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Anticipating potential triggers

We recognise that it is impossible to anticipate every possible trigger for every possible disabled student. Psychiatrically, many individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder can be triggered by seemingly innocuous content. However, certain themes can absolutely be recognised as common and predictable potential triggers or sources of distress.

It is generally best practice to err on the side of caution. That is, if you suspect that certain content may be potentially sensitive, there's no harm in providing a content note. In fact, as noted in Further benefits for inclusive teaching, an additional benefit of content notes can be to indicate - to those for whom a particular discussion is purely theoretical - that their peers may have relevant experience, traumatic or otherwise, that might otherwise go unrecognised.

However, we also realise that a balance must be struck in terms of administrative load. The list under When to use content notes provides a practical reference point for ensuring that the type of content most likely to be triggering is covered.

Nevertheless, it is good practice and fosters healthy staff-student communication for academic staff to be open and willing to discuss their pedagogical practices, content notes included. Staff may wish to indicate to students that they are open to suggestions or feedback on content notes. This may also improve staff confidence in using content notes in ways that work for their students.

It is also good practice to state clearly that students can approach academic staff to communicate their individual needs relating to PTSD, as with any disability. Further necessary adjustments, such as flagging an uncommon trigger, can then be discussed on an individual basis. If any issues arise in this case, staff may wish to seem more specific guidance from the Accessibility & Disability Resource Centre.

A small number of respondents to our staff survey reported more specific worries relating to the decision of whether to flag particular content. We hope that the above helps assuage these worries, but also recognise that multiple factors may feed into considerations of what material to content note, and that these decisions may not always be simple or easy. We discuss some potential concerns below in more depth.


Making a statement through content note decisions

I'm worried that students will perceive my content notes as a definitive statement about which content merits an advance warning, and which does not.

This is a concern commonly raised by staff, but that did not arise at all in our student data. Student interviewees did not report any concerns or negative experiences where content notes were provided on their course, only where they were not. This suggests that, even if potential detriment might arise from the use of content notes in an unhelpful or inappropriate way, this risk is minimal in comparison to the detriment to students when content notes are not used at all.

In fact, students reported experiencing a positive impact on their academic engagement even when content noted material was not triggering to them:

I feel much more comfortable discussing difficult topics academically with staff who have content noted texts, regardless of whether I find those texts triggering or not. It lets me know that they are beginning from a place of good intentions, and that goes a long way.

Student interviewee, HSPS


Ideological and political biases

I'm concerned about ideological and political biases in assumptions about what content may be sensitive.

We consider it encouraging that staff are interrogating the potential impact of their own context, experience and bias on their ability to provide appropriate content notes, and understand that this represents a wish to support students as effectively as possible. While we do not imagine that these concerns should pose any significant barrier to the widespread use of content notes in the University, we also recognise that they are important concerns.

We do not deny that such biases exist, on both an individual and an institutional level, and pose a relevance to further discussion and research on content notes.

These webpages are a practical reference point which - while not claiming to be perfect, unbiased or exhaustive - provide evidence-based suggestions in direct and extensive consultation with disabled students and their representative bodies. While not eliminating the issue of potential bias, we hope that the practical guidance given here, including the list under When to use content notes, will help to minimise the impact of any such bias on the general day-to-day provision of content notes.


Next: How to present content notes