Developing Best Practices for Trauma-informed Teaching and Learning (2020-2021)


Stress associated with trauma is likely present in every student gathering at Duke University – not only in each student organization and residence hall, but also in every classroom and laboratory. Students bring experiences of past trauma with them and also experience diverse forms of stressors and trauma while at Duke, including sexual assault. In a 2018 survey, 47.8% of Duke undergraduate women reported unwanted sexual contact since matriculating.

While in recent years Duke has invested heavily in providing high-quality mental health and support services to trauma survivors and curbing the rate of campus sexual assault, there is a need to attend carefully to how stress and trauma show up in classrooms and academic programs. Students who are trauma survivors bring essential insights and perspectives to classroom contexts but may also experience academic challenges.

Trauma survivors may respond strongly to particular texts, topics or contexts that evoke memories of trauma and stress. Faculty may wonder how to foster a learning environment in which all students can thrive and may be uncertain about how to manage trauma-related content in the classroom (such as in the case of conflicting information about “trigger warnings”). There is a clear need for trauma-informed education for students and faculty that will explore the ways that trauma shows up in the classroom, increase empathy for those who are struggling and promote a positive learning experience.

Project Description

This project will focus on a series of questions: How does trauma affect students’ experience of academic work at Duke? How do students perceive faculty approaches to addressing trauma in the classroom? How do faculty perceive, address and engage in the way that trauma affects learning in the classroom? How might classes be taught, and academic programs be administered, in order to cultivate an environment in which survivors of trauma can thrive in their academic work?

The team will begin by presenting a series of informational seminars to students from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, the Divinity School and the School of Medicine. These seminars will be designed to educate students about the effects of stress and trauma, broadly defined to include child abuse and sexual violence as well as stress and trauma in the context of racism, homophobia and other forms of social oppression. Participants will learn where they can receive additional information and care and will be invited to complete a survey questionnaire assessing how trauma has been engaged in their academic programs and what resources have been helpful. Through focus group interviews, participants will explore how trauma reveals itself in the classroom or academic programs, how they perceive faculty intervention or lack thereof and strategies for helpful response among both students and faculty. They will complete a final questionnaire, and team members will transcribe, code and analyze deidentified data from these groups.

Anticipated Outputs

Primary qualitative data; three academic articles on trauma-informed undergraduate education, theological education and medical education


Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Fall 2020: Construction of IRB proposals; event design; student trauma seminar (online) and questionnaire;
  • Spring 2021: Student focus group interviews (online); data transcription and analysis

 See related team, Developing Best Practices for Trauma-informed Teaching and Learning (2021-2022).


Image: Members of the class of 2019 gathered at the Durham Performing Arts Center to hear a reading and talk by Alison Bechdel, by Les Todd/Duke University

Durham Performing Arts Center event.

Team Leaders

  • Jan Holton, Divinity School
  • Warren Kinghorn, Divinity School|School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

/graduate Team Members

  • Stephanie Hargrove, Psychology-AM
  • Shelby Meehan, Divinity-MDV
  • Stephanie Schuette, Psychology-PHD
  • Hannah Smith, Divinity-MDV
  • Adam Tietje, Doctor of Theology

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Jakari Coles
  • Gaelyn Dent, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Anna Greenleaf
  • Karina Heaton, Psychology (BS)
  • Alyssa Nelson
  • Molly Pluenneke

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Jeff Kulley, Counseling and Psychological Services
  • Thomas Szigethy, Student Affairs
  • Noga Zerubavel, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences