Developing Best Practices for Trauma-informed Teaching and Learning (2021-2022)


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 develop and implement seminars for students and faculty on trauma-engaged teaching and learning and will collect data to inform future efforts to better support trauma survivors in the classroom. 

The project will build on work from the 2020-2021 team that explored a series of essential questions including: 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 2020-2021 team used the data collected in response to these questions to develop Trauma Engaged Duke (TED), a series of informational seminars for students from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, the Divinity School and the School of Medicine. TED seminars educated 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 learned where they can receive additional information and care and completed survey questionnaires assessing their knowledge of trauma before and after the seminars. Selected participants engaged in focus group interviews, which resulted in the development of a foundational qualitative dataset.

In 2021-2022, this team will focus on understanding and supporting how faculty members experience and address student trauma in the classroom. Team members will develop and implement TED seminars geared toward faculty and run TED seminars for undergraduates and graduate students. The team will also conduct faculty focus groups designed to understand how faculty experience matters around trauma in the classroom setting.

Anticipated Outputs

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

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 4 graduate students and 4 undergraduate students. Students interested in psychology, African American studies, gender, sexuality and feminist studies, global health, cultural anthropology, neuroscience and education and/or human development will bring a range of perspectives crucial to understanding the issues related to trauma in the instructional context. Master’s- and doctoral-level students from the Divinity School, the Graduate School and the School of Medicine will speak from their own professional and educational contexts. Team leaders seek to recruit a graduate student with training and interest in qualitative research methods. 

Students, staff and faculty will work together in team meetings to learn about how the effects of trauma can affect the learning environment for survivors and others. Graduate students will serve as teaching assistants. Undergraduate students will be involved in creating and leading a series of Trauma Engaged Duke seminars with the aim of broadening the knowledge and understanding of trauma among students in order to shape the culture of Duke into a more trauma-informed one. Team members will assist in coding deidentified data from faculty focus groups.

Students will emerge from this project with deep theoretical and practical understanding of trauma theory, how adaptations to trauma give rise to problematic trauma sequela and the challenges and opportunities associated with trauma-informed teaching practices. Undergraduates will learn to teach other students about trauma, speak to faculty about students’ experiences, participate in project design and data analysis, and contribute to papers as appropriate. Graduate students will explore trauma-informed pedagogy in their own academic contexts, participate in project design and analysis, and contribute to papers as appropriate. All team members will learn how to design interview questions for focus groups and collect and synthesize qualitative data. Divinity students, in particular, will become better prepared to work with difficult topics such as biblical texts of violence, wartime ethics and pastoral care contexts of trauma.

A postdoctoral fellow in psychology will serve as project manager. 


Fall 2021 – Spring 2022

  • Fall 2021: Conduct multiple Trauma Engaged Duke seminars; analyze data; conduct trauma literature review; assist with writing article based on qualitative data from project
  • Spring 2022: Conduct multiple Trauma Engaged Duke seminars; transcribe and analyze focus group data

This Team in the News

Making the Most of Duke, Summer 2021


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters

See earlier related team, Developing Best Practices for Trauma-informed Teaching and Learning (2020-2021).


Image: Duke University first-year medical students listen to a lecture about the brain in the Learning Hall of the Trent Semans Center, by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography

Duke University first-year medical students listen to a lecture about the brain in the Learning Hall of the Trent Semans

Team Leaders

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

/graduate Team Members

  • Sarah Stone, Divinity-MDV
  • Hanke Johanna van Den Ende, Master of Theology

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Anna Greenleaf, Psychology (BS), Statistical Science (AB2)
  • Christina Lewis
  • Molly Pluenneke, Psychology (AB), Global Health (AB2)
  • Timothy Wilkinson
  • Maya Yelle

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Stephanie Hargrove, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Noga Zerubavel, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences