Learning & Teaching Sensitive Topics

Hilary Hamnett – Senior Lecturer in  Forensic Science – School of Chemistry – Staff Profile

Our aim was to support the mental and emotional well-being of students, by developing guidance for learning & teaching sensitive and potentially distressing material on the undergraduate forensic science programmes. The guidance was developed in collaboration with students, and we share it here for the benefit of other programmes.

Sensitive topics

The summer school exam season of 2019 highlighted the pitfalls of including sensitive topics such as sexual abuse and counting calories in assessments. Whilst this caused something of a media storm at the time, learning & teaching sensitive topics is all-too-familiar to lecturers on the university’s undergraduate forensic science and forensic chemistry programmes.

As several of our staff come from backgrounds as practitioners in areas such as anthropology, toxicology and crime scene examination, we have a valuable set of authentic case studies to share with our students for learning & teaching. However, they can include topics such as: sexual violence; self-harm and suicide; drug use; homophobia and transphobia; family violence; and graphic images of blood, weapons, drug paraphernalia (e.g. needles) and deceased individuals.

Thankfully, many people reading this blog post will have little first-hand experience of these issues, but for some of our students, this is not the case. As educators, we have a responsibility to create a safe and inclusive learning environment for all.

Trigger warnings

Trigger or content warnings, despite being commonplace in the cinema and on television, are still controversial in education; student complaints about being triggered by unannounced sensitive material have been dismissed as “snowflakes” or “nonsense”, and the use of such warnings by educators labelled molly-coddling (Click here to view an article: The Guardian – Trigger warnings> . In fact, trigger warnings are designed to have the opposite effect; they empower students to develop a mature response to potentially upsetting material, by giving them time to prepare themselves emotionally.

Some may ask why a student who may be triggered by sensitive content would study forensic science in the first place. For some, a negative past experience sparks an interest in the field, and for others it occurs after they have started studying.

In our programmes, staff can use the following in Module Handbooks and Introduction to the Module lectures:

“This module requires engagement with some sensitive and potentially distressing content, including drug use, death, and drug-facilitated sexual violence. Especially graphic or intense content will be flagged prior to the session. If you have any concerns, please contact the module leader, your Personal Tutor, or the Wellbeing Centre.”

The session before may include a verbal warning to students that a sensitive topic will be covered next time.

Student absences

If a student makes contact with a member of staff about their concerns, they will discuss together if authorised absence is appropriate. If so, the student sends an e-mail to our School office beforehand. This e-mail does not contain details of the disclosure, only that the student has discussed their concerns with an appropriate member of staff, and will be absent for a particular session(s).

A student who chooses to attend, but feels uncomfortable during the session can leave at any time, unchallenged.

We also consider the location of the class—there are some rooms in the university (such as ATB3116 and JBL2C04) where the screen is visible to anyone passing, and therefore graphic images on the screen may not be appropriate. Other strategies such as handouts may be considered in these situations.


A student’s concerns with a particular topic are kept strictly confidential, unless they have given permission to disclose it for teaching reasons. If it is necessary to share confidential information, the form of words is agreed in advance with the student, so that they remain in control of their personal information.


A Blackboard announcement is made prior to the session, such as:

“The next session of this module will be on The problem of drug misuse and will include case examples covering suicide and drug overdose.”

Other sources such as journal papers, websites, videos and book chapters posted on or linked to from Blackboard that contain sensitive material, may also come with a trigger warning, such as:

“The journal article by Dinis-Oliveira et al. contains graphic images taken during an autopsy.”

A similar comment can be added to Talis reading lists.

After the session, material such as graphic photographs is not included in the slides or Panopto videos posted on Blackboard. Students who missed the session for a different reason e.g. illness, can attend the office hours of the lecturer to see the sensitive material if they so wish.