HETL Global Communities

HETL Review

Facilitating the Development of Integrity and Ethical Practice via the Higher Education Classroom

June 11, 2017 in Volume 7

HETL Note: 

In this academic article, Drs Jane Mummery and Marnie Nolton discuss how educators can develop in students transferable skills (e.g., integrity and tolerance) in ethical decision-making utilizing discourse analysis research method.

Author Bios:

Jane Mummery is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy in the Faculty of Education and Arts at Federation University Australia, with an interest in the pedagogies for teaching ethical awareness, critical thinking, philosophy and theory. She has received an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning in 2009 for her development in a regional university of a vibrant community in philosophy that facilitates student development as critical thinkers and inspires further study in philosophy. She is also the author of The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-Metaphysical Ethics (Peter Lang, 2005), Understanding Feminism (with Peta Bowden, Routledge, 2009), Radicalizing Democracy for the Twenty-first Century (Routledge, 2017), and Digital Culture and Activism in Australia (with Debbie Rodan, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, forthcoming).

Marnie Nolton is a Learning Designer at Murdoch University, Australia, and has worked extensively for both the Australian Computing Society as an online facilitator, and at numerous Australian universities teaching into foundation skills programs and into philosophy and critical theory. She has interests and has published in the pedagogies for teaching ethical awareness, critical thinking, and philosophy, as well as in the development of graduate attributes and generic skills.

 

Facilitating the development of integrity and ethical practice via the higher education classroom

Jane Mummery

Federation University, Australia

Marnie Nolton

Murdoch University, Australia

 

Abstract

There is agreement between national governments, employers, teaching practitioners and researchers that one of the foundational objectives of higher education is to teach not only higher order knowledge but key generic, transferable or employability skills, with such skills seen as essential in allowing graduates to make the transition between the worlds of learning and work (Simatele, 2015). These skills have been variously defined, but lists typically include those relevant for professional environments, and for participation in the community as an engaged citizen. This paper describes how transferable skills in ethical decision-making and practice, as well as the personal attributes of integrity and tolerance, can be developed within the classroom. It is based on the review of three courses, one taught to undergraduate students and the others to graduate students. The first, an applied ethics course, is available to students from across multiple programs. The graduate courses are both framed with regards to professional ethical development requirements, one addressing pre-service teachers and the other graduates in the information and communication technologies sectors. Under discursive examination here are modes of teaching and presentation of curricula, as well as students’ own beliefs regarding their development as ethical thinkers. Our discussion of student beliefs and their evaluation of our teaching practices will be based upon a variety of self-reporting mechanisms active during course delivery between 2012 and 2015: formal and informal qualitative feedback received from course and teaching evaluations, unsolicited correspondence and feedback received from students, as well as self-reports collected annually.

 

Keywords: Transferable skills, personal attributes, ethical practice, student beliefs, discourse analysis.

 

Introduction

To be successful in the workplace, graduates must acquire generic transferable skills that enable them to fully utilize their discipline-specific knowledge and technical capabilities. These skills have been variously defined, but lists typically include: logical and analytical reasoning, problem-solving, effective communication skills, and teamwork skills, as well as personal attributes such as imagination, ethical practice, integrity and tolerance (e.g. Barrie, Hughes & Smith, 2009; de la Harpe, David, Dalton, Thomas & Girardi, 2009; Hager, Holland & Beckett, 2002). More broadly such lists are oriented towards student development for not only professional environments, but also for participation in the community as an engaged citizen. As is stated by Sin and Reid (2005; cf. Clanchy & Ballard, 1995), however, and also evident throughout the literature regarding these dual aims, a key weakness is “vagueness in the conception” of these skills and attributes. Barrie (2004; 2002) also reports on a lack of shared understanding of when and how to integrate and develop such skills and attributes in the curriculum and classroom, and some teaching staff in higher education institutions may not perceive the development of such skills and attributes to be part of their teaching obligation (Bennett, Richardson & MacKinnon, 2015; Moalosi, Oladiran & Uziak, 2012). Personal attributes prove particularly challenging to teach, with questions arising with specific regards to the identification and recognition of success. It is this challenge that this paper addresses.

