Thomas Cooper

How ethics is taught at leading institutions in the Pacific region

This paper includes 1) the previously unpublished findings of a current (2015-2016) study (Part II) about the teaching of ethics at leading English-speaking institutions in the Pacific region, 2) a comparison of those findings with a companion study (Part I) conducted at leading institutions in the Atlantic region in 2008, and 3) the aggregate findings of the two studies considered as parts of a single research project. The purpose of the overall research was to determine how ethics is taught at selected leading English-speaking institutions of higher education, the challenges these ethics teachers and their students face, how individual faculty/staff members enhance their teaching effectiveness over time, and many other related questions. Ideally, the findings can help individuals, institutions and possibly the public better understand and improve ethics instruction.

Keywords: ethics, Pacific region, teaching and learning, higher education, public understanding


Field research was conducted in 2008 to determine how ethics and moral philosophy were being taught in six leading English-speaking universities - Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, Princeton and the University of Edinburgh - and in five additional top-ranked departments and programmes elsewhere in the Atlantic region. Supported by a Page grant, by sabbatical endorsement from Emerson College, and by guest scholar-in-residence status at the University of Edinburgh, Union University, and field locations above this researcher visited and/or corresponded with scholars at eleven British and US campuses in a study titled 'Part I - Atlantic Region'. A complete summary of the findings was published in 2009 in Teaching Ethics (Vol. 10, No. 1 pp 11-42) while an abridged overview also was published in Ethical Space (Vol. 6, No. 1 pp 12-16).

A companion study ('Part II - Pacific') was conducted in 2015-2016 to determine how ethics and moral philosophy were and are being taught at leading Pacific region English-speaking institutions in the United States, Canada, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. Within this latter study, the 'Pacific region' of the United States meant California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. This study is reported below for the first time. It was supported by an anonymous invited grant, by guest scholar status at Stanford, UC-Berkeley, the East-West Center, and the University of Hawaii, and by full-year sabbatical endorsement by Emerson College.


Although the purpose of Part I was to study Atlantic region ethics instruction and Part II was to inspect Pacific region instruction, both studies constitute a larger project with these purposes:

  1. to determine how ethics classroom instruction is taught in many leading English-speaking institutions;
  2. to learn from respected ethics teachers how many enhance their teaching effectiveness over time;
  3. to gather an inventory of creative teaching tools and resources potentially helpful to other ethics faculty;
  4. to ascertain in what sense of the word 'ethics' may be successfully taught within higher education;
  5. to ascertain collective views on primary pedagogical issues within ethics; and
  6. to compile statistical data on these and related questions.

After interviews with forty selected ethics faculty were recorded, coded, analysed and amalgamated to determine discernible patterns, then two further purposes of the study could be completed:

7) to share the study with other instructors, administrators and educators to better publicise findings about the teaching of ethics; and

8) ideally, to add tools and recommendations for improvement to a larger inventory.

This report not only includes 2015 findings from Pacific region institutions (Part II) and refers to 2008 primary findings from the Atlantic region (Part I), but also contains comparisons between the two studies.

Summary of primary findings

Here are the 'headlines' about findings of the 2015-2016 study listed in bullet point format only:

