What are the pedagogical and educational considerations for instructors wondering whether to provide content warnings (or “trigger warnings”) for material students will encounter in a course? This collection of resources will equip instructors with a basic understanding of issues surrounding content warnings and a variety of pedagogical approaches to keep in mind. We advocate for practices where instructors get to know their students well, offer transparency about the intellectual purpose of assignments, and help students integrate new insights during their educational journey.
Looking for more guidance, or have an example to share with your colleagues? Contact us at email@example.com
Resources on this page:
- Research and expertise on content warnings
- Sample syllabus language
- Pedagogical practices
- Related resources from the Poorvu Center
- Guidance from other CTLs
Including a content warning (or “trigger warning”) is the practice of providing notification of potential adverse emotional consequences of forthcoming content (Boysen, 2017). Recent research on the effectiveness of trigger warnings suggests they are generally not helpful for strengthening learning and growth, nor are they particularly effective at preventing trauma responses and minimizing unproductive discomfort (Sanson et al., 2019). Specifically, content warnings do not appear to be helpful for college students, and may cause small, temporary increases in anxiety (Bellet et al., 2020). Other recent studies have found that content warnings do not work for the audience they are intended for—people who have experienced trauma—and may in some instances be countertherapeutic for them (Jones et al., 2020).
Although content warnings seem to have negligible impact on affect or learning, they do increase students’ belief that they are necessary for sensitive topics (Boysen et al., 2018). Some instructors choose to use them to communicate sensitive material that exists in a course for the purposes of transparency and inclusion. A National Coalition against Censorship 2015 survey of faculty found that most instructors who use content warnings do so globally on a syllabus and not locally for specific assignments or readings, citing their belief in academic freedom and to teach their students how to engage with challenging and difficult ideas as they learn to listen, compromise, and discuss in classroom settings.
Example from a Yale University American Studies course
What is American Studies? To answer this question, we will examine several different disciplinary approaches to the study of America. From history to sociology to anthropology to art history, we will explore how scholars in various fields construct their arguments; evaluate evidence; and contribute to the field of American Studies. This class contains readings and materials that may be difficult to encounter. If at any point you have concerns about how the class materials might affect you, please do not hesitate to be in touch with me.
Example from a Harvard University Ethics course
It is impossible to teach a course on ethics of any worth, particularly one that aims to engage the world on its terms and not to retreat wholly into the realm of the abstract, that does not regularly touch upon issues that will likely prove challenging for some students. Part of our task as a class will be to learn how to discuss these topics in a productive way. A non-negotiable norm of the course will be that we strive to create a brave space to tackle these matters. Brave, however, does not mean that we will avoid difficult, troubling, upsetting, unsettling and sometimes emotionally charged topics. All care will be taken to confront these issues responsibly. Confront them, though, we must.
Example from Leland and Kulbaga (2018), Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy
A note about the readings: Authors sometimes write memoirs after surviving or witnessing abuse, assault, family violence, self-harm, military conflict, or other trauma. While these stories are moving and inspirational, they can be painful or triggering to read. Don’t hesitate to contact Counseling Services [number] at any time, or visit [website] for helpful resources, including suicide awareness and prevention, mental health, and veteran support. Self-care is strength! Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to support your learning experience in this class.
Instructors may consider the following pedagogical practices to support student learning when teaching difficult subject matter in lieu of content warnings for weekly topics, readings, and subject matter.
Convey Care for Student Well-Being
On your syllabus and your course Canvas site, direct students to the appropriate University resources, including Yale Mental Health and Counseling, resources on Title IX and Sexual Harassment, and the Poorvu Center’s Writing, Tutoring and Academic Strategies Programs.
Communicate Learning Goals Aimed at Deepening Understanding and Gaining Competence
When pursuing clear and meaningful goals and competencies, students generally persist longer when faced with difficulty in relation to subject matter of the discipline and are more willing to attempt difficult or challenging tasks such as dialogue about a complex topic. They will also use more deep-level cognitive processing strategies (Urdan & Schoenfelder, 2006).
Use Confirmation Strategies When Teaching
Confirmation strategies are ways that instructors demonstrate interest in what students have to say, acceptance and respect for students, and concern for student understanding (Ellis, 2000). Examples include listening attentively when students ask questions or make comments during class, telling students that you believe they can do well in the class, checking for understanding, and using “we” and “our” pronouns instead of “I” and “you.” Enacting these strategies consistently throughout a course will enable students and their instructor to navigate sensitive topics with more depth, empathy and understanding.
This resource will prompt you to reflect upon your role as the teacher in dealing with controversial issues in the classroom and with the challenges they raise. And, it explores concrete strategies for teaching these issues and making them positive pedagogical opportunities.
While everyone’s process towards antiracist pedagogy varies, consideration of theoretical and evidence-based practices as well as hearing from colleagues are productive complements to self-reflection. We invite you to explore a set of questions, which include teaching approaches from Yale faculty and other resources.
This framework, developed with input from Yale faculty and students, allows instructors to prioritize their well-being, their students’ well-being, and center the learning experience.
University of Michigan: An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings (PDF)
An overview including the reasoning behind warnings, a list of common topics, and suggestions for how to implement warnings.
Stanford University: Difficult Classroom Conversations
Examples from faculty sharing their classroom policies and how they communicate them with students.
Columbia University: Navigating Heated, Offensive, and Tense (HOT) Moments in the Classroom
Steps instructors can take to anticipate and navigate HOT moments before, during, and after they occur. Strategies that can be implemented in any course context.
Bellet, B. W., Jones, P. J., Meyersburg, C. A., Brenneman, M. M., Morehead, K. E., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Trigger warnings and resilience in college students: A preregistered replication and extension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 26(4), 717–723. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000270
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), 163–177. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000084
Boysen, G. A., Prieto, L. R., Holmes, J. D., Landrum, R. E., Miller, R. L., Taylor, A. K., White, J. N., & Kaiser, D. J. (2018). Trigger warnings in psychology classes: What do students think? Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(2), 69–80. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000106
Ellis, K. (2000). Perceived teacher confirmation: The development and validation of an instrument and two studies of the relationship to cognitive and affective learning. Human Communication Research, 26(2), 264–291. DOI: 10.1093/hcr/26.2.264
Jones, P. J., Bellet, B. W., & McNally, R. J. (2020). Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(5), 905–917. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702620921341
Leland G. S. & Kulbaga, T. A. 2018. Trigger warnings as respect for student boundaries in university classrooms. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 15(1), 106-122, DOI: 10.1080/15505170.2018.1438936
National Coalition against Censorship. (2015). What’s All This about Trigger Warnings [Data set]. https://ncac.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Trigger-Warning-Report-2019.pdf
Sanson, M., Strange, D., & Garry, M. (2019). Trigger Warnings Are Trivially Helpful at Reducing Negative Affect, Intrusive Thoughts, and Avoidance. Clinical Psychological Science, 7(4), 778–793. DOI: 10.1177/2167702619827018
Urdan, T., & Schoenfelder, E.N. (2006). Classroom effects on student motivation: Goal structures, social relationships, and competence beliefs. Journal of School Psychology, 44, 331-349. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2006.04.003