More specifically, this paper describes how transferable skills in ethical decision-making and practice, as well as the associated personal attributes of integrity and tolerance, can be developed and promoted within classroom settings. Divided into three main sections, the first part details some of the main understandings of generic skills and graduate attributes as expressed in the literature, along with key challenges in teaching to these domains. The second section outlines the main contexts for our discussion: the courses under consideration and associated teaching practices, along with some elaboration of the discourse analysis framework that has informed our consideration of student beliefs regarding the work of these courses. The final section unpacks the findings of this discourse analysis: the major sets of beliefs which students express regarding their development of ethically oriented attributes.

Sections two and three are based on the review of three courses, one taught to undergraduate students and the others to graduate students. The undergraduate course is a general applied ethics course that is available to students from across multiple programs, with each program counting successful completion of the course as contributing towards student development of ethical attributes and skills. The graduate courses are both framed with regards to professional ethical development requirements, one addressing pre-service teachers and the other graduates in the information and communication technologies sectors. Under examination with regards to each of these courses are their modes of teaching and presentation of curricula, as well as forms of assessment. As noted above, our aim is also to engage a discourse analysis to present another side to the story: students’ own beliefs regarding their development as ethical thinkers. Our discussion of student beliefs and their evaluation of our teaching practices will be based upon a variety of self-reporting mechanisms active during course delivery between 2012 and 2015: formal and informal qualitative feedback received from course and teaching evaluations, unsolicited correspondence and feedback received from students, as well as self-reports collected annually.

Generic Skills and Personal Attributes

There is agreement between national governments, employers, and teaching practitioners and researchers that one of the foundational objectives of higher education is to teach not only higher order knowledge but transferable generic or employability skills. These skills are seen as essential in facilitating graduates to make the transition between the worlds of learning and work (Simatele, 2015; Business Council of Australia, 2011). Typically described with reference to employer concern that graduates be able to practically and effectively apply their discipline-specific knowledge in a competitive social world, and further display flexibility and adaptability in their management of workplace and social change (e.g. Treleaven & Voola, 2008; Candy, 2000), such skills must be applicable to different cognitive domains or subject areas and/or a variety of social, and in particular employment, situations.

These concerns have seen transferable generic skills emerge as vital issues for higher educational institutions, not only linking educational institutions with the communities they serve – students, employers and governments – but providing a rationale for the very work of these institutions. Bowden, Hart, King, Trigwell and Watts (2000) outlined three early arguments for the importance and inclusion of these skillsets in higher education which remain influential. First, it is considered the role of universities and other Higher Education providers to produce ‘good’ citizens who can be agents for progressive social change in the community. Second, upon graduation, students face an uncertain future and need to be prepared for such. Third, employers expect to see a certain set of generic capabilities demonstrated by graduates. Generic skills are thus not only understood to reflect the link between research and teaching, central to every institution’s mission, but to also inform the strategic teaching and learning objectives of each institution as well as the operational priorities driving institutional strategic plans (Australian Government, 2016; Barrie, Hughes & Smith, 2009; Goldsworthy, 2003). The working assumption has been that generic skills development should and can be integrated into both the planned curriculum (the goals, learning outcomes, assessment program and learning activities planned for students) and the enacted curriculum (the process and content of the learning experienced by students) at all levels and in all disciplines.

The problem is that these skills as typically listed encompass a mix of personal qualities, generalized capacities, individual attitudes, value systems, professional competencies, higher order generic skills and lower order technical ones (Clanchy & Ballard, 1995). They mix cognitive skill-sets with personal attributes, and although skills and attributes are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. Skills, it is argued, are typically practical; they inform effective practices in communication, time management and teamwork. Attributes – most typically referred to in the literature as graduate attributes, conceived as the culmination and internalization of learnt generic and disciplinary skills – are usually broader in conception than skills, and tend to include qualities such as loyalty, honesty, commitment and integrity (Nagarajan & Edwards, 2014). These qualities, which have also been found to be highly desirable by employers (see, e.g., Crebert, Bates, Bell, Patrick & Cragnolini, 2004), are usually considered in the guise of personal attributes rather than skills.

