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ACT to sustain learning through current events

Instructional practices for supporting your students and their course learning through current events, which you can adapt to your courses.

Collectively witnessed or experienced events, such as acts of terrorism, global pandemics, divisive national elections, natural disasters, or campus-wide controversies, can impact student learning and well-being. We encourage instructors to ACT to acknowledge the potential impact on students and plan to navigate a period of possible uncertainty. Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) echoes the recommendation that instructors acknowledge and plan for events impacting student learning and well-being.

Here are a range of instructional practices for supporting your students and their course learning through current events, which you can adapt to your courses. View or download the resource as a Google Doc

ACT to:


Acknowledge the event and express a commitment to supporting students. 

  • If the event precedes the start of your course, include a statement in your course syllabus and Canvas course site, acknowledging the event and its potential impact and your commitment to support students.
  • Build flexibility into your course design, to eliminate the need for struggling students to reach out to you and the need for you or your teaching team to make case-by-case judgment calls. Ideas for building in flexibility are offered in the course design strategies linked to in the next bullet.
  • Communicate clear academic expectations to students to eliminate ambiguity on course requirements. See CTL’s Course Design Strategies to Address Challenges Identified by Spring 2020 Stanford Students
  • Coordinate course alterations with leadership in your department or program to ensure consistency across course offerings. 
  • Regularly acknowledge during class and in written communications that students might be struggling to focus on their work, that this is understandable, and that you want to help them succeed in your course. 
  • Give specific examples of how you are prepared to work with students and their needs without expecting or requesting details of their situations, for example:
    • providing extensions 
    • including options to revise and resubmit
    • dropping a lowest grade
    • adding review sessions
    • revisiting class material at a later date
    • making attendance optional on some days and providing alternative ways for students to make-up the work
  • Provide students with helpful resources about well-being, community centers, and units offering student support
  • If you have Teaching or Course Assistants (TAs or CAs):
    • communicate your support to them, too 
    • confirm academic expectations for students enrolled in the course, as well as university resources to which they can direct students
  • If you anticipate disruption to your own ability to teach effectively, consider:
    • using BeWell resources such as fireside chats 
    • developing a personalized menu of self-care strategies guided by Vaden 
    • scheduling support from professionals at the Faculty Staff Help Center
    • preparing back-up asynchronous content, such as videos and activities

Create space

Create space in your course for students to process their reactions around the event.   

*Credit and thank you to Deland Chan, Stanford instructor in Urban Studies, for the suggestion that this COVID-19 graphic might be extended to help students process their reactions around other events.

If you would like to create space for class discussion of the event:

Pay extra care to class sessions occurring during key developments

  • Consider adjustments to your course plans, for example:
    • recording lectures for students to view later 
    • extending the deadline or scope of assignments and assessments, as possible
    • holding optional classes and providing alternatives to obtaining course materials and making up work 
  • Design a lesson plan that defuses potential sources of stress for students—intellectual, academic, political, emotional—and allows them to engage with course content in community with one another. For example: 
    • Humanities: students take turns reading aloud from the assigned text, with the option to pass and simply listen if preferred
    • Arts: students watch a documentary about a work of art or an artist
    • Social Sciences: students draw graphical representations of a data set
    • Natural Sciences: students watch a documentary about a natural phenomenon or a scientist
    • Engineering: students build models of a target system with objects in their current environment
  • Design a lesson plan that gives students interpersonal safety and space to reflect and/or talk to their peers about the situation.

Sample lesson plan

Learning objective: By the end of this lesson, students will feel safe and supported in our class community to process their reactions to the event and determine their next steps.

  • Begin with a minute or two of meditation, or silence
  • Brief review of class community commitments, to ensure that all dialogue stays respectful, supportive, and productive.
  • Students take some time individually and silently to reflect and write a letter to themselves about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
  • Students have the option to share and talk as a whole group, to go into breakouts if they'd like to talk in smaller groups, or to remain together in silent camaraderie.
  • Everyone reconvenes to decide on one thing each person is going to do next— whether that's get some sleep, talk to a friend, or take larger action—  and students have the option to quickly go around and share their next step if they'd like to (or pass). 
  • You, the instructor, clarify how you plan to support them moving forward, such as holding extra office hours, extending a deadline, soliciting their ideas in a few days for what support they need, and so on.
  • To guide students in stepping back and reconnecting with something going well in their lives, invite students who are comfortable to share 1–3 words in Zoom chat about something they are grateful for. 

Tie to course learning

If possible, connect events to course learning, whether through course topics, skills students are learning, or habits of mind or affect they are cultivating.

  • Use the event as an example or case study, for example, of the rise of extremist groups or the effects of climate change. 
  • Connect course content to surrounding issues made prominent by the event, as you feel disciplinarily and personally equipped to do so; for example, recent history of geopolitics or methods and contestation of scientific claims.
  • Connect skills students are learning in your course with skills relevant to navigating the event, such as creating predictive models or drafting compelling narratives.
  • Connect habits of mind or affect students are developing in your course with those relevant to the event, such as developing empathy or seeking evidence for claims.

Stanford Resources


Bisz et. al. (2020). Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered and Adaptive Strategies in the New Higher Ed Landscape. West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning.

DiPietro, M. (2003). The Day After: Faculty Behavior in Post 9/11 Classes. To Improve the Academy

Huston and DiPietro. (2007). In the eye of the storm: Students perceptions of helpful faculty actions following a collective tragedy. To Improve the Academy

McMurtrie, B. (2020). What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like? The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Carello, J., and Butler, L. (2014). Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma is Not the Same as Trauma-Informed Teaching. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. 15(2): 153-168.

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