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Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning

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Q. Are content notes just a way for students to avoid being challenged in their education?

The purpose of content notes is to facilitate engagement with challenging material, rather than to encourage disengagement.

Content notes inform students of the content of a given piece of material, not to mark it as "do not read", but instead to enable students to take the necessary steps to engage safely and with minimal psychological distress.

It should also be noted that there is a difference between 'psychological distress' and being intellectually challenged, and that the former is certainly not a prerequisite to the latter. Students are best prepared to deal with intellectually challenging material when they are enabled to manage any emotional / psychological distress that such material may provoke.

For further information, see Why use content notes? and Post-traumatic stress disorder.

Arguments against the use of content notes tend to employ a rhetoric of "snowflake students" wanting to be protected and coddled from the harsh realities of life. In fact, the issue for many students is precisely that they are already well acquainted with those realities; triggering content reflects traumatic events they themselves have experienced.

Content notes are not intended to 'coddle' privileged students insulated from violence. They help to equip students who have experienced violence to engage with their education on an equal footing, rather than exposing them to triggers without warning or preparation which may make them relive their own experiences of such realities.

Q. Are content notes insulting to students' intellectual autonomy?

Some respondents to our staff survey expressed a concern that content notes communicate a lack of respect on the part of the University for students' "intellectual autonomy". On the contrary, however, our student interviewees reported that content notes had the opposite effect: students felt more respected when their experiences - and pedagogical needs arising from those experiences - were recognised.

This guidance is the product of a research project undertaken by current University students, and has undergone extensive consultation with disabled students and their representative bodies. The evidence thus suggests that using content notes is perceived as demonstrating respect for, rather than lack of respect for, the intellectual autonomy of disabled students as it relates to pedagogical practice.

For further reading, we recommend this article by Nottingham University lecturer Dr Onni Gust.

Q. Do content notes negatively impact academic freedom?

We believe that the notion that content notes impact negatively on the academic freedom of staff or students arises from a misconception as to the purpose of content notes. As outlined in Why use content notes?, the purpose is not to suppress particular content or to discourage engagement. On the contrary, content notes are intended to facilitate engagement with challenging content, and to enable students to prepare themselves as needed to discuss difficult issues.

There is no reason that providing content notes, or any other reasonable adjustment for disabled students, should limit the content that can be presented or discussed in the classroom.

In fact, students who benefit from content notes will be better equipped to discuss challenging material if content notes are provided, thus resulting in a positive impact on academic freedom and intellectual rigour, by ensuring that all students - particularly those most affected by the issues being discussed - are able to participate on a more equal footing.

Staff may also feel more confident in presenting and discussing more challenging material when content notes have been provided. The students we interviewed reported that when contents were provided they were more able to partake in discussion in an active manner, and even to bring their own traumatic experiences into the discussion in a productive way.

By contrast, when content notes were not provided for challenging material, students reported a negative impact on attendance and engagement not only for themselves, but sometimes the wider cohort as well. See the Mutual Respect section.

Q. What about 'controlled exposure' for PTSD?

A common argument against content notes is that those with PTSD should be seeking to confront their triggers rather than avoiding triggering material. However, this argument rests on a misconception as to the purpose of content notes. As discussed, content notes are intended to facilitate engagement with challenging material, not to encourage disengagement.

Students with PTSD can thus benefit from content notes as a tool to help them practise controlled exposure to triggering material, if this is something they have been advised to do by healthcare professionals.

Q. What's the difference between a content note and a trigger warning?

Content notes are sometimes referred to as "content warnings" or "trigger warnings". This guidance uses "content notes" as a more neutral, descriptive term which makes space for discussing the wider benefits of content notes in addition to helping prevent clinically "triggering" experiences. See Further benefits for inclusive teaching.

This term also helps to avoid unnecessary alarmism, particularly that which can arise due to the cultural connotations sometimes attached to the word "trigger". Our examples in How to present content notes suggest the format "Content note: [insert]" for general use.

However, we don't want to be unnecessarily prescriptive; feel free to use whatever language you feel is appropriate. This may include more generalised language such as 'synopsis' or 'themes' - see Alternative methods. The important thing is to provide them.