Given they are such a mix, institutional endeavours to describe and foster such skills and attributes in graduates may lack clear theoretical or conceptual bases and may be characterized by a plurality of view-points (Bridgstock, 2009). In particular, attempts to foster those attributes pertaining to an individual’s capacity for citizenship and their ability to contribute towards progressive social change and a well-functioning society (Rychen & Salganik, 2005) – attributes that require the nurturing of such personal qualities as imagination, ethical practice, integrity and tolerance – have proved problematic. First these attributes can prove difficult to situate and teach within discipline-specific knowledge frameworks in so far as they always encompass more than disciplinary professional or ethical practice. Secondly, staff may feel ill-equipped to teach in the field of what are personal and social values, and, indeed, as Peet (2014) asks, given that that “the vast majority” of higher education teaching staff “were not taught how to create positive change in the world, … How can we teach our students how to create positive change when we (those who teach them) do not know how such change actually happens?”. Thirdly it can be challenging to ascertain the actual contribution made to students’ development of these attributes by planned and enacted curriculum given that such attributes are also fostered by other extra-curricular interests and activities (e.g. personal identity commitments, volunteering, family or social contexts).

Despite these issues, personal and social attributes – also sometimes referred to as core values – of honesty, integrity, tolerance, sustainability, ethical practice, and responsible citizenship are commonly identifiable in many institutional lists of transferable generic skill-sets and graduate attributes. Federation University Australia (henceforth FedUni), for example, stresses that “Graduates who are responsible, ethical and engaged citizens will: recognise, respect and appreciate diverse social and cultural perspectives; behave ethically; make meaningful contributions to local, national and/or international communities; and accept social and civic responsibilities” (Dowling et al., 2014). Although definitions vary enormously concerning such attributes, most generally they are understood to involve such capacities as: maintaining caring and responsive attitudes to oneself and others; being able to evaluate personal and social values with reference to personal standards, community and universal principles; being able to make ethically informed choices and accepting responsibility for them in both professional and personal life; recognizing the basic human rights of self and others, and accepting individual and cultural diversity; remaining open to new ideas, experiences, and people; and developing leadership, communication, and social skills. In addition these capacities may be expected to be able to extend beyond the domain of respectful inter-human relationships, entailing also the experiencing, as well as appreciating, our interdependence and connectedness with others and our environment (Berman, 1997). One example here of such extension is RMIT University’s requirement that its graduates be “environmentally aware and responsible” (see RMIT Graduate Attributes, 2017).

Contexts and Methods

Concerned therefore with student development of and their beliefs regarding transferable skills in ethical decision-making and practice, as well as the personal attributes of integrity and tolerance, this paper examines three higher education courses, one taught to multidisciplinary undergraduate students and the others to professionally oriented graduate students. Practical Ethics and Ethics in Context are both offered by FedUni, a regional multi-campus university in Victoria, Australia. FedUni gained its status as a university in relatively recent times and attracts the majority of its students from regional and rural environments, many of whom are also the first in family to attend university. Risk Management: Professionalism and Compliance is a postgraduate course offered by the Australian Computer Society (ACS) as part of its Computer Professional Education Program. The aims and structures of each of the courses are outlined below, followed by discussions concerning typical teaching practices and the data and methods drawn on in this paper.

Courses in Context

Practical Ethics is an undergraduate course in applied ethics available in the Bachelor of Arts program, but taken also by students completing programs in teaching, sustainability, environmental science, psychology and health sciences. Its aim is to introduce students to the processes and challenges of ethical reasoning and decision-making in the everyday world through considering a variety of ethical problems rather than through examining different ethical theories. In particular, it introduces students to ethical questions regarding how we understand and justify our relations with each other, with scientific and technological capacities, with non-human animals, and with our environment. Formal learning objectives include coming to understand a) how to conceptualize ethical principles, duties or obligations, and address specific problems in light of these principles; b) the requirements and process of ethical reasoning and argument; and c) the key ethical dilemmas and principles that feature in debates concerning contemporary moral problems. On a skills level, objectives include developing student abilities to a) apply knowledge and understanding of ethical issues and arguments to contemporary moral problems; and b) critically apply the skills involved in ethical reasoning and argument (including presenting and evaluating the different sides of ethical debate, analysing moral arguments, developing an ethical position and defending it, detecting nonsense). Assessment structures focus on the identification and ethical analysis of moral problems, with the primary focus on the development of students’ analytic and critically reflective skills as opposed to their final conclusions. Ethics in this course is framed as contestable, encompassing (and contesting) personal, social and professional values and interactions, to do with character development and principled behaviour, and as needing to be able to be coherently and socially explained and justified.

