Navigating Ethical Waters in the College Classroom

Student in lecture hall

Should teachers strike?
How should government balance privacy rights with national security?
Should companies value their shareholders over the environment?
How quickly should a software company fix a known bug?

Regardless of discipline, faculty are faced with ethical issues in our classes around a variety of sensitive topics, and students will question the ethics of certain practices or topics in our field. As trained academics, we are not always comfortable having discussions where there is no clear right or wrong answer or talking about ethical areas in which we do not feel we are experts. So, how do you respond to students who really want to know “the answer” to these types of questions?

Many disciplines respond by requiring ethics courses in the major. While these courses are valuable, the issues covered often do not transfer when students are faced with real issues in the real world. Talking about the ethics of stem cells and being in a lab that uses stem cells are two entirely different contexts. The current “wanted and watched” generation has a learned reliance on adult authority and direction to help them solve their problems.

While we can debate the role of ethics in our classes and discuss whether it’s even our responsibility to teach ethics, the reality is we are asked to do that every semester. We would better serve our students to engage in these challenging discussions during the “teachable” moment than ignore them.

One way to help students wrestle with these ethical dilemmas, without declaring what we would do, is to teach them ethical inquiry when you come across a discipline issue that raises ethical questions. If our goal is to help students respond in a compassionate, sensitive way to important issues, we need to show them how to think through questions where there are no clear-cut answers. There are many forms of ethical inquiry we can use to guide students, but they all have common components.

  1. Awareness – The first step is being aware of what is an ethical issue. Knowing that you shouldn’t cheat on a test is easy, but deciding whether to turn in a classmate is not easy. Ethical issues are the ones that make us stay up at night. Helping students clearly articulate the ethical issues in your discipline is important. During a discussion in my education class on whether or not teachers should strike, the class realized that the ethical issue was fairness and equity, both for the teachers and their students. This framed the discussion that followed.
  2. Identifying the Stakeholders – An important and often-overlooked step to an ethics discussion is having students map out who will be affected by their decision. Again, in our discussion on teacher strikes, the students ended up creating an elaborate stakeholder map that illustrated how the issue went beyond just the students and teachers to also affect the administration, community, and families of everyone involved. It was quite an eye-opening exercise for them!
  3. Resources – Students are often unaware that many professions have their own are codes of conduct. They are so busy learning the content that thinking about the ethical issues of the discipline is just not on their minds. Encourage students to investigate the ethical standards and guidelines that may govern their future profession, and then use those resources to help inform their decision-making process.
  4. Identifying Multiple Solutions – Students tend to think there is just one right answer to an ethical dilemma, but there is usually more than one solution. Students started calling this the third option. They would ask each other “what’s your third option” in each case that arose.
  5. Reflection – Perhaps the most important part of ethical inquiry is reflection. Reflection on their own value system and understanding where it came from, reflection on the process of ethical inquiry, and reflection on identifying their biases and uncovering and/or validating their assumptions.
  6. Deciding the Course of Action – Having students review the pros and cons of each of the possible solutions and then choose the one that most closely matches their belief system can help them learn to make choices that are right for them rather than spend their efforts trying to figure out what they think the teacher wants. In our teacher strike scenario, some students chose to strike and others did not, but ALL were comfortable with their choice and understood why they made it and the consequences of taking the action they chose.

Giving students the gift of ethical inquiry allows us to do the work we signed up for—helping students grow, mature, and use critical thinking and evidence to make decisions and function in the world.

Cohen, P.S., M. McDaniels & D.M. Qualters (2005). Air Model: A Tool for Cultivating Reflective Ethical Inquiry, College Teaching (53) 3. 120-127.

Ethics Resource Center:

Landrum, R.E. & M.A. McCarthy (2012) Teaching Ethically: Challenges and Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Strike, K. & J. Soltis (2004) The Ethics of Teaching. NY, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dr. Donna M. Qualters is the director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at Tufts University.