The Benefit of Acknowledging and Addressing Students' Uncomfortable Emotions when Learning about Environmental Issues: Fostering Growth and Change in Action-Oriented Exercises

This page authored by Ellen E Moore, University of Washington Tacoma, based on an original activity in her course "Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communication."
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Initial Publication Date: July 6, 2017 | Reviewed: November 25, 2019


Barbezat (2014) claims that when we "pay attention" to certain issues, we encourage "deep inquiry" into the causes and solutions related to those issues, which Mezirow (1990) notes are related to critical thought and, ultimately, transformation. But what happens when one puts one's attention on ecological degradation? As Norgaard (2013) argues, negative emotions relating to learning about environmental problems – including guilt, hopelessness, and fear – can provide a significant impediment to deepening critical thought, and may prohibit individuals from taking action to mitigate those problems. Van Zomeren et al (2010) agree, contending that the potential "danger" in gaining knowledge about environmental disaster is that it can precipitate uncomfortable emotions like fear and guilt. If the new knowledge is not accompanied by a clear pathway to action, it can lead to denial of the problem, which fosters inaction. Kari Norgaard (2013) identifies how this denial might manifest by adapting Cohen's (2001) notion of "implicatory denial," where individuals don't deny that, say, climate change is a real problem but do deny their own role in it.

This exercise is designed to help students directly address the uncomfortable emotions they may face when they learn about contemporary environmental issues. Often, students can turn away from the learning experience when faced with emotions like guilt, shame, fear, anger, and feeling overwhelmed. In addition, research reveals that if students are presented with negative information about environmental issues and they are not also provided with a plan for action, they often manifest denial on many levels. This exercise is designed to get students to directly address the emotions they face when learning about environmental issues and to make an action plan to address them in their individual lives.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Many educators hope that when students learn about environmental problems it may lead to critical thought and, perhaps action. No educator wants class material to "turn off" a student's interest or ability to learn, but many students (and teachers) ultimately do "look away" – Naomi Klein's (2015) term for the practice of avoiding learning about the causes and impacts of key environmental issues. This ultimately creates a paradox: while contemporary educators have an impressively diverse array of source material – documentaries, youtube videos, professional news stories, citizens journalism, scientific research, etc. – from which they can draw to teach environmental problems, that very information may overwhelm students and prohibit learning and critical inquiry. This exercise is designed to address the emotions students face and help them to craft action plans in their lives inside and outside the classroom to address environmental issues. The exercise is student-driven: they report their emotions and thoughts about environmental issues, and they create individualized action plans to mitigate and address their potential role in pressing environmental issues.

Context for Use

This exercise was developed for use in my course "Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communication" at the University of Washington Tacoma. The class is focused on how the media cover environmental problems from a constructionist perspective, but really would be useful in any type of class that involves students learning about environmental issues.

The reason I started doing this exercise in my classes was because I noticed students stopped participating in class when exposed to especially graphic videos concerning environmental devastation. Class morale would drop after exposure to many environmental problems, impacting their ability to participate in the class and to learn. This exercise provides one way to engage students directly on the emotions and thoughts they experience during the learning process, and encourages greater engagement with urgent environmental issues.

Description and Teaching Materials

The following exercise is designed to help students work through potentially-uncomfortable emotions when learning about environmental problems by first reframing the emotions as a transformative moment and then creating an action plan. It's important to note that this exercise works best for environmental problems that are regional and not global (like climate change or ocean acidification), although an educator can try to gauge results with a broader issue like this.

Step One:

I have students partner with other students in the class. I prefer to assign them to groups (especially with students they have not met yet) because it gets them out of their friend circle and into a new collaborative group dynamic (and research indicates students perform better when in a new social grouping). This exercise works best when I have between 2-4 students in one group but no more in order to avoid "social loafing": for this to work, all students are expected to share.

Step Two:
Now that the students are in small groups, I then aggregate those groups into three main sections of the class and assign them a short video to watch or newspaper article to read (more on that below). What this means is if I have 40 students in my class, I will usually have between 10 and 12 groups of 3-4 students. If I have 12 groups, I assign a particular video to four of those groups (i.e., one-third of the class). I then assign another four groups to another video, etc, until all groups have something to read or watch.

How this looks with a specific example: I have a class of 40 students. I break them into groups of 3-4 students each and then assign four of those groups to watch the YouTube video of the Costa Rican turtle with the straw being pulled out of its nose by a marine researcher The next group of students (again, about four groups) is assigned to watch a YouTube video about wildlife impacted by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico I assign Paul McCartney's "Glass Walls" to the third set of students (the remainder of the class). If students need to go into the hallway to listen to their video with the volume up, that is fine as well, as long as they return in the time I specify.

Step Three:
After students have learned about their particular issue, they then have to make a list of the emotions they experienced while watching/read it. Every student gets a chance to speak so that all voices are heard. All emotions are welcome, including apathy/indifference and hope as well as the ones traditionally considered "uncomfortable": guilt, hopelessness, being overwhelmed, fear. I try not to guide students too much; instead, I let them experience and identify their own emotions.