Ethics in Context is a Masters level course in applied ethics compulsory for pre-service secondary level teachers. It is offered in both blended and fully online modes. Examining ethical questions and behaviour across professional, social and personal domains, its aims are to a) explore the roles of ethical norms and values in reasoning and decision-making in institutional frameworks and everyday social life, as well as the resources at our disposal to address contemporary ethical issues; and b) examine some of the major concerns and questions that arise in the ethical conduct of professional and everyday social life and the values that shape them. Formal learning objectives in this course encompass a) coming to understand that discourses and reasoning around ethical norms and issues are values-laden and contested; b) becoming familiar with competing perspectives at work in reasoning concerning the ethical conduct of professional and everyday social life; c) coming to understand the ethical problems posed by and inherent in contemporary issues; as well as d) the requirements, process and significance of ethical reasoning and argument in values-laden areas in professional and everyday social life; and e) core ethical principles, duties or obligations, and how to address specific ethical problems in light of these principles. On a skills level, as with Practical Ethics, objectives prioritize the development of proficiency in ethical reasoning and decision-making in values-laden areas in professional and everyday social life. Assessment structures focus on the identification and ethical analysis of moral problems in both everyday life and the professional practice of teaching, with the primary focus on the development of students’ analytic and critically reflective skills as opposed to their final conclusions. As with Practical Ethics, ethics is presented in this course as contestable, as encompassing (and contesting) personal, social and professional values and interactions, to do with character development and principled behaviour and leadership, and as needing to be able to be coherently and socially explained and justified.

Risk Management: Professionalism and Compliance is a core subject in the Computer Professional Education Program (the Australian Computer Society’s postgraduate level qualification). This fully online course introduces the concept of risk management as a framework for ethical, professional and legally compliant work practices, exploring in particular values, ethics and professionalism; risk management frameworks; compliance risks in business; and IT Governance. Formal learning objectives encompass a) understanding the role and responsibility of ICT professionals in the workplace; b) exploring the impact of corporate culture, values and behaviours on work and business outcomes; c) recognizing unethical situations in a work environment and being able to apply an ethical analysis framework to evaluate issues; d) conducting risk assessments within defined functional or technical areas of business; e) identifying and being able to interpret at least four areas of legal and regulatory compliance pertaining to ICT; f) recognizing non-compliance with internal and external legal and regulatory requirements; and g) understanding the relationships between governance, risk management and compliance within organizations. Assessment structures focus on decision-making exercises that critically engage ethical frameworks and require the negotiation of values. Exercises are used to identify and analyze the values framework of the ICT industry, the interrelation and possible mismatch of personal, social and professional values, and to develop practical skills in the resolution of ethical conflicts. Ethics is examined in this course as contestable, as encompassing and problematizing personal, social and professional values and interactions, as inextricably linked to issues of risk management, governance and compliance, and as needing to be able to be coherently and socially explained and justified.

Teaching Practices

Because ethics is understood in these courses to encompass and inform personal, social and professional life, with ethical principles and values being themselves always contestable, this leads to students needing to recognize that ambiguities and tensions are inevitable in identifying and dealing with ethical problems. These ambiguities are of central concern in Practical Ethics but are drawn out even in the professionally oriented courses which make the point that even though professions are guided by Codes of Ethics, these too are socially constructed and may require renegotiation as circumstances change. Of particular focus too in Ethics in Context and Risk Management is for students to think about the interaction of their personal ethical beliefs with their Code of Professional Conduct, and Code of Ethics. In summation, staff in these courses strive to foreground these ambiguities and tensions, using them as the major learning and teaching tool through which students can begin to develop and negotiate their ethical awareness and commitments, and thus demonstrate their development of ethically oriented graduate attributes. The following paragraphs outline teaching techniques that staff have found particularly effective for this work.

With the main teaching assumptions being that students learn about ethical behaviour and values by being exposed to and engaged in ethical problem-solving, and that this cannot but involve students’ emerging senses of self-identity, teaching staff in all three courses – all of whom possess expertise in the fields of theoretical and applied ethics – recognize that through these courses students are being encouraged to challenge and interrogate their own moral views and values and that this can be a very confronting and discomforting experience. This is stressed upfront with all cohorts and has several major repercussions for teaching practice. First it is made very clear throughout all the courses that ethical perspectives and values are multiple and always open to challenge. This is an important realization for students to come to as it is the beginning stage of coming to understand the parameters and dynamics of ethical problems. Also stressed is that ethical perspectives and values need to be argued for in ways that can be understood and potentially accepted by others; not only are ethical problems never strictly individual but an ethical argument must be informed and have the capacity to be taken seriously by others, even when they may not agree with it: “ethics in context has given me the tools to reflect and critically evaluate situations” (course feedback, Ethics in Context).

