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” (Bryce et al., 2022). 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), and helping students make informed choices about their selected courses (Bryce et al., 2022). 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 reinforce students’ traumatic experiences and inadvertently induce more stress (e.g., Boysen, 2017).
How to Provide Content Disclosures
There are many ways that you can make it clear that your course will cover sensitive content, including:
- Syllabus statement (see example below)
- Course descriptions
- Canvas course page warnings
- Email warnings
- In-class warnings
Example Syllabus Statement
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 you distress, 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:
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., CAPS, CARE).
- Create a safer learning environment through open discussion.
- Scaffold discussions 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
- Ask them how they are doing, ask them if they need a break, acknowledge that content is emotionally challenging
This information is also summarized in a Faculty Focus piece written by the TLC Team: "Using Content Disclosures in Our Courses" (Renken, Schiffer, & Saucier, 2023).