challenging Moments in the Classroom packet.
Protocols for Specific Situations: Protocols are formal steps that a group has agreed to take in the event of specific situations, for example if the group has strayed from their participation guidelines, something offensive has been said, or things get overly heated. One way to establish protocols - and be ready for difficult discussions and heated moments--is to ask students to work in small groups to identify action steps in response to specific prompts such as "What do we do when...we want to disagree, we think different perspectives should be in the room, we think we have strayed from our guidelines, we find ourselves in a hot moment, we feel something offensive or hurtful has been said, etc.?" Such protocols provide a way forward in tough situations that might arise. Moreover, by naming specific situations and discussing action steps to address them, students bolster their capacity to respond with respect and care, and with productive aims in mind. See also for ideas the suggested tools for heated moments below.
Clear Outcomes & Prompts for Discussions and Activities: It is helpful for students to know what they are working to accomplish when interacting together as part of discussions or other activities. Knowing what is expected helps them focus their time and energy, keep track of their process and progress, and keep each other accountable. Even if the purpose of a discussion is to “explore” a reading or “consider” some aspect of it, be transparent about what this means by having students generate something specific they can reflect back to the class, such as providing a summary, identifying three key points, coming up with a question, etc. It is also helpful to provide a clear prompt to kickstart interaction, for example use of sentence starters when writing discussion posts.
Inquiry Roles: Another helpful way to structure student interaction is to have students adopt inquiry roles in their group discussions or projects. Inquiry roles call up important skills and can help students learn the “moves that matter” in expert thinking or scholarly method in your discipline. Such roles also help students practice the skills you might assess in their graded work, such as reasoning, forms of argumentation, types of questioning, or major steps in a process or project. Basic examples of inquiry roles include summarizer, example-giver, proponent, critic, questioner, connector, etc. Additional examples can be found in this set of handouts.
Assess Dynamics of Interaction: Take time periodically to participate in student discussion boards and other group work, even if this simply means being an interested observer. For large classes, you can randomize when you visit and try to engage each group at least once during the term. Moreover, as a class, revisit guidelines or protocols to ensure they are still working; this can be done via student survey, as part of a discussion board or, in smaller classes or sections or labs, as part of a facilitated discussion in Zoom. In addition, have students reflect regularly on their class interactions and identify where they have felt most engaged, challenged, distanced, affirmed, confused, etc. and describe some of the characteristics of their exchanges (you can adapt this handout). For example, if you are using discussion boards, have the class look at certain exchanges and note why the exchange engaged their learning; this provides an opportunity for peer appreciation and community-building, in addition to calling up what about the activity, prompt or "conversation move" was helpful.
Facilitate Difficult Moments
When intense emotions or entrenched opinions boil up in a class, things can get heated. There is no perfect remedy for such situations, and productive pathways forward will vary from class to class. But it is important for instructors and students to respond with care and skill. Having a protocol or specific plan of action ready is helpful (see above for how to create protocols). Regardless of the situation, perhaps the most important response to any challenging or heated moment is to acknowledge it. This can be a simple statement such as "I'm noticing some strong emotions in the room." What one does next will vary based on the situation.
- Tools to Facilitate Difficult Moments
OTFD - Open The Front Door:
- Observe: Concrete, factual observations, not evaluative (“I noticed…”)
- Think: Thoughts based on observation (“I think…”)
- Feel: Emotions (“I feel…”)
- Desire: Specific request or inquiry about desired outcome (“I would like…”)
For more information about the OTFD framework, visit: https://www.oakland.edu/Assets/Oakland/cetl/files-and-documents/TeachingTips/2016/HotMomentsTT.pdf
- Redirect (acknowledge and intervene, correct, or pull someone aside)
- Ask probing question for clarity (“I think I hear you say…what did you mean by that?”)
