We want students to have positive experiences in our courses. The college classroom is a unique space where students are empowered to think critically about the world around them. However, sometimes the content of our courses involves information that is sensitive, disturbing, or even traumatic. While we should challenge students to think about topics outside their comfort zones, this challenge should be met with appropriate support on behalf of the instructor (see Saucier et al., 2022 for discussion of empathetic course design). To provide this support to your students, you may want to consider using content disclosures in your classes.
What is a content disclosure?
In higher education, a content disclosure (also referred to as a content notice or trigger warning) is an “explicit statement that alerts a group of learners that certain content explored or discussed in a learning environment may contain potentially distressing material” (see Bryce et al., 2022 for a review). Such content may include (but is not limited to) topics related to sexual violence, self-harm and/or suicide, eating disorders, hate speech, prejudice, drug use, violence, child abuse, animal abuse, pregnancy and/or childbirth, miscarriages, abortion, and death.
To prepare students for potentially distressing material in your classes, we recommend using content disclosures. Benefits of using content disclosures in classes include helping students understand the severity of sensitive course material (Beverly et al., 2018), supporting student mental health (George & Hovey, 2020), acknowledging students’ boundaries (Spencer & Kulbaga, 2018), helping students make informed choices about their selected courses (Bryce et al., 2022), and creating a more inclusive learning space for students with trauma (Lockhart, 2016). Ultimately, content disclosures serve as an explicit demonstration of instructors’ regard for their students’ well-being. We also acknowledge that some have argued against the use of content disclosures, including the idea that these disclosures do not adequately prepare students for life outside the classroom (e.g., Lukianhoff & Haidt, 2019), their effects on academic freedom (e.g., Vatz, 2016), and/or that they actually reinforce students’ traumatic experiences and inadvertently induce more anxiety (e.g., Boysen, 2017). Rather than exempting students from engaging with sensitive topics in your courses, we recommend instructors use content disclosures to prepare their students (cognitively and emotionally) for content that may be disturbing or even traumatizing (see Saucier et al., 2023 for additional recommendations for facilitating difficult course dialogues).
Practical ways to provide content disclosures
When there is content in your course that may be potentially distressing, this should be clear to your students in the course syllabus. Consider including a specific “topic list” in your syllabus so that students know what to expect. You may also include a syllabus statement that acknowledges potentially distressing course content. See below for an example:
Upon reviewing the course syllabus, you will see that our course covers content that may be emotionally difficult. These topics include, but are not limited to, [insert topics]. Your engagement with these topics may take the form of assigned readings and/or videos, class discussions, and/or assignments. Please understand that the inclusion of such content in this course is not meant to cause distress on your behalf, but rather to expand your knowledge of these topics and how they manifest in the world around us. Your understanding of these topics is integral to achieving the following student learning outcomes: [insert outcomes]. However, I understand that everyone has a different limit. If you find yourself being pushed near one of your limits with a topic, please contact the instructor to discuss any concerns. Please also be aware of campus resources that are available to support you as a student: [insert support resources].
Beyond syllabus statements, there are other ways that you can make it clear that your course will cover sensitive content, including:
- Course descriptions
- Disclosures via your university’s learning management system (LMS)
- Email disclosures
- In-class disclosures
General recommendations when teaching sensitive content:
- Identify potentially sensitive topics in your course early.
- Offer information on coping strategies and self-care.
- Share relevant campus resources (e.g., counseling services).
- Create a safer learning environment through open discussion.
- Scaffold discussion of potentially sensitive topics for students.
- E.g., provide context for why information is relevant, provide definitions verbally before presenting students with visually sensitive information.
- Check in with your students regularly.
- Ask them how they are doing, ask them if they need a break, acknowledge that content is emotionally challenging.
- Do not use content disclosures in a tokenistic way.
- Consider alternative readings or activities, when possible.
Facilitating our students’ understanding of heavy topics is not a bad thing. In fact, some of the most enriching classroom experiences occur when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones. However, we believe instructors should emotionally prepare their students for these conversations. We are not advocating for censorship or encouraging students to avoid difficult conversations, but rather compassion for our students and their lived experiences. We hope that you will consider using content disclosures in your classes to support your students’ learning and well-being.
Noah D. Renken, MS, is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kansas State University. His research interests center on individual difference factors related to expressions of prejudice. Renken’s recent work has examined masculine honor ideology and the manifestation of attitudes towards stigmatized events (e.g., sexual violence, trauma). Renken also works in the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University, where he collaborates with Don Saucier and Ashley Schiffer on the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) projects.
Ashley A. Schiffer, MS, is also a doctoral student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kansas State University. Her research often pertains to morality in relation to masculine honor ideology and/or military settings. Schiffer also works at Kansas State’s Teaching and Learning Center with Don Saucier and Noah Renken to promote teaching excellence and contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Donald A. Saucier, PhD, (2001, University of Vermont) is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar and professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. Saucier has published more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and is a fellow of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the Midwestern Psychological Association. His awards and honors include the University Distinguished Faculty Award for Mentoring of Undergraduate Students in Research, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Teaching Resource Prize. Saucier is also the faculty associate director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Kansas State University and offers a YouTube channel called “Engage the Sage” that describes his teaching philosophy, practices, and experiences.
Beverly, E. A., Díaz, S., Kerr, A. M., Balbo, J. T., Prokopakis, K. E., & Fredricks, T. R. (2018). Students’ perceptions of trigger warnings in medical education. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 30(1), 5-14.
Boysen, G. A. (2017). Evidence-based answers to questions about trigger warnings for clinically-based distress: A review for teachers. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 3(2), 163.
Bryce, I., Horwood, N., Cantrell, K., & Gildersleeve, J. (2022). Pulling the trigger: a systematic literature review of trigger warnings as a strategy for reducing traumatization in higher education. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 15248380221118968.
George, E., & Hovey, A. (2020). Deciphering the trigger warning debate: a qualitative analysis of online comments. Teaching in Higher Education, 25(7), 825-841.
Haidt, J., & Lukianoff, G. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin UK.
Lockhart, E. A. (2016). Why trigger warnings are beneficial, perhaps even necessary. First Amendment Studies, 50(2), 59-69.
Saucier, D. A., Jones, T. L., Schiffer, A. A., & Renken, N. D. (2022). The empathic course design perspective. Applied Economics Teaching Resources (AETR), 4(4).
Saucier, D. A., Renken, N. D., Schiffer, A. A., & Jones, T. L. (2023). Recommendations for contextualizing and facilitating class conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and social justice. Applied Economics Teaching Resources (AETR), 5(1).
Spencer, L. G., & Kulbaga, T. A. (2018). Trigger warnings as respect for student boundaries in university classrooms. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 15(1), 106-122.
Vatz, R. E. (2016). The academically destructive nature of trigger warnings. First Amendment Studies, 50(2), 51-58.
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