Monday, November 28, 2011

Assessing Ethics

I've recently taken on a new job/role - the 'coordinator' for the ethics component of the general education curriculum at my university. Part of this role requires figuring out how to assess the ethics courses we teach. Although I have thought about ethics assessment before in the past, it was never my role to formally take it on, so I'm starting from scratch in many ways.

Since so many people here teach ethics, I'm hoping that some of you have suggestions about where to look to read about best practices in ethics assessment. I'm also hoping to hear some of your thoughts on ethics assessment in general. What do you take to be the greatest current mistake in how it is typically done? If you had your druthers, how would you do it? Of course, these questions all circle around the most central and core question: what should the goal of a general education ethics course be?

Thank in advance, and looking forward to your thoughts.


  1. Funny, this was the topic of of much of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum conference I just attended. There are a couple of instruments that exist, including a fairly standard one. But the talk that stuck out at the conference was Howard Curzer's attempt to create a better tool. You two attended the NEH summer seminar together, methinks. I'll let him know about this post and maybe he'll post something more informative than I ever could.

  2. @Adam and Kevin -

    Thanks. I think the thing that confuses me most on this question is not knowing, really, what the function of a gen ed ethics course is. I'm not questioning it - I think it is necessary, but I'm not sure exactly what people think should be happening as a result of the presence of that course.

    Should they simply be learning how to model situational data, for example seeing a situation in which utility, or dignity, or a relationship is compromised, and being able to articulate some response?

    Or should we be testing their fact that the course has contributed (or not) to students actually doing those things, or seeing things in a more ethical way?

    I'm not sure, but obviously the answers to these questions will strongly influence the proper method of assessment.

  3. My institution has a general education course in Critical Thinking in Ethics; I helped to formulate the current course outcomes and the methods of assessment. By no means am I sure that this is the best way to do it, but this is how we currently do it. There are four learning objectives for the course:
    1. To be able to explain the nature of ethics and how ethics impacts and is impacted by religion and human intuition.
    2. To be able to identify, formulate, and evaluation arguments.
    3. To be able to construct a logically correct ethical argument.
    4. To be able to identify the details of several contemporary moral controversies.

    A variety of assignments are constructed to help students meet these objectives. I have to submit an assessment report every year that measures how well the courses have helped students achieve these objectives. Right now, we measure this in two ways: 1. By comparing the average student score on the first writing assignment of the semester to the average score on the final writing assignment, and 2. Analyzing the scores on the final writing assignment, with the goal that the students will, on average, meet a certain standard. The writing assignments are constructed so that students are to show competence at all of the course learning objectives. I have a rubric that I have designed to grade the papers.

    The advantages of doing it this way: I can see whether and how much students have improved their skills, and I can see whether changes that I make in the curriculum have a measurable effect on how much they improve and on their final paper scores. In addition, it seems to satisfy the director of assessment!

    One downside: the way I do it more directly measures objectives 3 and 4 than 1 and 2, so it might be better to have a separate tool for measuring the first 2 objectives. But, that of course leads to more data collecting and tedious busy work.

    Depending on your institution and its goals for the course, you may want fewer learning objectives.

    I hope this is useful - I'm happy to show you my rubric, syllabi, and sample assessment reports if you're interested in more details.

  4. Josh -

    Thanks for that input. I think lately I'm of the mindset that ethics assessment should be more full-bodied. Particularly, I'm thinking of Nussbaum and her capabilities approach. Are some of those capabilities (which stretch beyond cognition to emotion and imagination, say) required for success in the kinds of ethical training we are supposed to be giving students? If so, should we be assessing that as well?

    Lately I am wondering whether all the focus on cognitive development (they can recognize a utilitarian when they see one) and writing is simply insufficient.

    What do you think?


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