Teaching Tips

Teaching Ethics Across the Psychology Curriculum

By Deborah Ware Balogh
Ball State University

Although strategies and approaches may differ, our common goal should be to encourage and inspire students to develop and rely on their own moral compass-despite enormous pressures to the contrary.
-Arthur J. Schwartz
Director of Character-Education Programs
John Templeton Foundation

After reading Arthur Schwartz's Point of View column on character education in the June 9, 2000 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the academic vice-president at your institution announces a new agenda - all departments will incorporate ethics education within the undergraduate curriculum beginning at the start of the next academic year. Suddenly your university begins struggling with issues such as, "The curriculum is already packed, we cannot add another course." "Ethics are so subjective anyway, what values and principles will we teach?" "We don't have an expert on ethics in our department - how will we cover this content?" "It is our job to instruct, not to build character or indoctrinate students with our morals." As a member of the psychology department, you have the good fortune to be associated with a discipline that has been a leader in establishing ethical principles and standards of conduct for its members for several decades.

You grab your copy of The Ethical Standards of Psychologists and immediately add it to the list of required readings for each of your classes. You suggest colleagues who might be well suited to teach an ethics course for your department. You dig out an article from your files concerning an ethical breach in your specialty area and distribute a photocopy to all of the students working in your laboratory. There - you've done it - you are on board with the vice-president's initiative. Or are you? Maybe not. Most experts in the teaching of ethics agree that an intellectualized, point-and-tell approach fails to produce lasting change in awareness and understanding of ethical issues. In addition, many would agree that limiting ethics instruction to a single course within the curriculum is important, but insufficient. Every content area in psychology stimulates numerous teachable moments with respect to ethical issues - the raw material is there, and it is simply a matter of casting course content in terms of its ethical dimension. When ethics content is seamlessly integrated across the curriculum, students come to understand that adhering to ethical principles is the responsibility of all members of the profession and they come to expect to be confronted with ethical dilemmas in many professional contexts.

Experts in ethics education typically agree that students need to develop their skills in the following areas:

  • Sensitivity to ethical issues, sometimes called "developing a moral imagination," or the awareness of the needs of others and that there is an ethical point of view;
  • Recognition of ethical issues or the ability to see the ethical implications of specific situations and choices;
  • Ability to analyze and critically evaluate ethical dilemmas, including an understanding of competing values, and the ability to scrutinize options for resolution;
  • Ethical responsibility, or the ability to make a decision and take action;
  • Tolerance for ambiguity, or the recognition that there may be no single ideal solution to ethically problematic situations.

It is often helpful to introduce ethically questionable practices by describing landmark research studies that raised significant ethical issues, that were heavily debated among researchers, or that stimulated attempts to develop or modify the professional code of ethics. A list of historical references that can be used for this purpose and that raise issues such as the use of deception, informed consent, researching sensitive topics, confidentiality, bias in data collection or reporting, invasion of privacy, risks versus benefits, and unexpected negative effects is provided at the end of this column.

The most useful cases are those that are realistic, provoke wide-ranging discussion, and require that a specific question is answered or solution is achieved. Case studies can be simple, focusing on a single ethical predicament (as in Case No.1 below) or complex, involving multiple interrelated ethical issues (as in Case No. 5). Instructors should consider beginning with relatively brief, clear-cut, and egregious violations of ethical principles. Gradually, cases for which there may be multiple potential solutions can be introduced for discussion.

Some cases lend themselves to a format that initially provides minimal information, then adds incremental information that raises new issues or creates additional ethical challenges. Adding variations that change the recommended course of action or that pose competing goals are especially helpful (see Fisch, 1997). Another way to challenge students is through the use of cases that are deliberately ambiguous and are therefore more difficult to resolve.

Nagy (2000), Kitchener (2000), and Koocher and Keith-Spiegel (1998) are excellent sources for case material. The following also are recommended:

Case No. 1: A developmental psychologist is conducting research on physiological correlates of orienting responses in newborn infants. What is his obligation with respect to sharing each child's data with the child's parents? Does it make a difference if the data suggest the presence of neurological abnormality in some participants?

Case No. 2: A major corporation hires a psychologist who has conducted applied research on cognitive errors that result from the way in which a message is presented. Some of her research suggests that consumer brand preferences can be manipulated by techniques that make listeners think they heard something other than what was actually said. The vice president for the marketing division, who is not trained in behavioral research, pressures her to incorporate her research findings in the design of a new marketing campaign.

Case No. 3: A local business is interested in making better decisions about which employees should be encouraged to pursue a career track in management. They ask a psychologist to administer and interpret personality tests that include measures of creativity, ego strength, and introversion/extroversion to a group of new employees. Should he honor this request? What issues are raised if the instruments used by the psychologist were developed using samples of white, middle-class men? What if the psychologist also is asked to administer an integrity test to evaluate each new employee?

Case No. 4: A psychologist who conducts research on jury characteristics has reported that potential jurors with specific demographic characteristics are more likely to render verdicts that favor the defense in certain types of felony cases. An attorney who is defending an accused rapist offers her a position as a consultant. She is asked to advise the defense team about which potential jurors should be eliminated during the voir dire process. Should she accept the position?

Case No. 5: A psychologist is a guest in a weekly radio "call-in" program. Listeners are invited to ask questions. During a show on treatment of depression, a listener calls with a "question" about someone he knows who seems "down." He reports that this acquaintance has been missing work frequently, seems irritable most of the time, and has made comments about "getting out of the rat-race for good." The psychologist, concerned that the caller may be actually speaking about himself, tells the caller that the friend is clinically depressed, is a likely suicide risk, and should be seen by a mental health professional as soon as possible. The psychologist then offers an appointment time in her schedule the following morning if the caller will bring his "friend" to the office for evaluation and referral to a local physician. Has she followed ethical guidelines in handling this situation?

Case No. 6: A psychologist who conducts qualitative research on social support and major life stresses is interested in how parents cope with the death of a young child. He decides to research the use of Internet sources of support. Posing as a parent who has recently lost a child, he subscribes to several listservs and participates in discussions in several chat rooms. He prints postings and discussions for his data analyses and quotes from these transcripts in his publications. What ethical concerns exist? What additional issues arise if the psychologist harvests the lists, not as a participant, but by accessing archives?

A media diary is another effective technique for integrating ethical issues within the psychology curriculum. Portrayals of mental health professionals are abundant in film (e.g., Analyze This), television (e.g., Frasier, Ally McBeal), and in fiction. Newspaper and magazine advice columns, radio and television talk shows, and news and feature stories are replete with "expert" opinions on applied psychology and psychological research.

Requiring students to keep a media journal or logbook of ethically problematic situations involving actual or fictitious psychologists and to share their observations with the rest of the class usually produces a myriad of ethically questionable practices and reinforces the idea that ethical predicaments are frequent challenges for psychologists. Class discussion can be centered on the actions that could be taken in each situation to remain within the profession's ethical standards and how the profession can and does respond to ethical misconduct among its membership.

Role-playing, skits, and debates are also effective alternatives for teaching students to identify and react to ethical dilemmas. Role playing scenarios that pit self-interest against the interest of others or that involve competing values (e.g., confidentiality versus duty to warn) are especially helpful when students are at the stage of needing to develop awareness of the ethical implications of various choices. When students act out the roles of the key stakeholders in well-publicized court cases such as Tarasoff v. the State of California Board of Regents or Detroit Edison v. National Labor Relations Board (both reviewed in Bersoff, 1995), the ethical dimensions become real to them. For example using this technique the instructor can assign students to the roles of the primary players in the Tarasoff case. Other students are assigned to function as a "Greek chorus," and the instructor serves as facilitator of their commentary.

