Teaching & ethics: A critical incident

I had the most interesting event happen a couple of days ago and I wanted to share it on this blog with the Academy community. One of my strategy students came to my office the morning after they had all handed in an assignment—a case analysis practicing basic tools such as Five Forces and SWOT. “Scott” [not his real name] told me to remove the back page of his analysis because he had largely filled it in during our class discussion, and as such it should not be evaluated as homework completed. Scott said, “I had to come see you. I fretted [he actually used that word] about it all night.” I had already graded the assignment, and had no idea he had not filled it all out as homework.


 Now, for those of you who know me, it is not often that I am at a loss for a response. After a long moment I stood up, shook his hand and genuinely thanked him for being transparent about how his work had been completed. Once he had left my office, there were a variety of aspects about that exchange that gave me pause, and I asked him if I could write about this situation for a professional association blog.

First off, I wondered what had compelled him to come to me and admit what he had done. Certainly, his personal moral compass may have been tweaked and it became for him a relatively simple situation: it was wrong, and he had to both admit it and face any consequences pursuant to his actions. My paradigm is that students come in wanting to do the right thing… but that doesn’t always happen. He’s one of only a handful of students I have had over the years to proactively admit something fishy had occurred with his work. What else might be going on?

Although my course policy states that academic honesty is the expected norm, well, we all probably have some kind of policy statement to that effect and it’s not been shown to be terribly effective at deterring dishonest student behavior. Given the magnitude and scope of academic dishonesty  , any moral suasion of having academic honesty policies should be carefully put into perspective. I have that policy, but I think my senior students encounter the policy language mindlessly and automatically, as described by Langer’s work.

Maybe it is because I knew Scott from a prior class, and our iterative relationship was meaningful to him. It’s harder to be dishonest to someone with whom you have a respectful relationship, and I both liked and trusted Scott and I am sure that came through in our interactions. Perhaps finding ways to see students more than once in our programs, more than in a semester’s course, could be a way of fostering their commitment to behaving honestly.

Maybe it is because the assignment was only worth 50 points in a course that has about 1,000 total points. What may have happened  if this assignment were worth 20% or 25%, as some assignments are? Admitting guilt on a small assignment may be easier to stomach if there were a penalty, but, we also know from the literature that smaller transgressions are easier to justify than large ones.

On the not-so-rosy side of the coin, Scott could be thinking down the road, and hoping to manage my impression of him so I will write a winning letter of recommendation for him. Maybe he is thinking of our MBA program, in which I teach, so he’s working it for later on. Maybe he knows the research that has indicated that even if I catch him, the probability that I will report him further up to administration is very much in his favor. All of those are possible, but Scott seems genuine to me, and it also seems unlikely that he has duped me this effectively for this long without my B.S. radar going off. So I am not sure that’s it, either.

It has struck me since I have been thinking about this how unwilling I am to accept that maybe it was indeed Scott’s personal moral orientation that led him to my office. I am not completely sure why I am unwilling to accept this. It may be because in every organization I have ever encountered as an employee, I have found that the situation may dramatically affect how ethically folks behave, and I am thus a devotee of the interactionist ethical decision-making model. I suppose I have a hard time with “pure” moral intent and behavior, given so many incentives to not behave well and so little probability of being caught.

And of incentives: the last musing I want to offer is considering how else to reward him. My thanks were sincere, and I am sure he realized that. Given that we know peers’ behavior is the most influential consideration in how we’ll behave, how can I alert other students to Scott’s decision to tell me? My go-to norm of publicly praising is wholly inappropriate here—“Hey everyone, guess what Scott did?” I did not penalize him on the assignment, and perhaps that is the best reinforcement. But it still seems like a golden moment, and I invite your responses.


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 “Teaching & ethics: A critical incident”

  1. Interesting occurrence Kathy… Thanks for sharing.

    From where I sit, Scott’s actions seem to be perhaps related to a relational motivation. I fully agree that increasing the contact between instructors and students provides the opportunity to improve the quality of the relationship. Therefore, I like your idea of finding ways to see students more than once in our programs. It seems that your relationship with this student was a good one which, in effect, incited a feeling of guilt when he felt that he violated an expectation that you set.

    There are many aspects of the relationship itself that may have motivated his behavior. It could have been motivated by a fear of disappointing you, a fear that you may feel some suspicion and therefore pursue and ultimately punish. Fear may have motivated him to try to nip it in the bud through admitting his actions. Either way I think that your sincere “thank you” is reward enough for Scott. How can we encourage this sort of behavior? My thinking around this is to improve trust in the classroom. To build trust, establishing multiple channels of communication for sharing stories is important as is genuinely listening and responding. Perhaps with trust and ultimately with better teacher-student relationships we can encourage our students (and ourselves) to share when they we have made a mistake.


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