Step Four:
Students then come back to the class as a whole and report on their emotions. This is a "report out" only, just listing what emotions they felt and if particular examples from the videos impacted them specifically. I draw them out a little on this, spending about 10-15 minutes on this (or longer if they want to talk). I try not to add too much by way of explanation, etc.; instead I just listen and affirm that I've heard them, asking questions or clarifications when needed.

Step Five:
This is where students must return to the same sheet on which they wrote their emotions and then make an action plan (individual students within each group can have their own plan as long as they identify who they are on the paper) that would help to reduce their uncomfortable emotions. [As you likely can tell, I chose issues that are likely to raise horror, guilt, fear, etc. rather than abstract or broad environmental issues, but you can choose your issues as they fit with your curriculum]. When it comes to action, I tell my students the sky is the limit as long as they feel it is a task they could feasibly accomplish as a group or individual.

Step Six:
Students report out to the class what action plans they would (concretely or abstractly) take to address these issues. They must identify why they believe it will make them feel better/help to mitigate those emotions. If a student group is stuck (e.g., "nothing I do matters"), I gently bring them back to the task at hand by reminding them that they don't need to solve the problem themselves, only their potential contribution to it.

Step Seven:
This is where I as an educator communicate to my students the idea that we do not need to run away from uncomfortable emotions (even though our culture might encourage us to do so) but instead use these emotions for contemplation, greater insight, and action. I talk to them about the benefit of not running away from the emotions they have, and note that we have these emotions for a reason: they make us human, help us to understand our role in the problem, and deepen our contemplation of the issue. Baugher (2014) builds on this perspective, noting that "contemplating uncomfortable emotions" can create an effective space for learning in higher education, one that can lead to positive transformation and, perhaps, to action.

Step Eight:
In this step students will attempt to make the changes they identified in Step Six for one week. In the past, my students have chosen to call their state senators, contact companies that use palm oil, skip the straws at restaurants, and try to drive less. However, it is important to note that it is their choice as to what steps they would like to take and the ideas should come from them. They will keep a digital diary using the Day One, Journey, or Memento apps (if they don't have access to a smart phone they can keep a paper diary) about the attempt to make the change(s) they specified. After one week, they will share their diary on my online class site (Facebook, Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) so that all students can see. Then I choose to have a few volunteers report back to the class about the challenges faced and (hopefully) successes they achieved. However, I note to them that this step is not just about chronicling success, but also noting the challenges individuals face when, say, trying to "skip the straw" or avoiding the use of plastic bags, or finding products that do not use palm oil.

Step Nine:
This final step assesses students' emotions and thoughts after this exercise. Simply put, as a teacher I ask them to assess the utility of the exercise for helping them to process the emotions they experience around their specific environmental issue. I prefer to have them write "free form" because I do not like to guide their actions too much. But, it is important to assess students' emotions and thoughts about the exercise as a way for them to give feedback to you as the instructor.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Other potential environmental issues to assign to groups:

- "Palm oil" forests and the impact on wildlife/biodiversity:

- BBC piece on orangutans:

- BBC piece on Sumatran tiger:

- Chris Jordan's trailer for the film Midway: Message from the Gyre" on the albatross chicks of Midway Island dying from eating plastic debris:

- Steve Cutt's "Man" video (covering a wide range of issues abstractly):

- Digital Dumping Ground (about electronic waste disposal in Ghana) [Digital Dumping Ground is 20 minutes, but students can watch the first part (about Ghana, the middle part (about China), or the end part (about India). I recommend the Ghana portion and then the end of the video when a 19-year old Indian man talks about the toxic material ruining his life. If a student group volunteers in advance for this, they can watch the whole thing and report on it in class]

Remember that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers, and that students should feel free to express whatever emotion they have, including anger or annoyance. As a teacher, I always have an idea of what an "appropriate" reaction might be, and I must continually remind myself that this exercise is about students communicating their authentic emotions.


This exercise is graded as participation points that are based on the thoroughness of students' participation. It is important to note that there are no right or wrong answers, but it is the level of engagement that is assessed. Finally, students will be asked to fill out a quick assessment of the exercise: how do they feel about the environmental issue in question – and their involvement in it – after the exercise? This last step is less about assessing students but rather giving them the opportunity to provide YOU feedback with how they perceive the assessment.

References and Resources


Barbezat, D. (2014). "Paying Attention: Introspection as a Ground of Learning." In Contemplative
Learning and Inquiry across Disciplines,
ed. Gunnlaugson et al., SUNY Press.

Baugher, J.E. (2014). "Contemplating Uncomfortable Emotions: Creating Transformative Spaces
for Learning in Higher Education." In Contemplative Learning and Inquiry across

Cohen, S. (2001). States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering. Polity Press.

Klein, N. (2015). This Changes Everything. Simon & Schuster.

Mezirow, J. (1990). "How Critical Reflection Triggers Transformative Learning." In Fostering Critical
Reflection in Adulthood
. Jossey-Bass.

Norgaard, Kari (2013). Living in Denial. MIT Press.

Van Zomeren, M. et al. (2010). "Experimental Evidence for a Dual Pathway Model Analysis of
Coping with the Climate Crisis." Journal of Environmental Psychology 30: 339-346.