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Ethics of Teaching in Higher Education: #4 Student Development

March 15, 2012

This post is part of a series examining the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education’s (STLHE) “Ethical Principles in University Teaching“. Each post will focus one area and unpack it, raise questions, and attempt to further dialogue around how to teach ethically in the higher education classroom.

The fourth area on STLHE’s list is: Student Development.

The most basic stated goal of this responsibility is to “design instruction that facilitates learning and encourages autonomy and independent thinking in students”. This perhaps seems obvious at a first glance, most instructors are likely aware, at least at some level, of the need to see development in students. The issues arise when we examine: how do we facilitate development and how do we assess student development?

First, what needs to be examined is how we define development? Is it critical engagement with the material? Learning a specified set of information? Communicating certain learning objectives? Deciding this is intricately tied into how we facilitate and assess student’s development.

Once it is defined, how do we facilitate this development? This was discussed briefly in the area of pedagogical competence, but can we expect students to practice and develop critical engagement skills when we solely model traditional teaching methods such as the lecture?

Beyond this, how can we assess development? Does it always reveal itself in writing assignments and class presentations, or are there other assignments and activities that may better aid in assessment? Are there other ways to measure development aside from assignments? How do instructors account for different developmental models and learning styles?

The STLHE article also makes an excellent points about the power dynamics between instructors and students:

Less obvious examples of failure to take responsibility for student development can arise when teachers ignore the power differential between themselves and students…

There are certain power dynamics in the classroom that at the very least need to be recognized rather than ignored; this is part of the responsibility for student development. Without recognition there is the opportunity for the abuse of power, the failure to see the value of student’s knowledge and contributions to the class, and a failure to value student’s individual development. The STLHE lists a number of individual behaviors that result from failure to take power into account: derogatory remarks, sexual harassment, failure to acknowledge academic debts to students, etc… but there is more to the power dynamic than this. How is your classroom facilitated and your course designed with this power differential in mind, or is it at all? How can you mitigate this power differential? As the teacher, there is no way to abrogate the power completely but for student development it’s possible that handing some of the power back to students is beneficial in their development.

Another aspect to consider in this is how far this responsibility extends. Can student development happen fully in the classroom? Is there a responsibility outside class hours, in terms of availability for discussion and guidance or in terms of individual support? Many nominating letters for teaching awards speak of how instructors went beyond the class hours to communicate, guide, support and inform students of opportunities for further academic and professional development.

Finally, a focus on how faculty can ethically develop graduate students. The STLHE states that faculty should avoid actions such as exploitation and discrimination that detract from student development. With graduate students there is often a fine line between exploitation and development when they are involved in your research projects or acting as your assistants. How much are you teaching or developing their skills and how much are you exploiting their labor and time? There needs to be a conscious effort to not simply assign tasks or research but to work with graduate students in these tasks, to develop research and writing skills and to mentor them.

Check out the rest of the series:

Part 1: Content Competence

Part 2: Pedagogical Competence

Part 3: Dealing with Sensitive Issues

Part 5: Dual Relationships with Students

Part 6: Confidentiality

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