A further stress is given to the imperative of such argument needing to always remain respectful of others and their viewpoints. This addresses the points that once ethical debate is pushed into factionalism, social change becomes more difficult, and that ethical problems and proposed solutions are always multifaceted and potentially ambiguous. Teaching practices thus consistently need to promote the idea that whilst there may not be totally right or wrong responses to ethical problems, some responses can be understood as better than others on procedural and/or communicative grounds. This is where the explicit introduction and use of ethical decision-making frameworks can be productive, as they can provide students with models and processes for engagement with even very complex ethical issues: “I also liked the idea of the sunlight test. That is the one where you pretend that the situation made front page of the news and how you would feel after that” (freewriting, Ethics in Context); “Whilst I have analysed situations ethically before, using various other parameters, having a personal matrix made a considerable difference. The actual process of developing it I also found very useful – certainly made me think about what mattered and how I ought to behave at work (and elsewhere) if I am to be true to my personal ethics” (course feedback, Risk Management). Also important is that teaching staff need to engage models of questioning and debate that support and facilitate students’ critical realizations. Indeed, effective questioning and other class engagement techniques are explicitly recognized by students as enabling their development as ethical thinkers: “The questioning techniques used to get students thinking were great. I often found myself agreeing with something but as we moved on my views were sometimes contradicted which was enlightening & made me think more into why I have those particular views”; “Your questioning was also great – you asked the tough questions which stimulated critical thinking” (course feedback, Ethics in Context).

Secondly the provision of a ‘safe’ learning and teaching environment is essential. It takes both mental and moral courage to discuss one’s ethical decision-making processes and evaluate them. Students are being asked to reveal, interrogate and argue for their own moral values and views with others who may hold different values; they will not undertake this work in a judgemental non-supportive space. Class and discussion ground-rules that accept diversity and require respectful interaction, whilst still enabling and supporting challenges and debate, are thus integral and must be adhered to by all participants. The third point concerns the importance of making further viewpoints and value systems visible to students. Ethical arguments, after all, involve multiple perspectives, and students need to become aware of this multiplicity. As students in Ethics in Context noted in course feedback, “I thought everyone would think the same, so I was surprised that people clash with their different opinions” and “The biggest thing that I have learned … is to realise that and appreciate that everyone has different morals which shape their opinions and views on specific topics”. Or as others expressed in freewriting regarding Practical Ethics, “Rather than just having a certain stance on topics and dismissing other beliefs I can now see where people are coming from”; “I found myself putting myself in other peoples’ shoes and seeing their side of the story rather than dismiss[ing] the other opinions”. These realizations are particularly important for cohorts who might begin their ethics studies uncritically sharing a range of social contexts and values. Finally, assessment tasks and feedback in this field – unless they are kept strictly within the confines of the interpretation and application of a professional Code of Ethics – need to assess the processes of ethical decision-making undertaken rather than determine whether a student’s final decision is or is not ‘ethical’.

Data and Methods

This paper draws upon data collected through the variety of mechanisms that are open to students to report and reflect on their learning throughout their studies: formal and informal qualitative feedback received from course and teaching evaluations, unsolicited correspondence and feedback received from students, and self-reports collected between 2012 and 2015. Although these methods are divergent in scope, purpose and inclusivity, they all cluster into the fields of either solicited or unsolicited feedback. Examples of solicited feedback include the course and teaching evaluations that are administered to course participants who remain anonymous. Such evaluations include those administered formally as one of the institution’s mechanisms for quality control and cross-benchmarking of courses and teaching, and those administered by teaching staff to seek feedback on particular issues concerning the course and teaching. Also included within this field of solicited feedback – albeit, in this case, strictly non-compulsory – are student self-reports or reflective freewrites (adopted from La Boskey, 1994). In this instance students are invited to write about their learning experiences during the semester. As an open invitation, with no guiding questions, students are able to address issues that concern them. Participation in the freewriting exercise was made available annually to students completing Practical Ethics and Ethics in Context. Unsolicited feedback conversely includes correspondence and anecdotal material. In all cases it is initiated by students who wish to share their feelings and responses to courses, and course materials. The key point to note about these various materials is that they work together to present a much stronger picture of student beliefs than would otherwise be ascertainable through traditional models of solicited feedback alone.