- Values clarification (“What you just said is not in alignment with our institutional values that prioritize equity and inclusion”)
- Emphasize your own thoughts and feelings (“When I hear your comment, I think or feel…”)
- Next steps (“The next time you encounter this situation, you may want to consider doing…”)
For more information about the RAVEN framework, visit: https://diverseeducation.com/article/176397/
Seek Clarification: Seek clarification about what was said. Example responses include:
- “What I hear you saying is…”
- “Are you saying…?”
- “I noticed you used the term ‘XXX,’ and I’m wondering if could explain what you mean by that”
- “When some people use the term ‘XXX,’ they mean ‘YYY’ – is this what you are intending?”
- “Does anyone have questions about what was said?”
- “What I heard said was…”
Depersonalize the Comment: In the spirit of responding to statements and ideas, rather than individuals, the instructor can shift focus from the student speaker to what they said. Example responses include:
- “When I hear these words, I respond like this…”
- “Thank you for raising this view. Others hold this view, too, and you provide us an opportunity to talk about it – and for us to think carefully about ways our class [or discipline] challenges this position.”
- “You’re thinking seriously about this topic and raising important questions we need to think carefully about.”
- “This is a view I’ve heard others raise, too. What might their reasons be?” then “Why might others disagree with or object to this position?”
- “Let’s consider this view carefully. Do we think everyone feels this way?” or “Do we think everyone agrees?” or “How might this idea be viewed by different groups?”
- “Let’s consider the idea that [restate what you heard]. Some have expressed this view before – what might that leave out?”
- “Others have expressed views similar to this one. Let’s consider how a scholar in our field might approach this issue. For example, how might Author X we’ve read respond to this idea?”
Pause and Reflect: Have students pause and reflect, ideally in writing, about what they are feeling, what they think they heard, and what they think might have been intended or not. It is not necessary for students to share their thoughts aloud; the act of taking time to pause and reflect is often all that is needed. One way to proceed is to remind students that learning this topic can be challenging, that there are a variety of views, that not everyone agrees on the answer or analysis of the situation, etc. – whatever might be appropriate for the given comment. Note that working through disagreements or controversy is an important learning opportunity. Then move on. Alternately, depending on the situation, after students have paused and reflected, you can note that you are not certain about how to proceed, but that you feel it is important to acknowledge and think about moments like this, and that you want to move on and, perhaps, come back to this issue later when you feel more prepared. Indeed, deferring a response to the future is sometimes the best course, but acknowledging a situation in the moment is also important.
Inquire then Feel: Many instructors report it is effective first to inquire about something that is said before taking time to reflect on how we feel about it. For example, we might ask “where did you get this idea?” or “what kind of evidence supports this view?” or “let’s consider some evidence, for example the data that…” Once some inquiry happens to help establish some of the facts of the situation, then the instructor can ask how people feel about the issue or how others might feel about it, etc. This kind of response works best if you have established a spirit and process of inquiry in the classroom, and if you are emphasizing content that is clearly grounded in research. It can also help to model this process of inquiry for the students, for example: “Let me think about this statement/view. When I hear this, I think of…”
This TEP handout with a scenario and possible responses provides additional language to consider.
Provide Emotional Outlets
Many of us are feeling and seeking to express a range of emotions during these turbulent times. Given that a key part of fostering inclusive classes and supporting student success and well-being is being attentive to the social and emotional climate of the class (Magee 2016), it is incumbent on all instructors to consider the emotional context of their courses at this time. While not all instructors want to address emotions directly, it is important to pay attention, offer support, and help students find ways to express emotions constructively. For instructors who teach charged content or who want to bring our societal context into their classes, the potential for emotional reactivity is amplified. In such contexts, instructors need to plan carefully for how to engage students explicitly in navigating their emotions and having an outlet for expressing them—and, possibly, using emotional labor as a means for critical inquiry or social justice work (Boler and Zembylas 2003).
