Requiring Self-Exploration and Self-Disclosure in Coursework

The college experience, by its very nature, provides students with opportunities to become more aware of and to understand themselves in new, different, and more complex ways. For some students, this is an enjoyable journey of self-discovery which they control for themselves.  For others, confronting past or present difficulties, whether or not they are prepared, is taken out of their control by events which overtake them. In these cases, we often see students feeling overwhelmed, depressed, suicidal, angry, lost, helpless, or hopeless. While the university cannot and should not protect students from normal life experiences, we also need to be sensitive to situations which may inadvertently provoke upsetting reactions. 

Each year, CAPS sees a number of students who are disturbed by coursework requiring self-disclosure or self-exploration. We also are asked by faculty to consult with them about students who are disturbed as a result of these types of assignments. This document is intended to examine considerations you may wish to make when creating coursework that requires self-exploration or self-disclosure from students.  We will define “self-exploration” as those activities which require a student to look at their internal processes and interpersonal relationships with the aid of some type of assignment or some type of assessment device. We will define self-disclosure as the requirement to share with others (faculty, class members) personal information about themselves. While we have separated these two issues for discussion, in most cases, they are tandem requirements of course assignments. 

The Impact of Self-Exploration and Self-Disclosure

In and of themselves, neither self-exploration nor self-disclosure is necessarily harmful. A basic component of harm may enter when someone is asked to do one or both of these when they feel some level of coercion is involved. That is, when someone does not wish to engage in these processes but feels “forced” to do so because it is related to some desired outcome, self-exploration and self-disclosure can feel coerced. When grades are the desired outcome, this can put a student in a very difficult position.

Assignments which require students to self-explore and/or self-disclose entail some level of coercion albeit this is often unintended.  The basic thought that most students report about these types of assignments is, “If I don’t do it, my grade will suffer.” Coercion, like most things, is a continuum of experience. For example, asking someone, “What is your favorite color?” would be seen by most as slightly coercive, if one felt any coercion at all. On the other extreme, asking a student to write a detailed description of the worst thing that ever happened to them could be seen as quite coercive if that student has a history of an issue such as childhood sexual abuse which they prefer not reveal or discuss at this time. Trying to balance the need to do well in class and complete assignments versus the needs for privacy and safety can be extremely difficult and can create a high level of stress and anxiety.

In addition to the impact the assignment may have on a student, instructors must also consider what impact the assignment may have on them. Instructors who assign self-exploration and self-disclosure activities may learn things about students they may not, in retrospect, have wanted to know. This knowledge has, in the past, and can, in the future, lead instructors to grade students based on whether they like or dislike, or agree or disagree with the information they have learned. This can create bias in grading and can lead to charges by students of harassment or discrimination. 

Mandatory self-disclosure in coursework has become an important issue for many professional organizations involved with higher education. A number of organizations have made it clear that instructors must take into account the possible negative outcomes of required self-disclosure and, in some cases, the need to inform students in advance of course registration of the requirement to self-disclose in a particular class. Three examples follow below, but you are encouraged to consult the ethical guidelines of your own professional group.

American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Ethical Statement

“2. As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student’s true merit. They respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student. They avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students. They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from them. They protect their academic freedom.”

Modern Language Association Ethical Standards

“6. Inasmuch as the teaching of language, writing, and literature not only involves comprehension of the course material but may also draw, more directly than some other subjects do, on students' intellectual and emotional experiences, faculty members, in devising requirements for written work and oral discussion, have an ethical responsibility to respect both students' privacy and their emotional and intellectual dignity.”

American Psychological Association Ethical Standards

“7.04 Student Disclosure of Personal Information

Psychologists do not require students or supervisees to disclose personal information in course- or program-related activities, either orally or in writing, regarding sexual history, history of abuse and neglect, psychological treatment, and relationships with parents, peers, and spouses or significant others except if (1) the program or training facility has clearly identified this requirement in its admissions and program materials or (2) the information is necessary to evaluate or obtain assistance for students whose personal problems could reasonably be judged to be preventing them from performing their training- or professionally related activities in a competent manner or posing a threat to the students or others.