With regards to this diverse data, what should be stressed is that our aim here is not to engage in micro-level practices of content analysis. Rather we are concerned with drawing from methods of discourse analysis, given that discourse theory offers a useful set of concepts and approaches for the identification and analysis of beliefs as social constructions. Often contrasted with claims to knowledge, beliefs can be usefully described as mental constructions or representations of states of affairs, based on evaluation and judgement, which are used to interpret experiences and guide behaviours (Pedersen & Min, 2003; Pajares, 1992). Influencing how they characterize and interpret phenomena and experiences and generally make sense of the world, students’ beliefs regarding their education are important because student learning has been found to be more influenced by their perceptions of the educational environment than by actual educational practices (Entwhistle, 1991; see, e.g., Mummery, 2013; Mummery & Morton-Allen, 2009). Thus in framing beliefs (as well as identities) as contingent social constructions able to be temporarily identified, fixed and disseminated, discourse theory sees the relationship between discourse and context as dialectical, the former influencing and at the same time shaping the latter.

A discourse, in its turn, stands for an identifiable, albeit fuzzy-edged, way of “thinking, believing, valuing, and using various symbols, tools and objects to enact a particular sort of socially recognizable identity” or object  (Gee, 2007). Discourses thus demonstrate the articulation and dissemination of beliefs. A discourse analysis approach thus allows us to explore some of the specific ways in which “social objects” – in this case, beliefs to do with ethics, values and ethical development – have been articulated by students within the particular context of their studies in these courses. With regards to our discursive identification of student beliefs for this paper, then, it is requisite that the focus be on accounts provided by students in their own words on issues that they themselves find important and worth commenting on. In their accounts students resort (consciously or unconsciously) to whatever linguistic resources they have at hand and use them for their own purposes. Discursive patterns identified must then be supported by illustrative (unmodified) examples drawn from student accounts. Importantly, however, whilst we are arguing that student beliefs are identifiable and legitimated within these materials, these identifiable beliefs in turn each incorporate a range of different threads and values that may be only loosely interrelated. That is, considering a belief discursively reminds us that its identity and the boundaries of its articulation are always fuzzy and contestable.

At this early stage in our analyses of course and course feedback materials, we have identified three principal beliefs about ethical thinking and practice expressed by students across all three courses. Each of these is indicative of students’ own understanding of their development of ethically oriented attributes: that ethical decision-making is never clear-cut; that the journey matters more than the destination; and that the aim is to become a better human being. In being drawn directly from our analysis of student accounts regarding these courses, we suggest that they clearly show instances of students’ understandings of themselves as reflective and ethically oriented citizens and professionals – understandings called for in both institutions’ lists of generic skills and graduate attributes.

Student Beliefs

“It’s not all black and white”

One of the most common responses from students throughout these courses has concerned their increased understanding that ethical decision-making – even in the context of professional Codes of Conduct – is not neat. Decision-making is not black and white, issues are rarely clear-cut, and sometimes there simply are no obvious right answers to problems. As students expressed in freewriting with reference to Ethics in Context and Practical Ethics, they find themselves by the end of the courses consciously looking for additional and alternative perspectives when confronted by ethical problems, recognizing that beliefs and values cannot be assumed to be universal among individuals, knowing thereby that “what is ‘right’ may vary given an individual’s culture, religion and personal situation” (freewriting, Ethics in Context). There is particular acknowledgement of the importance of remaining open-minded and of listening to proponents of alternative perspectives. Students recognized however that this openness and heterogeneity does not mean that all perspectives are equally acceptable. In this line, a common awareness formed around the idea that while ethical decision-making may be a complex and ever-revisable exercise, it always needs to be informed by the students’ own senses of conscience, integrity and moral value: “I find that it all comes down to being honest and staying true to yourself, but knowing that your actions will most probably be questioned by others somewhere along the line” (freewriting, Ethics in Context).