  • Participant use of short papers, classroom discussion, the teaching of applied ethics, bringing new ideas from the field into the classroom, discussing 'hot' issues (e.g. hate speech, racism, genetic manipulation, sexual morals, etc.) are all trending upward since the 2008 study.
  • A strict adherence to canonical (e.g. Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, etc.) texts, case studies, assigning self-authored texts and formal debates are all trending slightly downward since 2008.
  • Faculty think that both ethics students and teachers now face the same greatest obstacle within the educational process - a perceived lack of time.
  • Far more women and a somewhat more racially diverse faculty are increasingly prominent contributors to teaching ethics than in 2008.
  • Faculty remain divided about whether ethics teachers should be 'neutral' referees in the classroom or should 'take a stand' and reveal their 'biases'.
  • Although faculty also remain divided about whether the ethics of 'moral improvement' (i. e. 'being a better person') may be taught in schools, the majority now feel it should not or cannot be taught at the university level. One third disagree.
  • The most frequently mentioned reason ethics faculty now teach pertains to 'service to society' rather than other reasons often reported such as enjoyment, passion for learning, fulfilment, love of students, etc.
  • There is currently a push back against PowerPoint-type technologies by many ethics professors for both philosophical and pedagogical reasons. The minority defending PowerPoint was smaller than in 2008.
  • More faculty are minimising or banning the use of cellphones and laptops by students in their classrooms than in 2008.
  • Over time, newer faculty tend to move from a single (course content) to a dual (student-driven and personal research influenced) emphasis compared with the previous study.
  • As in 2008, most ethics faculty typically and Socratically consistently challenge students' assumptions, opinions, beliefs and the status quo.
  • As in 2008, while students frequently find the mode of ethical and philosophical thinking challenging and unsettling to their desire for closure and moral simplicity, often they later find this approach to thinking rewarding and relevant.
  • As in 2008, graduate ethics courses tend to be 1) smaller, 2) less formal, and 3) more student-driven. Graduate pedagogies more frequently include 4) student presentations, 5) textbooks/articles written by the professor, 6) allusions to the professor's research, and 7) more expansive discussion supplanting the media projections, debates, cases and lectures prominent within undergraduate classes.
  • Just as the Oxford/Cambridge traditional tutorial system provided a minor influence on the overall 2008 study outcomes, even so the Confucian/Taoist Eastern tradition has a minor influence overall in the teaching of ethics in English-speaking institutions in the Pacific. However, the primary curricula in both studies are similar.
  • While for some participants ethics is only subject matter or a mental process, for many it is also a potential means for both students and faculty to raise the bar in public discussion if not to bring pro-social change in civic moral decision-making.
  • The participants and their selection

    The participants from Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton, and their selection process for the first study were previously listed in Teaching Ethics and Ethical Space. For the 2015 companion study 60 potential participants were chosen by reputation and referral by advisors within germane leading professional organisations and institutions and by selected ethics 'elders', then compared for frequency of mention, location and for balanced demographics. This process narrowed the group to 54 which then self-selected for participation according to availability and choice.

    Major advisors to the selection process consisted of appropriate American Philosophy Association (APA) officers and selected academic leaders in the field. Initially 43 of the 54 at leading Pacific institutions (Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, the Australian National University, etc.), responded that they were available to participate. When six of these dropped out or could not meet a deadline, alternates who had been similarly selected were invited to fill vacancies until the group again came to a total of 40 participants.

    More teachers from larger high echelon universities were selected for the study whereas only one or two were typically chosen from smaller and lower ranked universities including those within tiny nations. Thus factors of scale, reputation, ranking, advisory input, representation, demographics, sub-discipline and 'quota' were all taken into account when both institutions and individuals were selected. Those interviewed included a wide spectrum of roles and experience including former and current deans, department chairs, centre and programme heads; recently retired faculty and professionals currently teaching ethics including journalists, lawyers and health professionals. A few relatively new staff members who had taught ethics for fewer than eight years were included to add generational scope, representativeness and 'new blood'. Some 52 per cent were full professors, 28 per cent were associate, and 20 per cent were either assistant professors (15 per cent) or instructors (5 per cent) if one uses US academic nomenclature. Some 23 per cent were or had been academic administrators.

    Invitations to a large numbers of women and those from a spectrum of races and cultures were extended. Although only eight women (20 per cent of participant total) accepted the invitation for the Atlantic study in 2008, twice as many (40 per cent) participated in the Pacific study. In 2008, only one diversity participant was available while in 2015 this number had grown to seven (18 per cent) diversity (including disability) staff members. These increases were roughly proportional to the increasing numbers of women and individuals from diverse cultures within relevant disciplines in higher education.

