This teaching guide is a resource for lecturers   


Fostering ethical learning environments


The E4J University Modules on Integrity and Ethics provide materials and pedagogical tools to help lecturers teach classes on a variety of ethics topics. However, effective ethics education requires going beyond the mere teaching of ethics topics; it requires a supportive ethical learning environment. Experiencing an ethical environment while at university enhances the moral sensitivity and ethical behaviour of students and helps them appreciate the importance of ethics in their personal and professional life and in society more broadly. In addition, when the values and messages emphasized in ethics classes are consistent with those that prevail outside of the classroom, they are more likely to be considered valid by the students. Thus, an ethical environment is not only important as an educational method on its own right but is also crucial for the effectiveness of ethics classes and courses, including those based on the E4J Modules.

Against this background, lecturers teaching the E4J Modules may wish to provide an ethical environment in the classroom and at the university. In this environment, everyday relationships and practices are based on ethical standards, and students are guided and supported in living and interacting ethically.

In what follows, we explore two main methods that lecturers can easily use within their classroom to foster an ethical learning environment: creating ethical "ground rules" for the class and serving as ethical role models. The former method is most effective when students are engaged in developing and enforcing the rules. The experience of participating in the creation of an ethical environment at the university is particularly empowering as it demonstrates to students that they can help foster ethical environments in other contexts.


Setting ground rules for ethical behaviour

How should students behave in the classroom? Are they allowed to eat, to use electronic devices, what language can be used during class deliberations? How should a lecturer behave when dealing with class interruptions, when answering students' mails, when addressing questions during classes? These are all routine questions that arise during each course in almost any country or field of education, and all of them involve ethical issues.

Examples of unethical student behaviour are well-known: arriving late for class, using mobile phones or computers for non-educational purposes in class, cheating in exams and plagiarizing the work of others. Universities are constantly trying to address this behaviour through increased vigilance (e.g. plagiarism software) and disciplinary procedure, but while this might prevent some unethical behaviour from occurring, it rarely has a lasting impact. One way to deal with these issues is to set ground rules for behaviour in the classroom.

By way of example, if class exercises involve telling personal stories, the ground rule might be that every student has the right to be heard and that every student should be open and tolerant to different opinions and show respect for such opinions even when they disagree. The lecturer has the responsibility to ensure that this rule is adhered to at all times. The ground rules should not deal with disciplinary matters or establish sanctions (many universities already have a transparent disciplinary system). Their sole purpose is to guide students on proper conduct.

The ground rules for ethical behaviour in the classroom should ideally be co-created by students and lecturers, who will also participate together in monitoring the implementation of the rules. Students who create the rules will be more inclined to follow them. Moreover, the experience of participating in the creation of an ethical environment at the university is empowering for students as it demonstrates that they can help foster ethical environments in other contexts. In fact, the process of creating the ground rules can be more meaningful to students than its outcome, as the deliberations around drafting the rules generate many opportunities to raise ethical awareness. Involving students in setting the ground rules is therefore an effective way to both foster an ethical learning environment and deliver ethics education. In this context, the previous section's discussion about the importance of active engagement for effective learning is recalled. And of course, implementing the rules during classes, although challenging at times, can be a very effective tool in ethics education.

There are many different practical measures the lecturer can take to involve students in creating the ground rules. For example:

  • The lecturers can ask the students to work in small groups to identify and describe an ethical issue or problem in the classroom and draft a rule or guideline that deals with it.
  • The lecturers can encourage the students to produce short video clips on their mobile devices that highlight common ethical problems. These can be posted on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram.
  • The lecturer can assign specific issues to individual students or groups, e.g. "classroom behaviour" or "exam behaviour". The issues are discussed and then ground rules are drafted and agreed upon.
  • The lecturer can establish a student competition for the most creative slogans or posters that address the topics of the ground rules.
  • To motivate and inspire the students, the lecturers can create short video clips that address common ethical problems in the classroom and share these with the students.
  • The lecturer can launch a campaign (online or offline) to introduce the forthcoming development of the ground rules. Once created, the lecturer can introduce the rules as part of the campaign. The lecturer can also ask the students to sign a contract at the beginning of the course, where they undertake to follow the ground rules. At the end of the course the lecturer can ask the students to write a reflective statement about the impact of the rules.

If the circumstances are favourable, the lecturer can take this project one step further by "upgrading" the classroom ground rules to apply to the entire department or the university as a whole. This can even be the basis for developing an honour code or an ethics code for the university community - addressing the various types of behaviour within the broader university environment and designed for the various types of community members in the university, including students, lecturers and administrative staff. One of the lecturers can be elected or volunteer to manage the process of implementing the ground rules or code. Taking this comprehensive approach, however, requires additional resources as well as full support from the top management of the institution.


Lecturers as ethical role models

Actions speak louder than words. Ethical behaviour can foster ethical learning among students more effectively than merely teaching ethics in isolation. "How you teach" is equally important to "what you teach", especially when teaching integrity and ethics. Lecturers, by the very nature of their job, set an example for their students and should ideally serve as role models of ethical behaviour within and beyond the classroom. Lecturers who teach ethics should especially be committed to serving as ethical role models, as this is critical for the credibility and effectiveness of their courses. In other words, to create a favourable environment for teaching on ethics and values, lecturers must demonstrate integrity and limit unethical behaviour in the lecturer's daily practice at the university, including their behaviour ethically towards students, fellow lecturers, and the administrative staff (Hallak and Poisson, 2007).

Lecturers have many opportunities to demonstrate proper ethical behaviour and, by doing so, to become a role model for their students. For example:

  • Starting classes on time and ending them on time
  • Dealing with interruptions and distractions in class in an appropriate manner
  • Facilitating class discussion in a way that demonstrates respect for different opinions
  • Not taking advantage of his/her professional relationship with students for private gain
  • Grading in a timely fashion and providing comprehensive feedback to help students learn and improve their skills
  • Answering emails and other messages from students promptly and respectfully
  • Performing assessments of assignments and tests in a fair way
  • Demonstrating empathy and understanding to students in difficult circumstances

A mapping of possible misbehaviours at higher education level can be found on the online ETICO resource platform. To improve their own ethical awareness and behaviour, lecturers could organize certain activities for their own benefit. For example: 

  • At the beginning of every academic year, lecturers can organize a workshop to prepare for the issues discussed above. An innovative approach is to ask students to prepare and teach some sections of the workshop. This role reversal leads to important learning on both sides, and acts as a general morale booster.
  • The lecturers could create an ethics code for themselves, if such a code does not already exist in their institution. Such codes can be a very useful tool to help regulate lecturers' behaviour in relation to students, other lecturers, administrative staff, and additional members of the university community, provided they are developed in a participatory manner (Poisson, 2009). If such a code already exists, lecturers can help establish a committee that oversees the implementation of the code .
  • At the beginning of every academic year and before the examination period, the dean or head of department could address the lecturers in a special email citing the relevant ground rules and reminding them to follow the rules. They can also refer to codes of ethics if such codes exist for their institution.

References and further reading

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