Debates also are useful and are most effective when the players are required to take the view or act out a role that is opposite to their own point of view. A good topic is the use of animals as research subjects. Another, that introduces competing goals, is psychologists serving as "talk-show experts." Court cases such as those listed above lend themselves well to a debate format. While teams of students debate, the rest of the class can be asked to physically positioning themselves beside the "pro" team or the "con" team. Students are given the freedom to move between the two sides as the debate progresses. The process of literally choosing a side promotes engagement and self-reflection among class members who are not actively debating.

Finally, there is no substitute for students' experience in supervised service learning activities for providing opportunities to confront ethical dilemmas as they unfold in real world settings. Internships and practicum placements are rich sources of material for stimulating discussion of ethical conflicts and competing values. Instructors, supervisors, and practicum/internship administrators can encourage students to regularly consider ethical issues both by modeling ethically responsible choices and by requiring students to reflect on actual professional dilemmas and responsible problem solving. Incorporating a service-learning journal is a helpful technique for encouraging this reflective process.

For many undergraduate students, college courses may provide the first opportunity to scrutinize ethically problematic situations, and students are typically anxious to offer opinions about these situations. However, differing developmental levels among students may present challenges in guiding the discussion toward finding responsible solutions to ethical dilemmas. Instructors need to acknowledge that students will not make gains in their ability to critically evaluate and problem solve until they have gained awareness that ethical issues exist. Instructors should be prepared to begin with a discussion of obvious breaches of professional standards. When the majority of students have at least a basic awareness of the issues, cases that are less clear-cut can be introduced.

Students enter college with a wide range of values and views, and some may become concerned that discussion of ethics will eventually threaten their positions on moral issues. It is helpful to differentiate between morals and standards of conduct at the outset. Reminding students that personal criticism is off-limits and that personal religious or ideological principles will be respected creates a safe environment that encourages students to examine the grounds for their beliefs without threatening them or requiring them to adopt the moral values of others.

Students tend to more readily engage in classroom activities when a learning community is created in which students teach one another. Working in small groups is less intimidating and an excellent way to break the ice. The instructor can facilitate the peer learning process by serving as a guide who provides structure. The decision making model provided by Koocher and Keith-Spiegel (1998) offers a useful structural framework for keeping the discussion focused on standards of conduct and avoiding straying into heated deliberation of moral values.

Instructors should consider evaluating students' mastery in: 1) basic knowledge of the ethical standards of the profession and 2) attainment of the goals described earlier. Different grading formats should be used in determining progress in these two areas. Assessing mastery of professional standards can be accomplished by a traditionally graded examination in which students must demonstrate, for example, which practices are ethically acceptable versus which are in violation of ethical standard given a set of parameters or a hypothetical scenario.

Assessment of students' development of ethical sensitivity, critical thinking, and ability to consider alternatives is difficult using a traditional grading format since much of the mastery students achieve is a result of guided reflection. If instructors expect their students to regularly reflect upon ethical issues, then they need to give students opportunities to reflect and they need to provide feedback on how students approach this process. Requiring students to keep a journal or a portfolio of writing assignments in which they engage in self-assessment is, therefore, a good way to monitor and evaluate student progress. Using these formats, a completion grade (credit/no credit; pass/fail) is the preferred method. However, it is important to provide guidance and structure to such writing assignments so that students use them productively.

Perhaps it goes without saying that an instructor's credibility as teacher of professional ethics is greatest when she or he models ethical conduct. Students recognize when their professors cut ethical corners, bend the rules, or ignore instances of unethical behavior (e.g., cheating) in their classes. Instructors are not immune to ethical lapses. Self-reflection on responsible choices is not just for our students. It is a habit in which each of us should regularly engage to avoid inadvertently sending students the confusing message of "Do as I say, not as I do."

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DEBORAH WARE BALOGH is Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University. A Fellow of the Society for Personality Assessment, she is a former graduate program director and former director of the Graduate Student Development Project, a BSU program designed to enhance the professional skills of graduate students, including those serving as teaching assistants.

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University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
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