Ethics in Teaching *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

We often hear of ethical violations of students, but less is mentioned about the ethical violations of teachers. However, there was a recent study of ethical violations of professors from the viewpoint of students.* The researchers wanted to find out if honors students set higher standards for their professors than students as a whole.

The subjects were 100 college students from an honors program and 282 students not in an honors program. All were introductory psychology students. They were asked to rank 107 behaviors of professors according to a five-point scale. The particular behavior could be rated as:

1. "not an unethical act/nothing wrong with this"

2. "poor manners or ‘tacky,’ but not unethical"

3. "unethical under rare circumstances"

4. "unethical under most circumstances"

5. "unethical under virtually all circumstances."

Essentially, no differences were found in the ratings between those who were honor students and those who were not. However, it is interesting to find out what types of behaviors were rated at the extremes of this scale by both groups. Since some behaviors apply only to college psychology classes, only those that fit any teaching situation will be mentioned. First are the behaviors rated as "not an unethical act" by over half the students.

• Giving points off for assignments handed in late. (83.8%)

• Teaching in jeans and a sweatshirt. (74%)

• Giving "pop" (unannounced) quizzes. (71%)

• Teaching full-time and holding down another job for at least 20 hours a week. (65%)

• Selling goods (such as cars or books) to a student. (59%)

• Giving only essay exams and assigning written projects (that is, no multiple choice exams). (58%)

• Talking to students (in private) about the student’s personal problems. (57%)

• Accepting a student’s inexpensive gift (that is, worth less than $5). (56%)

• Engaging in sexual relationships with other faculty members in the same department. (54%)

• Giving only multiple choice exams as the basis for the course grade. (51%)

In contrast, over three-quarters of the students rated the following behaviors as either "unethical under most circumstances" or "unethical under virtually all circumstances."

• Making deliberate or repeated sexual comments, gestures or physical contact toward a student that are unwanted by the student. (99%)

• Teaching under the influence of alcohol...cocaine or other illegal drug. (97%)

• Teaching that certain races are intellectually inferior. (96%)

• Including false or misleading information that hurt the students’ chances when writing a letter of recommendation for a student. (95%)

• Ignoring strong evidence of student’s cheating. (93%)

• Including material on the test that was not covered in the lecture or assigned reading. (93%)

• Requiring students to disclose highly personal information in a group discussion class (That is, the student who remains silent or "closed up" is graded down for that.) (93%)

• Changing the expected format of a test on the day of the test. (92%)

• Allowing how much a student is liked to influence what grade the student gets. (90%)

• Insulting or ridiculing the student in the student’s presence. (90%)

• Giving every student an "A" regardless of the quality of their work. (89%)

• Telling the student during a class discussion, "That was a stupid comment." (87%)

• Choosing a particular textbook for a class primarily because the publisher would pay them a "bonus" to do it. (86%)

• Intentionally leaving out something very important that would help a student when writing a letter of recommendation. (84.8%)

• Announcing exam grades of each student, by name, in front of the class. (83%)

• Running a film which might offend or emotionally upset some students without prior warning. (83%)

• Becoming sexually involved with a student. (81%)

• Changing the criteria for completion of a class in the middle of the semester (for example, adding an extra term paper...). (79%)

• Telling a student "I’m sexually attracted to you." (77.7%)

• Ignoring unethical behavior committed by their colleagues. (77.6%)

• Giving a very difficult exam during the third week of school in an attempt to encourage some students to drop the course. (77%)

Many people complain about unethical behavior of others,
but few do anything about it.

Do you agree with these students? If a teacher exhibits these unethical behaviors, what should be done about it? What is your ethical responsibility?

* Adapted from an unpublished study of Patricia Keith-Spiegel, Arno Wittig (Ball State University) and Barbara Tabachnick (California State University, Northridge), "Do Honors Students Hold Professors to Higher Ethical Standards?"

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