- Tools to Provide Emotional Outlets
Emotions Awareness Inquiry: Instructors can engage students in a variety of class exercises that help them notice, acknowledge, and regulate their emotions in response to class content, discussion, or a wider social context. For instance, as a first step to engaging a challenging issue, you can have students discuss the kinds of emotional reactions they anticipate could arise, then have students reflect on their own or others’ feelings in relation to the issue (e.g. “What is happening for me right now? What do I sense is happening for others right now?”). This can form the basis for a deeper discussion about differences in emotions, the sources of emotions, why they are arising, how they influence interpretation or understanding or class interactions, and so on. The point is not to judge but to notice and inquire. Such work can increase students’ capacity for perspective-taking and compassion and thereby enhance discussion, group work, and collective inquiry. Emotional processing can also overlap with critical analysis, for example having students identify a particular emotion arising for them and doing research that examines it more closely, including possible tools for transforming it in a productive way. Such work could take the form of student papers or presentations or discussions that provide students opportunities to learn from their peers and realize that emotions are not merely personal but social.
Mindfulness Exercises: Mindfulness is a practice of paying attention and being aware of the present moment and of broader reality, including the feelings and emotions of one’s experience (Magee 2016). Research indicates that mindfulness practice can enhance concentration, emotional regulation, mental flexibility and well-being (Magee 2016). Basic exercises include taking a few moments at the beginning of a class to have students sit or stand comfortably and focus on the sensations of their body, notice any feelings that arise, or just concentrate on relaxing. They can also be used to pause a classroom discussion to think more deeply about something said, cool down a heated exchange, or just take a break of from trying to focus on a screen. Mindfulness can also include "sitting with concerns" that one has, such as the examples on this handout. Introducing mindfulness to one’s class requires planning and, ideally, some practice. Rhonda Magee outlines numerous exercises (pp. 284-305) that instructors can use in the context of engaging challenging content and turbulent times.
Journals or Logbooks: Having students reflect on their emotions through keeping journals or logbooks provides a more private space for them to work through what they are feeling and experiencing, without feeling pressure to share with others. These can be structured as regular, weekly entries that respond to guided questions such as “What is going on for me?” “Why am I feeling this way?” “What am I really angry/sad/anxious/etc. about?” “What am I afraid of?” “Why do I get upset when this issue comes up?” And so forth. Journals or logbooks can be shared with instructors or remain exclusively for students to use and read themselves. If they are for credit, it is best to keep them as low stakes, complete/incomplete, submissions (Canvas allows for anonymous submissions that can identify which students complete them). Lastly, they can form the basis for an end-of-term reflection in which students look back at their entries and identify patterns, narrate a story of change, etc.
Anonymous Comment or Suggestion Box: You can provide students with a link to an anonymous survey tool such as Qualtrics that provides them an open comment area to share feelings or reactions, suggestions, or ask awkward questions, that may arise during the term. This is one way to keep a sense of the pulse of the class, identify issues or concerns that may need addressed, provide resources that students may need.
Network with Others & Take Care of Yourself
Instructors, too, need care and support as we teach through these turbulent times. In addition to providing scripts for instructors to talk to students, researchers at Stanford’s College Transitions Collaborative put together “self-talk” scripts for university instructors. They write:
You are doing important, challenging, and difficult work to support students through this ordeal. There is no easy solution for this situation, for the students or for you. […] Normalize, for yourself, the experience of finding the current situation difficult and upsetting. Have self-compassion for your own concerns and challenges. Remember that these are highly unusual times and college leadership, staff, and instructors, and students are learning how to handle it, together. […] You can’t solve all of your own problems any more than you can solve students’ problems, but you can give yourself permission to feel how you are feeling and do the best you reasonably can, under your own constraints.
Know that UO contracts with Cascade Centers, Inc. to provide a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for eligible employees and their dependents. The services are provided at no cost to eligible members. Visit EAP for more information about this program or visit Canopy. UO also offers a range of timely wellness seminars, including on Thriving in a World Turned Upside Down.
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