7.05 Mandatory Individual or Group Therapy

(a) When individual or group therapy is a program or course requirement, psychologists responsible for that program allow students in undergraduate and graduate programs the option of selecting such therapy from practitioners unaffiliated with the program. (See also Standard 7.02, Descriptions of Education and Training Programs.)

(b) Faculty who are or are likely to be responsible for evaluating students’ academic performance do not themselves provide that therapy. (See also Standard 3.05, Multiple Relationships.)”

There are many difficulties using self-exploration and self-disclosure experiences in coursework. Professional organizations are examining the impact of required self-disclosure and self-exploration on students and trainees and creating standards for preventing harm.  We urge you to consider limiting or eliminating these types of requirements from course syllabi.   

Counseling as a Course Requirement or Extra Credit Experience 

Every year, instructors include, in their syllabi, the requirement or the opportunity for students to gain class credit by participating in some kind of counseling at CAPS or other counseling services. In most cases, they are offering students the opportunity to gain extra credit by entering into individual counseling or a therapy group or to engage in some other type of self-exploration. Some instructors require counseling or therapy as a component of their course. They do this because they believe it ought to be part of the course curriculum, or because it could not hurt the student, or because it might even do the student some good. 

There are however, a number of factors to consider before deciding to add this type of activity to the syllabus.

Involuntary release of rights to confidentiality.  Most instructors require students to provide some evidence that the student actually attended the counseling activity. This requires the student to give up the right to confidentiality, even as it applies to attendance information. In many cases, the assignment goes beyond attendance and asks the student to produce some kind of document that provides details of their experience. Students may feel coerced into giving up their rights to privacy and confidentiality because they wish to receive a good grade and feel giving up these rights is the only way to receive the grade they want or need. This can be grounds for students to claim that they were forced into a hostile or coercive environment where they were required to give up rights others (in different sections of the same course or in different courses within the same department) were allowed to maintain.

Requiring self disclosure.  Requiring a student to bring up current or past difficulties can be traumatic to some and lead directly to physical or emotional distress. Requiring self-disclosure, particularly without informing potential students of the requirement in advance, can often be seen as coercive and, for some professional groups, unethical. 

Outcomes of required counseling or counseling for credit.  Students who come to counseling to fulfill a class requirement or to gain extra credit almost always are inappropriate for treatment and will not fulfill the true object of the assignment. Students who wish to join groups to gain extra credit often create a difficult atmosphere within the group because they really do not wish to participate actively, only to put in the time to receive credit. This makes it difficult for the group leaders and for those members of the group who enrolled in the group as a personal choice to enhance their growth. Students who get credit or fulfill requirements by arranging for individual counseling are, for the most part, inappropriate for individual counseling because they, generally, do not bring real difficulties with which they wish to deal. (E.g. they just wish to see what it’s like to be a client; they want the counselor to ask a lot of questions to “probe” for potential issues, etc.) The counseling process is a contract between clients and counselors involving current issues upon which discussion and “work” will be based. Students who have no issues to work on are not suitable or appropriate for counseling at any agency.

Impact on Counseling Services.  CAPS and all other individual and agency providers want to serve as many clients as need services. The prediction of the level of service demand at an agency is based on a set of assumptions about who will seek services. When instructors create assignments which increase the number of students seeking services at an agency without informing the agency in advance, this distorts the ability of the agency to successfully predict and be ready to respond to the demand for services. If you believe an assignment that involves using the services of other agencies is essential to your course, professional courtesy suggests that you contact those agencies in advance, to discuss your needs and negotiate what services may or may not be available.

As you plan your courses, we encourage you to consider the impact that self-exploration and self-disclosure activities may have on students and on you. We welcome any questions you may have about these issues.

For more information, please feel free to contact CAPS in Denton, 940-898-3801.