6 Steps to Navigate Difficult Subject Matter in eLearning Design

In Team Blog by Eoin O'Neill

An article by
Kelly Mallon
Digital Designer
eLearning Developer
Fairytale Enthusiast
Picture of Kelly Mallon, Digital Designer, on a green background

What do we do when faced with difficult subject matter? As eLearning designers, we need to think carefully about our audience. How do we deal with issues sensitively while ensuring effective learning?First, we need to understand the challenges. Difficult topics might include:

  • Bereavement, grief, and end-of-life care.
  • Mental health, addressing topics like depression, anxiety, or suicide.
  • Trauma and abuse.
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion, including racial matters, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion.
  • Addiction and self-harm.
  • Violence and conflict resolution.

The impact of these topics can include discomfort, emotional triggers, and resistance to learning. There are also ethical considerations like inclusivity, accessibility, and cultural sensitivity. It is our role to treat learners with empathy, ensuring the learning experience is a useful and positive experience for all.

Each topic presents unique complexities and sensitivities. So, how can we effectively navigate them in eLearning design?

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1. Research and Understanding

Before creating content, it’s crucial to conduct thorough research and develop an understanding of the subject matter. Engage with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and stay informed about the latest research, statistics, and best practices in addressing relevant issues.

2. Empathy and Sensitivity

Approach sensitive topics with empathy, recognising their potential emotional impact, and strive to create a safe and supportive learning environment. Use language and imagery that are respectful and inclusive of diverse perspectives. Check out the example below from our collaboration with the Irish Hospice Foundation about grief in the workplace.

3. Providing Resources for Support

Recognise that additional support may be needed. Provide resources for after-support, such as helplines, counselling services, or community organisations, where learners can seek further assistance if needed.

Blue hue illustration of a man speaking to support staff on a laptop

4. Encouraging Reflection

Design activities that encourage reflection. This allows learners to process the information in their own time, considering their attitudes and experiences and allowing for deeper understanding.

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5. Inclusive Dialogue

Encourage inclusive dialogue and discussion, providing opportunities for learners to share their perspectives and experiences respectfully and supportively. This promotes a culture of empathy and awareness.

6. Evaluation and Improvement

Solicit feedback and remain open to evaluation and adjustments to better address the needs and sensitivities of your audience.


Navigating difficult subject matter in eLearning requires a delicate and empathetic approach. By incorporating these strategies, we can create learning experiences that are not only effective but also respectful and inclusive for all learners.

Remember, as eLearning designers, we have the opportunity to create meaningful and impactful learning experiences. Let’s approach this responsibility with integrity and compassion.

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If you have questions about anything you’ve just read or want to pick Kelly’s brain a bit more, feel free to reach out via her email: kelly@cobblestonelearning.com

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