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Suggestions for incorporating lessons on ethics into your course

Although as a subject matter ethics may sound daunting, ethical topics can be brought into the classroom using virtually every pedagogical tool familiar to you.  If the examples below seem relatively mundane, this is because the subject matter is not as difficult to address as you might think.  Here are some examples:

In the course of a regular class discussion – some of the professional practices you present and explore in your lectures surely raise related ethical issues. You can reserve 15 minutes for a segment devoted to these. An easy way into the ethical aspect of a situation can sometimes be to ask what the problem under discussion looks like from the point of view of another stakeholder.  Once students get some other stakeholders’ views into focus, it is easy to ask how they assess the ethical merits of the various views. Alternatively, ask how the relevant decision-makers in the case should consider these views and preferences when they are making their decision.

Dedicated lecture - select an ethical problem professionals in your field commonly face, and discuss this problem in your lecture.  As with other sorts of challenges, you can help frame/define the challenge to your students in conceptual and practical terms, explain how the problem relates to the institutions operating in your field, and talk about the social forces that impact one’s response to the problem in the real world.  You can also discuss some potential strategies for meeting these sorts of challenges, or you can ask students to come up with potential solutions in class discussions, small group discussions, or a follow-up assignment.

Share personal reflections / insight from the real world – Few insights may be as valuable as personal stories of how others have faced and dealt with ethical problems in the real world. These can be your own or those of a guest. 

Reading assignments

  • Readings on specific ethics topics in your field
  • Short introductions to ethical theory or ethical decision-making strategies
  • Introductions to ethical problems in specific fields or topics (e.g. an introduction from a marketing ethics text; a reading on manipulation in marketing)

Paper assignments - Ask students to write a paper on an ethical issue related to a topic covered in class (with or without in-class ethics discussion): this can be designed to encourage students to show both mastery of the technical material and reflective consideration of the ethical issues involved; or alternatively, it can be designed to focus just on the ethical issues.

Short assignments – having covered the technical topic in class, you can assign several questions about some of the ethical implications of that topic.  You can make these credit/no credit assignments that take students less than 30 minutes to complete.  Make completing several of these through the course a requirement, and you have students continually engaged with ethical topics related to the course.

Case study ethics presentations – For example, assign the presenting group to consult the company or person the case applies to, while dividing the rest of the class into advocate roles for the various stakeholders involved.  

Post/email reference materials/handouts students can refer to:

  • Ethical decision-making frameworks
  • Handouts on overcoming obstacles to good ethical decision-making
  • Helpful handouts on specific topics: e.g. Sher’s framework for determining immoral manipulation in marketing.

After workshops, case study discussions, lectures, etc., assign follow-up assignments that help solidify students’ learning and extend their exploration of the problems involved:

  • Papers
  • Short response forms that allow students to briefly explore some of the topics discussed.
  • Other more creative assignments that either help personalize the ideas discussed in class or allow students to engage in further exploration of these topics.


Debates 

  • Structured debates – groups are pre-arranged, research the topic, present their arguments, and counter those of the opposing side.
  • “open” debates – the topic is open to debate by all.  Students come in and sit on the side of the room that has been designated to correspond to a certain view of the question at hand.  If they change their mind somewhere along the debate, they move to another side of the room and continue to argue – now for a different side.

Ethics Journal – Have your students maintain an “Ethics Journal” throughout the semester.  That is, require them to create several entries sometime during the semester where they reflect on ethical issues raised in class or related to course materials.  The entries can be as short as a page.  The important thing is that you’ve gotten them engaged in a continual practice of ethical reflection.

Of course, entries in the ethical journal can be reflective expansions on ethical issues discussed in class.  However, the ethics journal can be maintained even if you never discuss ethics in class directly.  

Blackboard Forums dedicated to ethics - You can require a minimum number of genuine entries as an assignment.

Stand alone ethics exercises - Ready-made ethics exercises exist which require little to no expertise or involvement from the course instructor.  Such exercises typically involve an activity component (students perform some set of tasks in small groups) followed by a debrief where the activity experience is discussed and important points are highlighted.

  • Some exercises, such as those offered by the Marshall School of Business Experiential Learning Center, are entirely ran by trained facilitators.  Please contact ELC Director, Gita Govahi for more information. 
  • Other exercises can be run in class by the course instructor.  The details of the exercise are spelled out in detail and the instructor merely gives students tasks as presented in an exercise document, then reflects with them on some of the issues raised by the exercise.    Click here to view some such exercises in our Resources section.
  • If you are interested in developing a stand-alone ethics exercise for your course, the Levan Institute can help.  For more information, please contact Levan Institute Director Lyn Boyd-Judon.


Ideally, do all this in a context where students are exposed to ethical inquiries throughout the major or program.  Present and refer back to the ethical decision making model, exploring aspects of it as they relate to the ethical questions surrounding issues your class addresses.  If a standard ethical decision-making model is used throughout the program, and other professors integrate ethical thinking into their syllabus, your students will become accustomed to and adept at ethical decision-making.

Dr. Shlomo Sher
USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics