Fostering Student Ethical Development as Part of the Curriculum

Chalkboard with ethical words fosters student development
  • A state worker fabricates laboratory test results that can lead to false criminal convictions
  • A restaurant inspector disregards health code violations
  • Someone tampers with sports equipment used during a match
  • A health care worker leaks medical information regarding a public figure

Ethical issues arise frequently, in every profession and aspect of life. An individual’s decisions and actions (or inactions) can lead to serious consequences.  How can students learn to deal thoughtfully with situations they will face?

As part of the educational process, faculty and departments have the opportunity—arguably the responsibility—to help students develop skills in ethical reasoning and decision-making. By fostering awareness of concerns and challenges, resources, and alternative responses, institutions can empower learners to make conscious, informed decisions.

There are a number of venues through which institutions can promote student ethical development. These sessions may be conducted in person or online. Among the contexts one may use for addressing this topic are entire courses focused on ethics, lessons within a larger course, and training sessions for student leadership roles or positions.  I have utilized all three settings to encourage student exploration of ethical behavior.

A Course Dedicated to Ethics

Complete courses on ethics can be connected to a particular project, such as service-learning or practica. Northeastern University has offered a one-credit Ethical Awareness on Co-op elective for students in pre-professional internships.

The blended class I taught met in person at three points throughout the term; the remainder of the course took place in asynchronous online discussions. Based on the Awareness-Investigate-Respond (AIR) model (Cohen, McDaniels, & Qualters, 2005), the target learning outcomes included students’ ability to identify ethical issues at placement sites; research, reflect on, and analyze a matter of interest related to their placements; and consider alternative next steps or actions. In addition to defining ethical concerns, participants confidentially shared observations from their sites, determined stakeholders, analyzed videos of entry-level workers dealing with predicaments, and sought resources such as professional codes of conduct.

The class culminated with capstone projects that depicted the learners’ journey regarding a particular ethical matter at their sites. Interns examined key issues, determined who and what could be impacted by the situation, explored their own learning in the process, concluded the value and challenges of going through these steps, and finally, delved into how this course prepared them for their careers.

Each student determined the format for their individual project. Some submitted traditional papers, while others presented the information in creative and visual formats, such as a board game that took players through the steps involved in researching a particular issue, or an illustrated book where each page led the reader deeper into a situation.

Lessons on ethics within a larger course

Faculty can challenge students to grapple with ethical issues throughout a particular course. Or they may devote particular lessons to these matters. In my Organizational Psychology class, students were invited to raise and question ethical aspects of all topics under discussion, including the hiring process, job training, motivating employees, and providing performance feedback. Through cases, news clips, and films depicting various situations, students identified core issues, potential ramifications, resources, and options for next steps. Learners led discussions on current events related to organizational matters, identifying ethical components. We also devoted a week to examining conditions, considerations, and potential consequences associated with deciding whether to be a whistle-blower.

Workshops that prepare students for specific roles

Training sessions that prepare students to assume particular responsibilities, such as Resident Assistants and Tutors, offer opportunities to highlight ethical matters that may arise, as well as expectations for handling these concerns. I conducted Teaching Assistant training that addressed ethical quandaries these individuals were likely to face while supervising laboratory work or holding recitation sessions. Through discussions of specific predicaments they were likely to face, participants considered issues such as grading assignments, maintaining suitable boundaries when interacting with their students, and using appropriate humor while teaching (Diamond, 2002).

Common components of the lessons

In all of these settings, students were encouraged to:

  • Note ethical issues and quandaries they may encounter
  • Analyze specific situations, including organizational values and stakeholders
  • Reflect on and share initial reactions to gain awareness of varying perspectives and experiences regarding the concern at hand
  • Determine and utilize resources that support decision-making
  • Generate a number of possible responses and discern potential implications of each

In going through these steps, learners realized how seemingly simple circumstances warrant thoughtful action on their part.

By being intentional about discussing ethics with our students, educators can help them become more cognizant, skilled, and empowered to deal with ethical matters they will face in their professions and other areas of their lives. As a result, learners can develop an appreciation of considerations, resources, and guidelines available to help them make mature, productive, and ethical decisions.

Join Miriam Rosalyn Diamond on July 23 for a live online seminar, Preparing Students for Thoughtful, Ethical Decision Making. During the program faculty will learn how to provide students with skills to identify and contend with ethical matters in specific professions, civic life, and as part of the educational process.

Miriam Rosalyn Diamond is a faculty developer who has led courses and lessons on ethics for students as well as educators. Diamond holds a PhD in educational processes from Northwestern University, an MA in counseling psychology from Lesley University, and a BSc in rehabilitation/counseling from Boston University.


Cohen, P., McDaniels, M., &  Qualters, D. M. (2005). Air Model: A Teaching Tool for Cultivating Reflective Ethical Inquiry. College Teaching53(3), 120-127.

Diamond, M.R. (2002). Preparing TAs to Respond to Ethical Dilemmas. In W. Davis, J. Smith,  R. Smith (Eds.). Ready to Teach: Graduate Teaching Assistants Prepare for Today and Tomorrow. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press Inc. 47-50.