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 personal disclosures or exploration of personal issues. 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.
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. It is also important to be aware that an increasing number of students are coming to college with pre-existing mental health conditions. These students may, at times, experience assignments which require reflections about their mood or psychological health distressing or they may disclose information that is perceived as distressing to others. It is important that professors anticipate and are prepared to address such concerns.
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. You are encouraged to consult the ethical guidelines of your own professional group.
Students who seek individual or group counseling from CAPS to fulfill a class requirement or to gain extra credit almost always are inappropriate for treatment and will not fulfill the true objective 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 therapy are, for the most part, inappropriate for individual therapy 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 therapist to ask a lot of questions to “probe” for potential issues, etc.). The counseling process is a contract between clients and therapists involving current issues upon which discussion and “work” will be based. Students who have no issues they wish to address are not suitable or appropriate for therapy at CAPS.
CAPS and other agency providers want to serve as many clients as need services. This is particularly true at CAPS given that students pay for our services via their student fees. 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.
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 Dr. Denise Lucero-Miller, Director of TWU CAPS at 940-898-3801.
Page last updated 8:53 AM, July 31, 2018