The Teaching ETHICIST: Beyond course content

I am delighted to engage the Academy community in discussion about the myriad ways ethics may be manifested in our teaching responsibilities. While I have a long list of topics I am eager to put out in this blog column for your input, let me echo Lorraine Eden’s introductory invitation for you, the Academy member, to send me topics you’d like to see in discussion.

What do the following have in common?

  • Grading student work fairly and consistently
  • Taking into account for final grades some ‘outlier’ student life experience or individual student need, such as a mid-semester baby birth or care of a sick parent or sibling
  • Discovering that a student has disclosed private or inappropriate information to others in an online discussion
  • Considering extreme consequences of students’ earning failing grades, such as with international students being deported if they fail a course


You guessed it—all of these issues represent some kind of ethical judgment that we routinely have to make as instructors. There is a distinction that I will make that will set the stage for this blog.

There has been enormous energy around “teaching ethics” as a disciplinary arena. Teaching ethics involves ethical content instruction, and is frequently manifested as a stand-alone business ethics course within either undergraduate or MBA curricula. Distinctively, although not mutually exclusively, is “ethics in teaching.” This is a process-oriented topic and spans any course or format within the business school. Indeed, ethics in teaching is relevant to any instruction environment—what are we communicating with respect to ethics when we teach per se? Do the teaching methods, student management practices, student information management practices, and course management policies we employ treat students ethically?  It is in this latter domain, ‘ethics in teaching’ that I’d like to continue our conversation for this blog.

Many years ago, Trevino and McCabe set a holistic standard of business school ethics practice, particularly with instructors modelling behaviours they expected students to display. If we are habitually 15 minutes late to begin class, or treat a student problem dismissively, or post inappropriately to an online chat, we are signalling a norm of behaviour that no ethics or professionalism policy on a syllabus can counteract. Recent discussions about ethics in teaching involve potential perils of experiential learning as well as reflections on the dissonance created when students are presented with unwelcome ideology.  For example, field observation offers invaluable insights, but may also come with correlative negative impacts on students’ subsequent evaluations of ‘others,’ including incarcerated youth or mental health patients. There are ethical issues surrounding our use of deeply embedded and accepted pedagogies. They’ve been around so long, we rarely re-consider them in new light.

And, while college learning should involve exposure to new and potentially disruptive ideas, some scholars ask us to be present to our assumptions that a liberal learning environment is always a good thing. Some students may simply not be ready to integrate ideas that directly challenge their core belief systems, and therefore, challenge their very identity. Classroom activities and discussions themselves can be identity-threatening triggers that may do harm before any good. It becomes an ethical consideration when we present our ideology as ‘good’ information when students will likely encounter such ideas as hostile to their personal sense of self.

Issues surrounding ethics in teaching are ubiquitous, and may be encountered both in and out of the classroom. The Academy offers us a well-delineated ethics statement, but what about ethics in action?

That’s where this blog comes in!

Let me offer you a couple of scenarios for you to consider and comment on—what would you do if you encountered these issues? What are the ethical issue(s) in each case?

The tough exam giver”

You are a professor in management at Large State University and are well respected for your teaching rigor. Your exams routinely engender between 30% and 50% failure rate and your reputation as a difficult instructor is well-established. One of the key reasons you administer such difficult exams is to encourage weaker performing students to drop out of your course early, letting better performing students have more attention.

Susanne passed your first exam by only a few points, and has now failed your second exam. She must pass your class to graduate, which she is planning on doing next semester. She has come to your office to discuss her performance with you, and to seek advice. What do you advise her to do?

“Too much of a good thing”

Students have come to greatly appreciate your classroom style, which is discussion-based rather than lecture-based. Students are encouraged to verbally participate in and are rewarded for adding thoughtful comments to the discussion. You have no plans to change your teaching to a more monological style.

Kyle is a very bright, energetic student in your class who frequently does outside reading on course topics. As such he feels compelled to respond to every question you pose, and he raises his hand for every discussion opportunity. While he does usually add something interesting to the conversation, he also has a tendency to lecture his classmates, and go off on tangents that monopolize class time. You do not want to quell his engagement, but you’re noticing very negative body language from his peers. You also received specific comments about Kyle’s endless talking on the midterm evaluation, asking you to get other opinions during discussions. How do you handle Kyle?

Teaching is, at its heart, an ethical endeavor. Tune in next quarter when I’ll have a discussion about the ethics in teaching Professional Development Workshop I co-facilitated in San Antonio. I invite your comments and insights!

I appreciate all the valuable input from the Ethics Education Committee members, David Kaplan, and Sarah Wright.


Author: Kathy Lund Dean

I have been a member of the Academy for 15 years, and served in several governance roles including the Chair track for MSR. At Gustavus Adolphus College I hold the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair in Leadership & Ethics. My family and I moved to St. Peter after 10 years in Pocatello, Idaho at Idaho State University.

One thought on “The Teaching ETHICIST: Beyond course content”

  1. Just yesterday I faced the dynamic of early disengagement in day two of my course and already the gloves were off the students. While frustrated with aggressive student confrontation so early, I consulted a peer about this student. Through this discussion with my colleague I was able to move beyond “blame” and into re-engagement strategies. I appreciate this column and the links to the articles today as it gives me language and models to bring right back to the classroom next week.

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