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Online survey given to psychology students over e-mail

Student survey explores the value of trigger warnings in psychology classes

Psychology students are being encouraged to take an online survey regarding the use of trigger warnings in the classroom, as part of a larger nationwide study.

The survey asks students to give their opinions on whether trigger warnings should be used in psychology classes. It will be open until April 8, and has already gotten about 150 student responses, according to psychology professor Eric Landrum, who is overseeing the project.

Trigger warnings are notices given to students—either spoken or written—when a class is about to cover a topic which might be personally distressing or damaging, based on an individual’s personal experience. The survey is examining the debate over whether these warnings are helpful for accommodating certain students or hurtful in keeping the class from studying difficult topics. 

“I’m helping some researchers nationally do a multi-site study to look at trigger warnings in psychology classes. It’s to help researchers understand what situation students think trigger warnings should occur. What types of topics do you think might be helpful to have a trigger warning? Are trigger warnings harmful? Does it actually shy away students from having a conversation they might actually benefit from?” Landrum said.

Senior psychology major Megan Devaney took the survey and expressed support for warning  students prior to  the introduction of distressing  issues, but also acknowledged some difficult issues  need to be discussed in psychology for educational purposes.

“There is a lot of controversy around trigger warnings,” Devaney said. “It’s important to give a heads up in either an informal or formal way to students to let them know there might be difficult content in the course, while at the same time, not avoiding certain topics—especially in a field like psychology.”

Around campus, students have had varying opinions as to the balance of maintaining academic goals, and catering to the needs of some individuals. Hannah Anderson, a junior political science major, showed support for implementing trigger warnings in the classroom.

“It’s important, because different students have different mental illnesses or situations,” Anderson said. “It’s important to warn students about (sensitive topics) and for them to have their own choice about whether they want to stay and learn or not. They’re paying for their education—it’s their choice.”

Colin Shillingburg, a sophomore kinesiology major, didn’t have a problem with professors giving a heads up if sensitive topics were to be discussed, but also stressed the academic importance of learning tough topics.

“(Sensitive topics) should be taught in psychology classes, because it’s a course (where) you’re learning about things that can be difficult to talk about. If you try to make everyone happy by taking out certain sensitivities, you’re going to take away a lot of the educational value,” Shillingburg said. “The teacher might say, ‘We’re going to be talking about this if anyone needs to be dismissed,’ but That should be it, and the course should continue.”

Devaney believed in a compromise between the two viewpoints of using trigger warnings and covering controversial topics. She expressed support for teaching difficult topics in psychology, while offering an alternative assignment on the topic for students who might not be comfortable with discussing it in class.

“There are a lot of other situations that (are) better (for) a student, don’t have any trigger warnings (and) professors are more than willing to work around,” Devaney said. “Going and talking with a professor should be reasonable from both an academic standard, as well as a content standard.”

Landrum also stressed the importance of communicating with professors to work out alternative assignments. While he wasn’t sure specific topics could be replaced, the way in which students studied them could.

“I would encourage (students) to come by my office and talk about it personally,” Landrum said.

“I’m not sure you can really substitute content, but you can change the way the topic is discussed.”

Landrum couldn’t say exactly what would happen when the results were published or if any policies would come out of the study. He said this survey is mostly a fact-finding mission.

“Once you publish a paper, you don’t know what other people are going to do with this. Other people could look at the results and make policies. I think it will be good to know (the) prevalence and frequency (of trigger warnings),” Landrum said.