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Content Warnings

​Content warnings precede and flag sensitive themes and content. Content warnings are sometimes represented by the acronym CW, and might also be referred to as content notices, content notes, or advisory warnings. Some prefer to use the framework of “informing” rather than “warning.” Choose a label that best fits with your teaching and courses. 

Trigger warnings are a more specific type of content warning that alert people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other disorders to content that can cause intense emotional, physical, and mental symptoms. As researchers describe, “The concept of ‘triggering’ describes the re-experiencing of unpleasant PTSD symptoms such as intrusive thoughts being evoked by exposure to materials which spark traumatic memories.” 

Reasons to Use Content Notes and Trigger Warnings 

Content notes are not meant to censor faculty or excuse students from engaging with difficult course material. Instead, content notes help students to prepare and care for their health. When students are aware of difficult or triggering content ahead of time, they may be able to take necessary steps to support their mental and physical health that will allow them to more effectively participate and engage with course material. Still, sometimes, students may need to skip part of a class to balance their well-being with their learning; this has always been true, regardless of content or trigger warnings. 

Ongoing Debates about Content Notes and Trigger Warnings in Higher Education 

The debate about content notes and trigger warnings is complex and overlaps with many contentious subjects, including academic freedom, censorship, mental health support, and trauma-informed teaching. To further engage with the debate, see the following texts:

Types of Content Notes and Trigger Warnings

Content Notes Examples 

Researchers categorize content warnings or notes into three broad categories: 

  • Explicit Warnings: Direct statements about specific content (e.g., violence, sexual content).
  • Thematic Warnings: General warnings about themes rather than specific events (e.g., war, discrimination).
  • Guidance-Oriented Warnings: Providing students with resources or coping strategies alongside the warning.
It won’t be possible to identify all possible triggers, but making an effort to identify some difficult content, themes, and effects can help you to build trust with students and may make students more comfortable reaching out to discuss their unique needs and concerns. The content notes your students request are the most important to include. Keep notes about requests and use those to guide your decisions about how to preview or flag content in the future.  

Some examples of the content and themes you might call out for students include genocide, transphobia, miscarriage and abortion, eating disorders, animal cruelty, racial slurs, drug abuse, self-harm and suicide, child abuse, and relationship violence. 

Because of the relationship between trigger warnings and PTSD, triggers can include things beyond content and themes. For example, visual effects (such as flashing lights), graphic images, smells, and sounds can trigger a trauma response. 

Syllabus Content Notes and Trigger Warnings 

The syllabus is a great place to start building a welcoming classroom environment and to provide information about how difficult or challenging content will be addressed. Here are some examples of how to integrate content notes into your syllabus: 
  • If you have concerns about encountering anything specific in the course material that I have not already identified and would like me to provide warnings, please come see me or send me an email. I will do my best to flag any requested types of content for you in advance. (University of Wisconsin-Madison University Health Services
  • This course will occasionally cover topics that some may find distressing, such as [list of topics]. If you have concerns, please contact me to discuss them.
  • This course may include readings, media, and discussion around topics such as sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, physical violence, and identity-based discrimination and harassment. I acknowledge that it may be difficult to engage with this content. I also encourage you to care for your safety and well-being. (University of Wisconsin-Madison University Health Services
See The Syllabus, The First Day, and Inclusive Teaching for other ideas to help create a welcoming foundation for your classes.

Additional Methods for Integrating Content Notes and Trigger Warnings 

The following methods will help you to inform students about upcoming subject matter. 

Warnings in the course schedule help students to look ahead and prepare. Building specific descriptions of content addressed in your classes may also have the added benefit of helping students see connections between topics and themes. Give students some specific instructions for how they can talk with you about any concerns, such as a First Day Survey or office hours. 

Choose a strategy for setting up sensitive content: a verbal reminder, a note on the board/screen, a note in the chat, or a note within the course materials. Then, provide students a short break so they have time to check in with you if needed.

You can keep it simple: “Let’s take a break before we discuss [insert sensitive topic].”

The tips in Facilitating Difficult Discussions may also be helpful.

Send or post a brief note to students about the upcoming material. In asynchronous courses, this method works well before a module or week begins. 

Frame the content with a brief warning and provide additional context for the texts you’ve assigned. This is also a great way to relate the assigned materials back to your course goals and learning outcomes. 

This can be facilitated during synchronous or asynchronous small or large group discussions, or individually with free writing. Through these activities, students can begin exploring difficult content or themes. As a bonus, you’ll be providing students opportunities to transfer prior knowledge.