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Teaching Ethics

The Graduate School at Penn State is dedicated to developing faculty and graduate students' commitment to ethical teaching practices. In the past, universities have paid less attention to the ethics of teaching than to research ethics. One valuable source of information about ethical teaching is an issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning. The editor produced a special edition of the journal, titled Ethical Dimensions of College and University Teaching: Understanding and Honoring the Special Relationship Between Teachers and Students, in which several authors provided theoretical and practical guidelines for honing ethical college teaching skills. Some of the authors' recommendations are listed below.

Four Norms to Govern Teaching

  • Honesty
  • Promise-Keeping: Promise-keeping requires the instructor to fulfill the "promises" made at the beginning of the semester. Syllabi, assignments, grading principles, and class and office hour schedules involve promises made to students.
  • Respect for Persons: Teachers ought to encourage mutual respect among students. Additionally, instructors ought to show respect and common courtesy for students both during interpersonal interactions and in responding promptly to students' need for guidance and feedback.
  • Fairness: Recognizing the inherent subjectivity involved in grading, instructors ought to ensure that their grading practices are as objective as possible by creating and adhering to unambiguous criteria.

Principles of Ethical College and University Teaching

  1. Content Competence - A university teacher maintains a high level of subject matter knowledge and ensures that course content is current, accurate, representative, and appropriate to the position of the course within the student's program of study.
  2. Pedagogical Competence - A pedagogically competent teacher communicates the objectives of the course to students, is aware of alternative instructional methods or strategies, and selects methods of instruction that are effective in helping students to achieve the course objectives.
  3. Dealing with Sensitive Topics - Topics that students are likely to find sensitive or discomforting are dealt with in an open, honest, and positive way.
  4. Student Development - The overriding responsibility of the teacher is to contribute to the intellect development of the student, at least in the context of the teacher's own area of expertise, and to avoid actions such as exploitation and discrimination that detract from student development.
  5. Dual Relationships with Students - To avoid conflict of interest, a teacher does not enter into dual-role relationships with students that are likely to detract from student development or lead to actual or perceived favoritism on the part of the teacher.
  6. Confidentiality - Student grades, attendance records, and private communications are treated as confidential materials and are released only with student consent, for legitimate academic purposes, or if there are reasonable grounds for believing that releasing such information will be beneficial to the student or will prevent harm to others.
  7. Respect for Colleagues - A university teacher respects the dignity of her or his colleagues and works cooperatively with colleagues in the interest of fostering student development.
  8. Valid Assessment of Students - Given the importance of assessment of student performance in university teaching and in students' lives and careers, instructors are responsible for taking adequate steps to ensure that assessment of students is valid, open, fair, and congruent with course objectives.
  9. Respect for Institution - In the interest of student development, a university teacher is aware of and respects the educational goals, policies, and standards of the institution in which he or she teaches.

Visit the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics' website to learn more about ethics in college teaching. The association typically holds conferences in March and in midsummer.

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