    In the 2008 Atlantic study, 52 per cent taught in the US and 48 per cent in Great Britain. In Part II, 72 per cent of those interviewed taught in the US and the remainder at other English-speaking countries in the Pacific (although several have taught in both environments and a few have taught in at least three countries). As of 2015, twenty-nine had taught within institutions in the US Pacific region; four in Australia; two each in New Zealand, Canada (Pacific coast) and Hong Kong, and one in Singapore.

    On average, the 2015 participants had taught an average of 51 ethics and moral philosophy classes yielding an estimated total of 2,040 classes taught before and during 2015! Of these, on average 58 per cent percent were undergraduate classes, 27 per cent graduate, and 15 per cent mixed classes, almost the same as in 2008.

    Approximately 42 per cent of these courses were taught in philosophy departments, 40 per cent in professional (e.g. medicine, law, journalism and business) colleges and (ethics) institutes, while 18 per cent were taught in other departments or mixed (e.g. interdisciplinary institutes, cross-listed courses, humanities programmes) venues.

    Approach and methods

    Adapting questions used by Kenneth Bain in his Harvard University Press award-winning book, What the best college teachers do (Bain 2004), the researcher created a 40-question interview that was uniformly administered to all eighty participants whether in person (35 per cent), online (60 per cent) or by phone (5 per cent) according to their preference, geographic distance (including during travel) and availability. In both years almost one third of all participants also provided additional materials such as relevant syllabi or hand-outs. Twenty-two were also observed during lecture or seminar teaching some 'live' and some via recordings.

    Of the 40 questions, 10 focused upon general teaching (e.g. 'What are your teaching methods?', 'How do you prepare to teach?') as developed by Bain, while the remaining 30 were created for this study by the researcher to focus upon:

    1) how teaching effectiveness is enhanced and evolves over time (10 questions);

    2) how ethics and moral philosophy courses are specifically taught by these faculty (10 questions); and

    3) empirical data about teaching experience (e.g. 'How many years have you taught ethics courses?').

    Classroom observation of participants included undergraduate and graduate ethics, moral philosophy and next-of-kin courses offered within philosophy departments and professional colleges based upon availability, logistics and permission.

    Summary of findings: Teaching ethics (Question 31)

    Clearly one cannot ask if ethics instruction can be improved without considering whether ethics can and should be taught in the first place. Indeed, one long-standing debate within the educational domain and indeed within society expands upon the question 'Can ethics be taught?'

    According to responses from the participants the answer may depend upon what is meant by 'ethics' and within which culture, age group, or context. When they were asked 'What have you to say to those who feel that ethics cannot be taught?', most participants in the Pacific study responded that:

    1) it depends upon what is meant by ethics and may depend upon age and culture;

    2) if ethics means thinking more clearly, systematically, or knowledgeably about moral decision-making, then most (88 per cent) say ethics can be taught; and

    3) if ethics means the improvement of moral character or becoming a 'better' person, then only one third (33 per cent) believe that 'moral growth' can be 'taught' within a university-level ethics classroom. Some 53 per cent feel that such educators cannot teach students to be 'better' people while 14 per cent are not sure.

    The first two findings immediately above were similar to the 2008 study. However, finding 3) showed a marked difference from the Atlantic region research in which participants were evenly divided (40 per cent positive; 40 per cent negative, 15 per cent unsure, 5 per cent other) about whether moral improvement could be taught in universities. Figure 1 below indicates how the question 'Should “ethics”, meaning moral improvement, be taught within higher education?' was answered by participants in 2008, in 2015, and on the whole (see 'average').

    Figure 1

    In both studies most thought that ethics instruction can and should effect improvements in moral reasoning. Yet 2015 participants did not feel that changes in moral action should be taught (53 per cent negative; 33 per cent positive), thus indicating an increase or difference of 13 per cent in the negative response since 2008.

