3 More Ways to Teach Ethics

A trio of strategies to help students appreciate, explore, and apply ethics.

Posted May 24, 2018

Guest Blog Entry by Sarah Kirk, Ph.D., ABPP

Blogger’s note:  A while back, I wrote about 5 ways to teach ethics. I wanted expand these ideas, so I have invited Dr. Sarah Kirk to share some of what she does in her ethics courses. Dr. Kirk is a graduate of the same clinical psychology training program I attended, at the University of Kansas, and is now on their faculty.  --Mitch

I believe that ethics can be taught, and that the way one goes about teaching is key. I am a big fan of everything in moderation and use that philosophy in my teaching. Thus, I am mindful of both the evidence that has emerged on active learning approaches and the evidence that casts doubt on active learning being the holy grail of education.  

Sarah Kirk
Sarah Kirk, Ph.D., ABPP
Source: Sarah Kirk

I would like to share some valued active learning techniques that appear to lend themselves well to teaching ethics to graduate students. I will discuss three strategies I use and why I think they work well for learning a process of ethical decision making.   

First strategy – Integrating a historical perspective. I started teaching ethics just when our graduate program at the University of Kansas decided to combine teaching history and ethics in one semester-long course. I had no choice, and I soon found value in sprinkling ethics throughout the history portion of the class, which comes first. Students learn about ethics topics and decision-making approaches that have occurred over time. We discuss historicism versus presentism (Goodwin, 2015) and students consider the time and place of ethical decision making through each lens.

We fire up the first day of class with a discussion of vaccinations, because the controversy has so much rich information on multiple sides of the decision to vaccinate or not. Indeed, folks have been arguing about this since vaccinations started (see articles from wellcommons.com and the New York Times).

The topic of vaccinations is memorable and ignites conversation, but discussion is not enough. I make it clear to students that it is not about choosing who is right and wrong but about how we view and implement the decision-making process. At this point, students read about the acculturation model of ethics (Knapp, Gottlieb, & Handelsman, 2015), which provides context—a way to consider the factors that affect how we make decisions about how to help clients, to conduct research, and to interact with the public about research. We consistently discuss how ethical principles and standards bump up against one another and against our own personal values.

We proceed to discuss many events in our brief history of psychology that seem eerily familiar today. I remind students that we do not necessarily learn from our mistakes. We discuss Henry Herbert Goddard and the Kallikak family (see psychclassics.yorku.ca). We focus on historical cases of doctoring, extreme bias, and falsifying data and then current examples such as the faked data regarding same sex marriages. We also discuss lobotomies, the institutionalization and de-institutionalization movements and finally the jail system functioning as a de facto mental health treatment center. The class considers how we meander through these changes in mental health treatment and policy—we continue to find that individuals with mental illness remain marginalized and mistreated, albeit in different ways, across history. 

Second strategy – Striking examples. The examples that get students to really dig in and work on decision making seem to be memorable because they are rich with controversy and diversity. I love to bring to the class the case of Anna Stubblefield (see articles from the New York Times and Inside Higher Education), because students sink themselves into the many layers of the story. Students discover and explore ethical issues including multiple relationships, informed consent, and cultural frames. Such examples get students motivated:  Discussions are lively, arms are thrown up in the air, and students frequently report that they were so intrigued they kept reading into the night. The next step is to help students make connections between these cases and their own situations. For example, such cases allow many students to explore their views of social justice.

Mitch Handelsman
Source: Mitch Handelsman

Now we are well on our way to the 3rd technique, which is the heart of my ethics classroom, from which the blood of ethical decision making flows.

Third strategy – Active learning to learn skills. In small groups, students discuss, work through the decision making process, and challenge each other. We then come back to the big group:  Each small group presents their process and thinking on the topic, ethical dilemma, or current area of controversy. Other groups then provide feedback. As the instructor, I oversee, act as the moderator and mediator, insert my own thoughts, and summarize viewpoints.

The class gets more comfortable over the semester by engaging actively and with consideration of a diversity of viewpoints to allow each person and group to express their ideas and decisions. We have weekly "difficult discussions" (back to the second technique), which help students conduct themselves with appropriate debate decorum while considering their personal passions and values. We often refer back to the acculturation model (always drawn on the white board) and how we may be shifting over time from assimilation or separation to integration (Knapp et al., 2015).

Bonus strategy – Games. To make the learning even more active, I use a gameshow format for “pop quizzes.” Small groups act as families to play Family Feud, and we play history and ethics Jeopardy. Students work together to answer questions and we have some competition for bragging rights, while at the same time making sure that everyone commits to preparing for class and doing the readings. Having live game shows in class is an engaging way to keep students prepared for each class—and to make grading easier as well!

What kinds of teaching and learning strategies do you employ? 

Sarah Kirk, Ph.D., ABPP, earned her doctorate in psychology from the University of Kansas in 1998. Her area of specialty is clinical and clinical health psychology.  She worked in a pediatric hospital setting for 7 years prior to her current position at the University of Kansas she started in 2005. She is a clinical faculty member and administrator with the Clinical Psychology Program at the University of Kansas.  She directs all practicum activity, supervises, and facilitates clinical training opportunities.  She also teaches graduate courses including History & Ethics; Supervision, Consultation, and Assessment. Her research interests include assessment of clinical outcomes in training programs. Dr. Kirk also provides psychology services and specializes in assessment, autistic spectrum disorders, and anxiety disorders across the life span. 

© 2018 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved


Goodwin, C. J. (2015). A History of Modern Psychology, 5th Ed. Wiley

Knapp, S. J., Gottlieb, M. C., & Handelsman, M. M. (2015). Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making Eds. APA.