The Open University Scholarship Exchange
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Dataset - Supporting student learning of emotive and sensitive content

posted on 2023-11-29, 16:18 authored by Leigh DownesLeigh Downes, Ruth Wall, Anne Alvaer

​This project was designed to better understand and respond to challenges in the teaching and learning of sensitive topics in distance education learning materials that have been highlighted by students and educators across different subjects and faculties at The Open University (OU). This includes students and tutors who have experienced module content as distressing or triggering and student disclosures of violence and harm that have been made to tutors and in assessments. These situations raise mental health, wellbeing, and safeguarding concerns.

The overarching purpose of the project was to co-create an evidence base with students to address the research question: how do diverse distance students experience learning sensitive or emotive topics? This included an assessment of current practices (content notes and guidance) on a new level one criminology module DD105: Introduction to Criminology, which included various sensitive topics including gender-based violence, war and conflict, the Grenfell Tower fire, and victimisation. Mixed methods (online surveys, interviews, and online workshops) were used to work in partnership with students and stakeholders across the university to understand how students navigate sensitive topics in their learning, evaluate current practice, identify best practice, and collaboratively develop recommendations and innovative solutions.

​Our findings suggest that instead of being discouraged, a wide range of emotional responses to learning materials should be normalised and that emotional resilience skills that students bring to their study should be affirmed and strengthened within learning materials. Increasing our knowledge and understanding of emotional resilience will equip educators with the tools to remove potential barriers to learning and support the emotional aspects of study to maximise engagement, deep learning, and a positive study experience.

Key findings included:

  • Many students expected to study emotive and sensitive topics that they may find challenging.
  • Whether a topic was experienced as sensitive or not was highly individual and connected to lived experience.
  • Students experienced a complex interplay of positive and negative emotional responses during their study.
  • Students used a wide range of emotional resilience skills to identify, manage emotional responses, and engage with sensitive topics. Emotional resilience skills can be practiced and strengthened over time.
  • Current practices, such as content notes/warnings and guidance, helped some students to identify sensitive topics as well as activate and normalise emotional resilience skills.
  • The inclusion of sensitive and difficult topics, such as gender-based violence, was linked to feelings of validation and improvements in wellbeing for those with lived experience.
  • Some students reported a strong preference to learn about sensitive topics at a distance. Benefits of distance learning included having more control over their study environment and more flexibility and freedom to express and process emotional responses.


Collaborated with

  • Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)


  • Proprietary

Authorship group

  • Academic - Central
  • Associate Lecturers
  • Students

Institutional priority category

  • Achieving Study Goals
  • Employability and Career Progression
  • Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
  • Students’ Learning Experiences


  • Accessibility
  • Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
  • Mental Health
  • Reducing Inequalities
  • Student Experience
  • Integration of Student Voice
  • Innovative Teaching Approaches

Subject discipline

  • Social Sciences and Global Studies


  • England
  • Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Wales

Project ID