Many students realised the importance and the significance of value systems in the development of ethical decisions and perspectives. As a student wrote with reference to their studies in Risk Management:

A key input into almost all of the ethical decision-making frameworks studied is the “value system”. Entirely different decisions can be reached by varying this input. It is hence of utmost importance to decide early in the decision-making framework the value system that will be used – your own or the values upheld by the organisation where you are employed … A dilemma exists if your value system is significantly different from your organisation’s – as professionals you are expected to uphold the organisation’s values systems, however “pure” ethical behaviour necessitates following your own.

“It’s the journey that matters, not the destination”

A common belief expressed by students in these courses has concerned their recognition that because ethics and ethical thinking and behaviour are not things to be achieved once and for all, it will require ongoing self-work and reflection from them. As students in Ethics in Context have thus reflected in freewriting exercises, “I’ve learnt the importance of not becoming complacent”; “I am always thinking about ethics … it’s very contagious”; “I have also come to recognise that the development of these skills will be a lifelong journey”. As another put it:

Ethics is an ever-changing, ever-evolving creature, and we can chase it forever and ever but I think that’s the whole point. I think ethics is one of those ideas where it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, because there’s never going to be an absolute definition of ethics, it’s just all of us chasing the same thing – and that’s how to be a more ethical teacher. And as long as we’re running, as long as we’re learning, I think that’s the best we could ever ask of ourselves.

A central aspect of this belief for many students has been the importance of class discussion, both face to face and online, with its capacity to introduce students to contrasting opinions and perspectives they had not previously considered. As students reflected with reference to Risk Management, “The discussion forum was in my opinion the fundamental learning process of this course”; “I will be reflecting on our discussions for some time to come and I am sure this will have positive effects on my life and my current work environment”. To give the last word to another student from Ethics in Context, “Although we may be done with this course we will never be done with ethics”.

“Becoming a better human being”

Students have further recognized their studies in these courses as being transformative and life-changing. For instance, unsolicited email correspondence from a student who completed Practical Ethics states:

I have learned this semester in Practical Ethics, that what I thought was a well-considered ethical and moral standpoint, developed and honed over the past almost 60 years, is lamentably deficient in so many areas. You have wrenched apart my cosy thinking. … You have made me dig beneath the surface of my decision-making processes by prodding my lazy and complacent mind. All this is very inconvenient, uncomfortable, undeserved and hugely exciting. Who would have thought that what looked like an interesting course would turn out to be a life changing introduction to a way of looking at the world and re-evaluating my place, moral responsibilities and ethical considerations, within it.

These are common themes in course feedback, with students writing with regards to Practical Ethics that their studies have “helped me see the world through [a] different lens”; that is has “been challenging, at times frustrating, yet oddly satisfying … an education in thinking”; and that “I always thought I was a pretty open-minded person, but you’ve really helped me to be more mindful”. Or as others have written regarding the same course, “I have learned skills … that have profoundly changed the way I think, argue, and conduct my life on a personal and societal level”; “This course is a most valuable tool in life. … – change guaranteed”; “the effect of having done this course will remain with me as an ongoing challenge to maintain an ethical and moral stance in every area of my life”. In an unsolicited email a Practical Ethics student wrote of his incapacity to not bring his ethical considerations into his everyday life:

Thought I’d let you know that since we touched on caged eggs issue weeks ago in class I have had the ethical dilemma every time I went to the eggs aisle. For the first time I bought the caged (as always had because of price) with the mindset that well they are on the shelf now so the harms already done… I then didn’t eat eggs for a couple of weeks as … I just couldn’t decide and just decided I’d go without! I bought my first free range eggs earlier this week! I will admit they were on sale but I decided that the ignorant argument that the chicken had already suffered does not hold up! Just a funny little situation I thought I’d share how your class has affected me outside in the world as well.

This is not always a comfortable change, as many students also noted. They write about being brought outside of their comfort zone, of having their everyday “cosy” thinking habits and complacencies upset, of feeling uncomfortable and personally challenged. As one student expressed in feedback regarding their experience of taking Ethics in Context: “I can’t recall the last time I was put so far out of my comfort zone when being educated about a particular topic or way of thinking rather, and for this I think I am quite thankful”.

