skip to content
Students working on a collaborative task at a table with pens and paper

The purpose of content notes

The purpose of content notes is often misunderstood or misrepresented. Content notes provide advance information about the content of material: this affords autonomy in how an individual chooses to approach and tackle potentially challenging material. Giving individuals warning before exposure to potentially distressing or triggering content enables them to manage their intake of this material, for example by tackling it in a particular environment, spacing exposure out over time, or employing self-help strategies while engaging.

The purpose of content notes is thus to facilitate engagement with challenging material - not to discourage it.

Without content notes, I can be thrown off and sometimes induced to dissociate by certain material, which is distressing and makes focusing on the class much more difficult. This effect is at least mitigated and sometimes entirely avoided when I'm given time to prepare and can approach the material in a more prepared and detached way. As a result, the module with the most consistent content notes in my final year was by far my highest exam mark.

Student interviewee, MMLL


Who content notes are for

The students who are most disadvantaged by the un-warned presentation of potentially distressing or triggering content are those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and similar mental health conditions.

There is a legal requirement to accommodate students with disabilities such as this in an academic setting. The number of students potentially benefiting from content notes due to PTSD alone is substantial, with one UK study finding PTSD at a rate of 12.6% in women aged 16-24.

We also believe, and our research indicates, that content notes can also benefit students with other mental health conditions, and indeed many other students.


Effects on academic attainment and wellbeing

Our research demonstrated the severe impact that a lack of content note provision can have on students with mental health conditions. Student interviewees reported negative impacts on their academic engagement and achievement, as well as on their wellbeing, where content notes were not provided. By contrast, where they were provided, positive impacts in all these areas were reported.

Enabling students to engage with their education in an informed and prepared way can thus help to minimise the negative effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions on individuals' ability to study and to engage academically on an equal footing with their peers.

Without content notes, I was forced to use an all-or-nothing approach - either attending or not attending a lecture series. With content notes, however, I am able to prepare and engage with material. Occasionally I might miss a single lecture or even a single part of one lecture, rather than missing an entire lecture series in fear of unexpected trauma material.

Student interviewee, HSPS

For further reading on the principle that unexpected exposure may be more damaging than exposure for which one has been properly prepared, we recommend these articles from various fields: human rights advocacy, sexual violence research and journalism.


Next: Post-traumatic stress disorder