    In the recent Pacific study Debra Satz, Senior Associate Dean of Humanities and Arts at Stanford, commented: 'Ethics can certainly be taught; it's a discipline like many others. But teaching ethics as a way of making people ethical is not the best route.' Dr Sara Goering, at the University of Washington, explained: 'I'm not teaching them an ethical view, but ... how to evaluate a wide variety of ethical arguments.' Professor Mark Schroeder, at the University of Southern California, stated: 'Students can come to be better at recognising when a situation is morally fraught ... what can't be taught is a method or way of solving moral problems.'

    The majority expressed the view that classroom ethics is not a moral 'fix-it kit': one participant said: 'If people are not already inclined to be ethical, studying ethics will probably not persuade them.' Dr Scott Anderson, of the University of British Columbia in Canada, added: 'I don't expect an ethical sceptic or the ethically indifferent to change their minds.'

    Some participants pointed out that the matter is not one of opinion and that valid studies may be consulted. Professor Deborah Rhode, Founding Director of Stanford's Ethics Center, observed that 'there's a fair amount of research literature that concludes that young adults do develop in their ethical reasoning ... well designed courses can have a positive effect'. Others noted the value of ethics pedagogy whether or not it can 'make people better'. Professor Glen Pettigrove, at the University of Auckland, wrote that college instruction 'will not turn a sociopath into a philanthropist ... but it will provide people who already care about certain values with tools they might use to deliberate ...'

    Not everyone agrees. Both in the 2008 and current studies, there are also those who think that moral development can or should be initiated, advanced or enhanced within the classroom. Is this thinking more pronounced in parts of the Pacific region due to the legacy of Asian philosophy? Professor Grace (Lai Kuen) Leung, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, commented: 'It is easier to teach ethical behaviour in Asian societies because the Confucius culture backs up the importance of being moral and ethical.' However, many institutions in the North American part of the Pacific region have not been discernibly impacted by Asian philosophies. It is hard to know how much weight to give this factor, say, in states such as Oregon and Washington or in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

    In both studies participants overwhelmingly affirmed the importance of teaching ethics as moral reasoning, reflection, the application of key philosophers' principles and a lens for better understanding moral dilemmas. See Figure 2 below for the overall replies in 2015, 2008, and on the whole ('average').

    Figure 2

    Where they differed was that in 2015 a majority (53 per cent) took the position that teaching moral behavioural growth at the university level should not be undertaken while only 40 per cent took this position in 2008. There were articulate spokespersons on both sides of each set of interviews. On the one hand, David Smith, Margaret Farley, and Elizabeth Anderson argued similarly in 2008: 'You may not change students' overall behaviour, but you can give them corrective lenses' (David Smith, Yale); 'You can't make every student a good person but increasing students' moral insight is helpful' (Margaret Farley, Yale), and 'Does [classroom ethics] make people more virtuous? I doubt it. But it may make them more responsible, thoughtful decision-makers when hard decisions arise' (Elizabeth Anderson, University of Michigan).

    Those voicing support for normative and corrective ethics in the Atlantic study included appeals to Kant '... since ethics is not inbred, it must be taught' (Stephen Latham, Yale); or to modelling: 'When showing is better than telling, thinking about ethics is best taught and displayed by who you are in students' presence' (Nick Adams, Cambridge); or to social necessity: 'Given the state of the world, ethics must be taught' (Julian Savulescu, Oxford, 2008).

    Toward what end? (Questions 12, 13)

    Let us suppose that ethics, at least by some definitions of that word, can be taught? What then? What might a student learn in such a course? What would successful teaching of an ethics course look like? All participants were asked two questions (12 and 13) about such 'success'.

    When asked 'What do you expect students will be able to do perceptually and conceptually upon completion of your class which they could not do upon entry?', they answered as rank-ordered below left (top nine responses only) in Figure 3.

