Blogger's Note:  In a recent post I asked four experts to introduce us to service learning and the ethics involved.  In this blog they present a dilemma and walk us through some steps to resolve it.  The dilemma also highlights some basic issues in higher education


Ana Ruiz and Judith Warchal are professors of psychology at Alvernia University, Andrea Chapdelaine is Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Albright College and Carole Wells is Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies at Kutztown University.  They have written extensively about service learning, including a code of ethics (Chapdelaine, Ruiz, Warchal, & Wells, 2005).



Picture this:

Dr. Ryan submits a proposal to his department chair to incorporate a service learning component in a life-span development course. He has contacted five after-school programs, each of which has agreed to sponsor students and provide an on-site mentor.  Students would spend 25 hours working with preschoolers in the after-school program. They would also keep a journal, share service learning experiences with the class in a brief oral presentation, and prepare a three-to-five page paper. The service learning component will be worth 20% of the overall course grade. 

The department chair raises concerns about the service learning component.  He is concerned with covering the topical content areas in the syllabus and questions the effectiveness of service learning to do so. He also believes that participation in service learning should be optional and that it would be unfair to give points for doing service learning that might result in a higher grade in the course for some students over other students who refuse to do it. Finally, because service learning is not a widely accepted pedagogy at this college, he is reluctant to have his department take the lead in implementing it. 

The chair recommends that Dr. Ryan discuss this matter with the department and perhaps come up with a department policy regarding service learning activities.  Dr. Ryan wants to be a collegial department member, but remains committed to service learning as an innovative pedagogical tool and one of the best teaching methods for this course. He knows that there is research to support the benefits of service learning (Eyler, 2011).

What would you do in this situation?  We want to outline and illustrate a six-step process for making ethical decisions.  We don't have room in this post to explore the complexities involved at each step, but here are the "headlines"—you can think about other aspects to consider in each section.


STEP 1 - Identify and Define the Dilemma

The first step for Dr. Ryan is to identify and define the dilemma(s) involved. Dr. Ryan believes that the service learning component is one of the best strategies for learning and implementing course content. Yet, Dr. Ryan also encourages a democratic approach in his classes and often gives students some limited choices about assignments.  Further, there is no college or department policy about service learning to guide his decision and his department colleagues are unaware of the benefits of service learning. Does he delay his plans for a semester while he tries to convince his colleagues?  Does he ignore the advice of his chair in the name of "academic freedom?"

STEP 2 - Address Relevant Principles and Gather Information

One major principle is beneficence, which involves doing good. From Dr. Ryan's perspective, this activity will provide an educational benefit to all his students and thus he questions the utility of offering an alternate assignment.

Dr. Ryan talks with a few trusted colleagues in his department. Although some of them agree that this could be a useful way for the students to learn more about development, other members (and his chair) are uninformed about the pedagogic value of service learning and do not fully support this teaching strategy. Does he respect the professional (but somewhat uninformed) judgment of his colleagues, or does he do what he judges to be the most beneficent way to achieve course goals—thereby serving the best interests of his students, the community, and the college?

One justification for the chair's suggestion of providing alternative activities is that doing so respects the autonomy of students, a principle that Ryan believes in. But what are the limits of autonomy?  If alternatives to service learning are less beneficent, do we respect students' autonomy at the expense of their academic development?  If students don't like taking tests, would we have to make tests optional?

STEP 3 - Propose Courses of Action

Dr. Ryan should identify various courses of action, consider the consequences of each, and determine the best course of action.  He considers three possible actions:

Action A: Require all students to participate in this service learning activity.

Action B: Offer an alternate activity in addition to the service learning.

Action C: Contact the schools and withdraw his commitment to the after-school programs.

STEP 4 - Determine and Analyze the Consequences for Each Proposed Course of Action

Action A: Require all students to participate in this service learning activity. Positive: In this option, Dr. Ryan remains committed to his original course guidelines and requires all students to participate in service learning throughout the semester. This requirement is not unreasonable:  Dr. Ryan's students would learn more about development by interacting directly with preschoolers than they would writing a paper, and the time commitment is about the same. Negative: Dr. Ryan is concerned that students might not expect a service learning component to the course.  They might not react well to a non-traditional requirement, and may even resent being required to interact with preschoolers. If not committed, his students could provide inadequate service and be poor role models for the kids. In addition, Dr. Ryan is worried that if he requires service learning of all students, it could jeopardize his position at the college because of poor student evaluations and resistance from his department colleagues.  Dr. Ryan has thought often about the big picture issue:  To what extent do I offer alternative course requirements to get better evaluations?


Action B: Offer an alternate activity. Positive: Dr. Ryan could offer an alternate assignment; for example, a research report or the opportunity to tutor classmates. Because students would be able to choose between these various assignments, they might be more committed to their choice and therefore do better—and, perhaps, provide better course evaluations. Negative: Dr. Ryan believes that the quality of out-of-class and in-class experiences will be different for those not engaging in service learning. The alternate option will be offered to the entire class; if several students select this option, it could compromise student learning experiences. A research report may not be a comparable experience; and tutoring peers may not be a viable option if no students in the class want to be tutored.

Action C: Contact the schools and withdraw his commitment to the after-school programs. Positive: Dr. Ryan could call the principals and explain that scheduling and other complications prevented him from including this requirement this semester. He would be sincere and apologetic, hoping they will understand his dilemma, but he might not go into the details about how he was unable to convince his colleagues of the idea. Negative: Once Dr. Ryan completed arrangements with the schools, he felt not only a personal but an institutional obligation to fulfill this commitment.  He is concerned that his credibility, and the college's reputation in the community, will be adversely affected and that future service learning opportunities will be unavailable.  When did teaching become so complicated?

STEP 5 - Decide on the Best Course of Action

Despite his arrangements with the schools, Dr. Ryan is concerned about his student evaluations, the learning experience for those students who would not participate, and his standing with the department chair. Thus, he decides to select Action B and offer two alternatives to the service learning activity. He remains committed to student public engagement, response to community needs, and good citizenship, but recognizes this can create a professional and personal ethical dilemma.  He's also read that change sometimes needs to happen incrementally.  If this approach works this semester, he might be able to use his experience to win over some colleagues.  Thus, the long-term and broader benefits may outweigh some short-term costs to his current students.  He appears to be acting in accordance with a utilitarian approach to ethics.

STEP 6 - Evaluate and Reflect on the Decision

Although students would be pleased to have an option and would probably favorably evaluate Dr. Ryan's teaching, he may find that class discussion will falter during the semester. Dr. Ryan understands that expecting all students to participate is unrealistic, but he is concerned about his ability to provide small group discussion and reflection on these experiences in classroom activities. He concludes that the alternate assignments he offers may not be useful and decides to brainstorm more effective substitutes for future classes. Overall, though, he feels that sending a few students is better than the greater negative consequences of canceling the project completely. He'll have to keep close tabs on how this goes and be willing to do continual tweaking to make sure students get their money's worth.  But wouldn't he have to do that no matter what strategies and techniques he uses to teach?\


What do you think the best course of action would be? What do you think about this situation?  What other principles and considerations can you think of?


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Copyright © 2011.  All rights reserved.


Chapdelaine, A., Ruiz, A., Warchal, J. and Wells, C.  (2005). Service Learning Code of Ethics. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co.

Eyler, J. (2011). What international service learning research can learn from research on service learning. In: R.G. Bringle, J. A. Hatcher, & S. G. Jones (Eds.). International service learning: Conceptual models and research. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing: IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research 1.

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