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Discussing Using Content Notes to Encourage Independent Learning

In this week’s MicroCPD, Dr Sophie Hatchwell (Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies) discusses the benefits of using content notes when incorporating challenging source material into teaching and to encourage independent learning.

Content Notes scaffold students’ critical engagement with challenging source material by framing it within an appropriate academic context. Used in tandem with other inclusive teaching methods, they can help students to take control of their own learning.

Effective Content Notes do three things:

  1. Outline the sort of material students will encounter, enabling them to prepare appropriately and come to class ready to engage
  2. Present a rationale for why such material is useful for study, situating it within a clear academic context
  3. Provide an appropriate alternative for students who may find the material particularly difficult, and signpost further institutional pastoral provision.

Why use Content Notes

Feminist and Historical pedagogy contends that studying challenging material can help students to develop critical analysis skills (Zembylas, 2006; Marciniak, 2010; Rodier et al, 2013). Concurrently, there is a recognition that such material can be difficult to encounter, both emotionally and intellectually, and has the potential to be ‘triggering’ for some learners (Dufree and Rosenberg, 2009; Marciniak, 2010; Rodier et al, 2013). In the visual arts, this may even be an intended function of the material in question (Sontag, 2002; Mitchell, 2011).

Linking challenging material to core subject-appropriate themes and concepts helps students to root their engagement with such material in a specific academic framework (Rodier et al 2013). A Content Note provides an initial means by which to do this. Crucially, this happens before any encounter with material in a classroom setting, giving students responsibility and agency for how they engage with sources. Acknowledging that some material can be particularly difficult for some students, Content Notes can also signpost to further support. They thus acknowledge the lecturer’s duty of care, but signal that complex pastoral support lies beyond their purview (Harrop, 2015). A Content Note does not censor. Instead, it encourages the lecturer to articulate a clear pedagogic reason for why challenging material should be studied, framing in an appropriate analytic context.

When using Content Notes, most recently in a 2021-22 class about visual art and witnessing, I asked students to evaluate how useful they found them. Students reported that Content Notes enabled them to participate fully in class (82% agreed), and that such teaching methods helped them to learn (100% agreed). Some further commented that they feel ‘it is important to know how to approach this sort of [challenging] material and form educational discussions around it’. Another stated they can now approach difficult material ‘think[ing] critically, without relying on my emotions’.

Therapizing the classroom?

Content Notes offer a semantic alternative to “trigger warnings”, which are a point of contention for scholars (see Lukianoff and Haidnt, 2015; Johnson, 2014; Joyrich, 2019). Proponents of “trigger warnings” argue that they provide students with the space to prepare emotionally to encounter challenging material and prevent it ‘hijacking attention’ in class (Johnson, 2014). Detractors argue that they are ineffective in preventing students from becoming distressed by challenging material (Jones at al, 2020), and that they undermine the independence of students by ‘mollycoddling’ (Lukainoff and Haidt, 2015).

The term is problematic because it presumes (without evidence) that students will have a particular prescribed response to challenging material, yet lecturers’ perceptions of what is (potentially) triggering may be very different from that of students; this raises the potential for lecturers to perpetuate biases and inequalities. Further, “trigger warnings” risk framing material within an unhelpful emotive context: the rationale for teaching challenging material is not to provoke or supress emotional responses (although we recognise this may occur). Instead, it is to promote appropriate critical analysis and discussion. The ‘Content Note’ offers a way to do this, while avoiding the prescriptive connotations of “trigger warnings”.

Exemplar Content Note

Please note that this class will feature material including [detail content here].

I acknowledge that such material can be difficult to look at. However, it's important to look at this material because it will help us think about [state your pedagogic reasoning here], which is a central topic for this class.

If you feel you are not able to look at and discuss this material, you are free to absent yourself. Please note that it will nevertheless be your responsibility to catch up by considering any set questions or topics covered in the class, with reference to alternative appropriate sources. You should consult with the lecturer if you require further guidance. Further pastoral support can be access here [link to institutional pastoral guidance].

Further reading/further resources

Dufree, Alesha, Rosenberg, Karen (2009) ‘Teaching Sensitive Issues: Feminist Pedagogy and the Practice of Advocacy-Based Counselling’, Feminist Teacher, 19(2): 103-121.

Harrop, Gillian (2015) ‘Does this lecture come with a trigger warning: the Challenge of Teaching Sensitive Topics’, University of Worcester

Johnson, Angus (2014) ‘Why I’ll add a Trigger Warning’, Inside Higher Ed.

Jones, P, Bellet, B and McNally, R (2020), ‘Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories’, Clinical Phsycholgical Science, 7(4): 905-917.

Joyrich, Lynne, ‘Trigger warning’ (2019), differences, 30:1, 189–196.

Lukainoff, Greg, and Haidt, Jonathan (2015) ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ .

Marciniak, Katarzyna (2010) ‘Pedagogy of Anxiety’, Signs 35(4): 869-892.

Mitchell, WJT (2011) Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rodier, Kristin, Meagher, Michelle, Nixon, Randelle (2013), ‘Teaching Note: Cultivating a Critical Classroom for Viewing Gendered Violence in Music Video’, Feminist Teacher, 23(1): 63-70.

Sontag, Susan (2002) ‘Looking at War: Photography’s view of Devastation and Death’, The New Yorker, 82-98.

Zembylas, Michalinos (2006) ‘Witnessing in the Classroom: the Ethics and Politics of Affect’, Educational Theory, 56(3): 305-322.


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