Some students also made the point that their studies in these courses have effected not just change in their practices but changes in themselves, in their character. As they have articulated this in feedback and freewriting: “I feel as though I am more critically, ethically and politically aware and actively engaged with the world”; “I now feel more closely connected to my own values, sense of professional accountability, and role as an activist”; “Actually taking the time to think about these ethical issues in society has made me a better person”; and “I feel honoured to be ‘charged’ with the responsibility to make a difference”. As another student noted in freewriting for Practical Ethics,

In my personal life, I feel more strongly towards activism because it now has more of a purpose with … weight behind it. I feel less reactionary, more measured and more reflective in my everyday life … This is because one of the less emphasized side-effects [of this course] is becoming a better human being as well as becoming an adult.

A common point made by students in Ethics in Context was that “Being an ethical person to me now means being the best possible person I can be”; that it is important to come to “live and breathe our thoughts on ethics”. As another wrote “It [ethics] will become our life if we want to become an ethical leader. We will always be developing and extending our understanding of what ethics is”.

Importantly, for students studying Ethics in Context and Risk Management, their studies also highlighted new perceptions of their professional responsibilities. Thus, in course feedback, students wrote both about their new understandings of their ethical responsibilities as professionals and leaders and about the confidence their studies have given them in tackling ethical issues and conflicts:

The study of ethics forms a guideline, and we, as teachers, should use this knowledge to help the next generation become good moral citizens, with the courage and convictions to stand up for their beliefs (course feedback, Ethics in Context).

This course developed my ability to apply logic, consistency and look for contradictions in the moral argument presented by others, and provide the tools to probe others views, and present my own views (course feedback, Ethics in Context).

At times, my confidence has been shaken at some of the practices I have seen, the corners being cut and the compromises that we have to make in our day to day roles. So the biggest takeaway is the confidence this course has provided me that what I have been doing throughout my career is in line with what the ACS expects of a professional. I am now better equipped to handle the above situations and can provide a more balanced view to get my point across (course feedback, Risk Management).

Conclusion

These are preliminary and tentative findings in a research project too small in scope and problematic in design (how to separate the relative impacts of students’ experiences of teaching and learning in these courses, in other courses and in non-university settings, for example) to allow the drawing of any strong conclusions. However, they do raise some interesting points. The first is that (these) students do believe that coursework can play a part in their development of not just professional but personal attributes to do with ethical behaviour, character and their recognition of social and professional responsibilities. Secondly, despite the acknowledged difficulty of teaching social values and personal attributes, given their nebulous nature, (these) students express confidence in their development of these attributes. They also express confidence regarding their application and use of these attributes, both within and outside of their university studies and professional life, suggesting that they have come to understand these attributes and skills as transferable to wider areas. While none of these students explicitly connected their insights with the generic skills and graduate attributes their institutions are at pains to inculcate in them – despite clearly articulating their understandings of their personal and professional civic responsibilities – we suggest that this connection is clearly visible. In their understandings that they had developed their ethical awareness and decision-making through such courses and teaching practices discussed here, we contend that personal attributes can be effectively developed and promoted within classroom settings.

What is also interesting is the consistency of this feedback over time. Over the period we examined, our students unfailingly articulate beliefs that point to their development of an expanded and deepened sense of ethical responsibility, one that is other-directed and concerned with diversity and broader flourishing. They have come to recognize the relationality intrinsic not just in ethical decision-making, but in all human life, and that others require respect, care and consideration. They also recognize their own roles in – and capacities for – building a better and more caring world, commonly using the language of becoming activists as well as leaders as they mention future engagements with social and professional life. They would seem, most importantly, to have come to understand that to live in such a way that ethics informs life is neither idealistic nor unrealistic, an additional extra for those who want to look like they care, but absolutely imperative for personal, social and professional life. Ethical engagement, they have come to recognize, is integral not only for an orientation towards progressive social change, but should form the basis of all of their current and future social, professional and leadership roles. Indeed many of these students have very explicitly articulated that after their studies in these courses they feel better prepared for participation in their communities as not only professionals but ethical and engaged citizens. This is what it means, as one student has written, to become an adult in a complex world.

 

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This feature article was accepted for publication in the International HETL Review (IHR) after a double-blind peer review involving independent members of the IHR Board of Reviewers and one revision cycle. Accepting editor: Dr Tina Bass

Suggested citation:

Mummery, J., & Nolton, M. (2017). Facilitating integrity and ethical development in the higher education classroom. International HETL Review, Volume 7, Article 3, https://www.hetl.org/facilitating-the-development-of-integrity-and-ethical-practice-via-the-higher-education-classroom

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