Are We Wasting Our Time in Class?

What, if anything, are we teaching when we teach ethics--or anything else?

Posted Sep 28, 2020

Two things happened last week that got me thinking (a tough task) about what students are learning in college.

The first thing: I ran across an interesting study by a team of researchers from the University of Kansas, Princeton, and the University of California-Riverside. The researchers, led by Eric Schwitzgebel, wanted to find out if teaching ethics to students actually changed their behavior. They taught students in philosophy courses about ethical arguments in favor of vegetarianism, then measured students’ change in behavior in a fascinating way: by measuring how much meat the students bought on campus.

They found that students who received the lesson on vegetarianism bought less meat, compared with a control group who took the course but received a different lesson. The students were also more likely to agree with this statement: “Eating the meat of factory-farmed animals is unethical.”

It’s nice to see an empirical study to support the notion that what we teach may have some effect on attitudes and behavior. However, some questions linger. For example, how long might these effects last? This study measured behavior for a few weeks. What would happen if we measured these students a year from now? Or at a Super Bowl party?

I also wondered about how generalizable these findings are. Does changing behavior in one area mean somebody might be more ethical in other areas of their lives? If this were true, might we expect that ethicists themselves would be more ethical than other people?

The news on this front is not encouraging, based on two bits of evidence. One study, also co-authored by Schwitzgebel, found that ethicists are no more likely than other professors to engage in one particular ethical behavior: answering student emails promptly. Another study found that ethics books are more likely than others to be missing from academic libraries. Once again, we’re looking at small slices of behavior. If we can generalize these data, however, we might speculate that people who teach ethics are just as human as everyone else.

Image by Mitch Handelsman
Source: Image by Mitch Handelsman

Let’s broaden our perspective a little: What exactly are we teaching in ethics courses? It is one marker of success if our students behave in ways we consider ethical, but there’s more to the enterprise of teaching and learning ethics. We can also teach ethics as a set of thinking skills that students can apply in various situations, and/or a set of virtues, or personality characteristics, that lead to ethical behavior. When I teach graduate students professional ethics, I certainly want my students to behave in accordance with the ethical standards of psychology. I also want them to think more clearly about the ethical issues and dilemmas they will face in their careers. Finally, I want my students to develop into professionals with appropriate proportions of humility, diligence, prudence, and other virtues.

If we broaden our exploration once more, I can tell you about the other thing that happened last week: I received an email from a student of mine who graduated in 1999. According to her calculations, she took introductory psychology with me in 1997 or 1998, which, according to my calculations, is a few years ago. She is now an educator herself, and she contacted me and another professor just to thank us for making an impact.

My reaction to the letter was good-news-bad-news-good-news. The good news was that she found my email address! No, wait. The good news was that she took something away from our interactions that she considered significant. The bad news, which struck me after my initial pleasure at receiving the letter, was that she recalled me “tossing around a piece of paper to get people to catch it and talk.” She also remembers a Student Management Team that we had, “and we had some discussion; I don’t even recall what.” She didn’t mention, and may not have remembered, any of the content of the course. If I measure impact only by course content, this is indeed bad news.

But she did remember actual things that happened. And she felt that what she learned was important enough to write to me after so many years. This means that throwing around crumpled up paper to facilitate class discussion is not the whole story. Teachers convey lots of things beyond what they test over—things as important as course content for many students.

These days, I’ve been reading and talking about some of these things under the rubrics of enthusiasm, or engagement, or transformative teaching. These concepts include attitudes such as an openness to learning, a growth mindset, and a sense of belonging (in the classroom, in college, in our society, on earth). While we continue to measure some of the little things, like course concepts and short-term behaviors, let’s not lose sight of these more expansive goals for our teaching and learning.

Now, if you excuse me, I need to answer some of last week’s student emails.