Skip to main content

Students experience a wide variety of stresses in their lives outside our classrooms, circumstances that affect how they learn in our courses. Considering ways to proactively design our classes to take that stress into account can help our students to learn and thrive in our courses.

Students living with stress and trauma might have a harder time remembering, understanding, and staying organized. Teaching practices which promote student success in this context are, importantly, also useful for students in general, whether or not they are experiencing stress and trauma.

If you would like to discuss ways you might apply these principles in your teaching, email CETLI to set up a conversation.

Clear Structure & Expectations

By combining structure and flexibility, you can guide students through the semester as well as provide alternate paths and assurance for when challenges in students' lives interrupt the course.

Approaches for combining structure and flexibility >


Dealing with stress and trauma may reduce students’ working memory and cause them to struggle to identify and initiate tasks. A class that clearly lays out the steps students need to take on a regular basis to succeed and the schedule for completing those steps, helps diminish the mental burden students feel in trying to figure out mundane details so they can focus more on the process of learning.

Structure can take a variety of different forms (from short small-stakes assignments through the semester to staged assignments that build to a larger project) so that students have clear guidance about what you expect and the opportunity for practice and feedback.


Building flexibility into your course allows you to meet students’ needs when unexpected challenges arise. Designing and communicating a plan for how students can keep their learning on track when the unexpected does happen can reduce stress levels for students and instructors alike. Planned flexibility eliminates the need to negotiate every extension and exception, and such policies particularly benefit those students who may not know they can or feel comfortable asking for help or extra time when they need it.


Communicate regularly with students and establish clear ways that they can contact you.

Why is communication useful?

Given the complexity of students' lives, there may be things going on that impact how students show up in your class, but that they may feel unsure whether or how to tell you. If you clarify when and how you want students to contact you, students who struggle to ask for help feel invited to do so. Consider offering students a variety of methods (such as emails, appointments, office hours, speaking after class, or surveys). In addition, establishing these channels can help you learn more about your students so you can adapt your course to students' current needs and attention.

  • Provide clear guidelines about how and when students should contact you or TAs, when your office hours are, and types of things students might raise with you. Reinforce your openness to engage with students by sharing this in a variety of ways, such as in your syllabus and Canvas homepage, in class early in the semester and later, especially during stressful points in the semester.
  • Start class with activities that help you get to know each other. These activities might relate to course content, students’ goals or interests, or other things students want to share about themselves. Some examples include:
    • On a Canvas discussion board, students could introduce themselves and/or post pictures of a thing, person, or place that is meaningful to them.
    • Using polling software, students could indicate course topics they are most interested in or share ways the course applies to their interests.
    • By show of hands, colored note cards, or physically moving around the room, students could indicate an academic or personal interest and meet others who share that interest.
  • Survey students at the start of the semester or require students to come to office hours early in the semester. You might ask about their interests, strengths, concerns, and needs related to the course. When appropriate, their input may help you prioritize course content that interests students or enable you to provide the most useful support.
  • Conduct periodic check-in surveys to hear how students are doing and what their concerns are. It may be useful for students’ responses to be anonymous.
  • Give students feedback throughout the semester that can help them improve their performance or study strategies along the way.
  • Communicate clearly and upfront about course content that may relate to traumas students may have experienced. While some may appreciate classes that relate to their experiences, others may not be comfortable discussing such topics in an academic manner.

Student Choice & Autonomy

Provide opportunities for student choice and autonomy (when choice supports your course goals).

Why is autonomy and choice useful?

Providing students with choices, such as in the topics they focus on or in the format of their work, can empower, engage, and motivate them. Given that students enduring stress and trauma may lower their attention and motivation, it can be useful to provide students with options when it is feasible and aligned with your goals for the course.

It is important to note that students can feel overwhelmed if there is too much choice or not enough support in making their choices.

  • Offering students options for assignment types. For example, allow students to select between a presentation or a paper when all options allow students to meet the goals of the assignment.
  • Giving students choices about ways in which they may participate in class. For example, encourage students to engage with the material by speaking during a class discussion, sharing comments written on a notecard, or by summarizing key points after the discussion in a virtual discussion board.
  • Allowing students to select topics that interest them within the course. For example, allow students to choose the paper or topic when required to write up a summary or discussion post, to pick the topic of their final assignment, or to select from a series of case study options.
  • Providing students with choices for deadlines for an assignment – one slightly earlier in the semester, one slightly later. This allows students to plan their workload in consideration of their other courses, and has the added benefit of lowering your workload around those deadlines. You might ask students to lock into the deadline early in the semester for planning purposes.
  • Sharing content in more than one way so that students can engage with the material in the manner that works best for them at the time. For example, share a video explanation and a written explanation of one concept. While it may not be practical to share all content in a variety of modalities, it is good practice to provide multiple ways for students to interact with the content when you can.

Connect students with campus resources to address basic needs, crises, and challenges

Why is connecting students with resources useful?

Students who are struggling with illness, family concerns, food or housing security, paying for course materials, or other everyday needs, will likely have difficulty learning and performing at their best in our classrooms. By sharing support resources with students, instructors can decrease the cognitive burden on students and help their students succeed in the classroom. Sharing these resources upfront, on your syllabus or Canvas page, can also send a message of understanding to your students.

CETLI's Syllabus Language and Policies page has sample syllabus language related addressing student needs that you can include in your own syllabus.

Learn more about Penn resources to support your students

More Literature & Resources

To learn more about principles and practices for teaching students living with stress and trauma or to discuss other teaching-related questions or needs, email CETLI to set up a conversation with the staff from the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning & Innovation.

You can also explore the following resources: