Psychology courses often involve topics students can relate to on a personal level. When students connect to the course content in a personally meaningful way, it can enhance their learning. This connection can also make classroom discussions more interesting.
Experiences shared in class might be as basic as a student’s talking about being a twin during twin studies or parenting a two-year-old child during a discussion of object permanence. Other times the experiences students share can be more emotionally charged, such as losing a loved one to suicide or experiencing abuse. Students choosing to open up about an emotionally charged personal experience can create challenges for both the student and the instructor, because the classroom, whether face-to-face or online, is not set up to be a support group or therapy, and it shouldn’t be.
It is fairly easy to follow APA ethical guideline 7.04 of the APA Ethical Principles for Psychologists and Code of Conduct by not requiring students to disclose personal information. However, even without being prompted, there are times during a classroom discussion or review of an assignment when a student will voluntarily disclose some type of personal experience.
Whether teaching face-to-face or online, it is important that teachers give students clear guidelines from the first class on how students need to carefully consider personal disclosures before sharing them. This is especially salient when institutional policies mandate the reporting of situations relevant to the Clery Act or Title IX (Flaherty, 2015).
Frisby and Sidelinger (2013) say “Individuals develop and maintain interpersonal rules for behavior, and some of these interpersonal rules may transcend into the classroom setting. It appears that the rules for disclosing in an interpersonal setting may be similar to those in the classroom” (p. 251).
Many of today’s students are involved in some type of social media in which they share their experiences. According to Boyden (2012), this sharing is done “with little care as to its relevance or privacy… people need to be reminded that there are rules about how much information must be shared, and with whom.” (p. 39).
Being trained as a clinician, I find that others’ life challenges and emotions usually don’t bother me; but when I am in an instructor role, the way I interact has to be different. If one of my students is going through some type of personal problem I become aware of apart from a class discussion, I’ve learned to acknowledge the issue while keeping the discussion focused on the academic impact.
A student once emailed me that they would be away from class for a week because of a death in the family. I wrote back that I appreciated their note about being away. I acknowledged that loss can be challenging, and everyone handles it differently. To keep my communication focused on academics, however, I reminded the student to discuss options with an advisor if processing this loss interfered with staying on top of coursework.
I maintained the same academic focus when a student disclosed over email that a sexual assault was her reason for not getting an assignment in on time. She discussed having to work with the police and getting new locks put on her apartment. She asked if I would need documentation to verify any of this. I said the situation sounded very stressful, and I understood her safety had to be a high priority. I added that I was not of the opinion that my students would fabricate experiencing a crime simply to obtain an extension, so I didn’t need a note. I told her everyone responds to sexual violence differently, and if she found herself having trouble staying focused on the coursework, she needed to talk to her advisor about options.
Dealing with a disclosure over email can be easier than dealing with a student standing in front of you visibly distressed, but even in those instances there are options for assisting them without being directly involved. In the February 2014 issue of PTN (PDF, 3.75MB), Janie H. Wilson, PhD, discussing ethical relationships with students, said when “a student brings up a personal problem, I sympathize and then suggest the student go to the counseling center on campus. If the problem is urgent, I offer to walk with the student to the center” (p. 11).
If students are disclosing too much about their personal problems to us outside of the classroom, one way to reduce this behavior is for us to examine the ways in which our own verbal and nonverbal boundaries might be playing a role (Rockquemore, 2015).
For the most part, students personal disclosures I have encountered during in-class or online course discussions were relevant to the topic. Most of those disclosures did not become the sole focus of the conversations or become disruptive to the learning process. For example, while we discussed the concept of learned helplessness, a student offered their personal example of being in an abusive relationship and eventually leaving that relationship. I replied by saying abusive relationships are complex, and there are various factors involved in an individual’s decision to stay or leave. Then, I talked about how this example was a good fit for the concept of learned helplessness. Bringing the personal example back to the concepts being studied tells students that the course content is the focus no matter what type of situation is being discussed.
Guidance for Students
To guide my students to think carefully before they speak or type, I provide them with the following statement:
Courses within the psychology department often have content that can become very personal. Personal experiences and opinions often become part of the class discussion. Disclosing such information, where appropriate, can add to the course content, but any disclosures should be carefully considered before posting as this is not a therapy session and there is no confidentiality.
Sometimes students need more guidance on how to determine whether or not something should be disclosed, whether a class discussion is the proper place and whether their classmates and instructor are the proper audience. Here are some questions for students to consider before choosing to share a personal experience in class:
- Is this relevant to the topic being discussed?
- Will talking about this experience produce emotions that I might not be prepared to experience?
- Will talking about this experience make it difficult to sit through the rest of the class and actively participate?
- Am I sharing this because I have something important to say, or because there’s something I want to hear?
- If I share this and no one really says anything in response and the class moves on to the next topic of conversation, will it bother me?
- If this information gets shared outside of this class, will it bother me?
In the end, students remain better focused on content when teachers make it clear from the start that (a) students are ultimately responsible for the personal information they disclose and (b) teachers don’t attend to their students emotional needs other than acknowledging them and referring students to available resources or staff for emotional support when appropriate.
Re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Teacher Network
Boyden, B.E. (2012). Oversharing: Facebook discovery and the unbearable sameness of Internet law. Arkansas Law Review, 65(1), 39-73.
Frisby, B.N. & Sidelinger, R.J. (2013). Violating student expectations: Student disclosures and student reactions in the college classroom.Communication Studies, 64(3), 241-258 doi: 10.1080/10510974.2012.755636.
Flaherty, C. (2015). Faculty members object to new policies making all professors mandatory reporters of sexual assault. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/04/faculty-members-object-new-policies-making-all-professors-mandatory-reporters-sexual.
Rockquemore, K.A. (2015). Setting boundaries when it comes to students’ emotional disclosures. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved fromhttps://www.insidehighered.com/advice/ 2015/11/04/setting-boundaries-when-it-comes-students-emotional-disclosures-essay.
Wilson, J.H. (2014). Ethical relationships with students. Psychology Teacher Network, 23(4), 10-12. Retrieved fromhttp://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/ptn/2014/02/index.aspx.