Supporting Our Learners in Difficult Times

Teachers, Students: Humans Together

As educators, we usually interact with our students in a limited number of contexts—the classroom, the lab, the studio, and office hours. Of course, our learners’ lives extend far beyond these contexts, and current and ongoing events can impact their performance in the learning environments that we create, both positively and negatively. How can we support our learners in difficult times—and in ways that integrate with our own personal needs and pedagogical approaches?

What does the research say?

Learners bring not only their prior knowledge but also their emotional responses to current and ongoing events into our classrooms and other learning environments (Ambrose et al., 2010). These emotional responses can impact learning in many ways, from enhancing their interest in a related course topic to feeling unable to engage in any course. Although events impact individuals in different ways, it is helpful to keep in mind the aspects of an event associated with likely distress. Among these aspects are the magnitude and scale of related media coverage and the campus presence of related events, such as vigils and fundraising efforts (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).

In the literature on how learners respond to stressful current events, most report a desire for their educators to respond as well as gratitude when educators do so (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). This aligns with the broader literature on the importance of relationships for university well-being—specifically, how much learners “believe there are specific individuals to whom they matter,” including both peers and educators (Schreiner, 2010, p. 4). In research on the educator perspective of how to respond after a tragic event, educators often express feeling uncertain about what to do or say (DiPietro, 2003; Hosek & Austin, 2016). It is important to note that learners do not expect educator responses that require significant time and tailoring. Some educators may pursue more involved ways of responding to an event in their courses; however, simple acknowledgements that a tragic event has occurred and that additional support is available are appreciated by learners (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).


Consider the following “discipline-agnostic” ways of supporting your students:

  • Incorporate a brief “focusing” activity at the beginning of a learning opportunity. Beginning with a minute to write or reflect—or a minute of silence—acknowledges the stress that learners might be experiencing and gives them the opportunity to transition and re-focus for the learning at hand.
  • Remind learners of the support available to them within your relationship. Faculty may have office hours and review sessions, or give students the option to request an extension on an assignment. Co-curricular educators may have availability to meet with learners individually or in groups that they need to remind learners about.
  • Remind students of the support available to them outside your relationship. Northeastern’s We Care and Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service provide a range of resources and support for Northeastern learners. Other events may also be offered by colleges and other offices on campus, which you can also share.

For more information about SAIL at Northeastern, which provides educators and learners with a set of goals, tools, and language for intentional, holistic learning and recognizes the importance of well-being among other dimensions of learning, we encourage you to visit



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

DiPietro, M. (2003). The day after: Faculty behavior in post-September 11, 2001, classes. To Improve the Academy, 21, 21-39.

Hosek, A. M., & Austin, L. (2016). Exploring pedagogical and emotional response in higher education classrooms during the Boston Marathon Bombing crisis. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 17(1), 68-76.

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.

Schreiner, L. A. (2010). Thriving in community. About Campus, 15(4), 2-11.