    Figure 3

    A large range of less frequently mentioned teaching aspirations were also articulated including: speaking persuasively (8 per cent), moving beyond opinion (8 per cent), reading slowly and thoughtfully (8 per cent), and more. In 2015, 27 per cent of all participants also listed goals that might be unique to their own classroom such as 'learn how to counsel executives about ethics' (2 per cent) and 'take these ethics theories from the textbook into their science labs' (2 per cent).

    An overview of the statistics above suggests that while a large majority see themselves as primarily teaching critical thinking and moral theory, some go further into more specialised areas. Professor Margaret McLean, who teaches within a historically religious institution (Santa Clara University), added to her list of goals 'to recognise the role that religion and faith play in ethical decision-making historically and currently'. Professor Ann Auman, at the University of Hawaii, who is teaching future journalists, commented:

    Students are faced with many ethical issues in the world of social media and online information. ... I want them to learn that they need a set of standards to follow because they are both consumers and producers of news and information. It is their responsibility to create and maintain a moral compass.

    When asked: 'What do you expect of your students' learning if you are to regard it as successful?', the Pacific region participants replied that their students should be able to:

    53 per cent - identify ethical issues and explain them;

    45 per cent - make better ethical decisions;

    38 per cent - apply tools for ethical decision-making to their lives and careers;

    35 per cent - engage in more sophisticated thinking/reasoning;

    35 per cent - know the major ideas of the course content;

    35 per cent - articulate moral views more clearly;

    33 per cent - converse more intelligently and respectfully with those with whom they disagree;

    25 per cent - develop ethical sensitivity and courage;

    18 per cent - become more self-critical/aware.

    How to teach ethics? (Questions 11, 18, 19, 20, 28, 29, 32, 33, 37)

    In the Pacific study, on the surface teaching staff seemed to use standard teaching tools. For example, although 18 per cent opposed the use of final exams, 38 per cent gave finals. Some 90 per cent assigned and graded long (53 per cent) or short (75 per cent) papers. Some 23 per cent assigned both. Other exercises which were graded included discussion/participation (35 per cent), responses to readings (33 per cent), quizzes (28 per cent), mid-term exams (18 per cent), group projects (18 per cent), class presentations (18 per cent), homework (18 per cent), case study analysis (15 per cent) and rewriting assignments (15 per cent).

    When answering the question of whether teachers should use and sometimes profit from the sale of texts and articles they themselves have written, Pacific region participants revealed that they have always (13 per cent), frequently (10 per cent), sometimes (24 per cent), rarely (25 per cent), or never (28 per cent) used publications they have (co-) authored themselves. Most (85 per cent) also used new ideas and literature in the field, whether frequently (63 per cent), sometimes (20 per cent) or only in graduate courses (10 per cent).

    This new material was often (70 per cent) balanced with an emphasis upon traditional 'canon' texts by seminal moral philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant and Mill, and sometimes included more modern thinkers (e.g. Rawls, Parfit, Korsgaard) or in some cases more traditional Eastern (e.g. Confucius, Lao-Tzu) or feminist (e.g. Gilligan, Noddings) voices. Some (20 per cent) opposed the use of textbooks, anthologies, thumbnails and commentaries as primary resources. But others used topical texts (15 per cent), philosophical excerpts (15 per cent), diversity anthologies showcasing under-represented voices (10 per cent), standard textbooks (10 per cent), online and printed commentaries (10 per cent), traditional anthologies (10 per cent) and mixed (case study, philosophy, commentary) volumes (8 per cent).

    The data indicates a steady increase in adoption of new technologies since 2008. However, what is surprising is a reverse trend with two technologies: 1) a sharp increase (from 25 per cent to 45 per cent) in the objection to laptop and hand-held devices in the classroom; 2) increased concerns about PowerPoint (see below). Some 55 per cent of those who once used PowerPoint stated that they were either phasing out PowerPoint-type technologies or they had already done so.

    Half of the 20 per cent who use PowerPoint-type technologies defend them as 'student friendly', an 'eyeball focus', 'organisationally superior', 'easier and cheaper for students than buying Cliff Notes', 'no less interactive than using film and videos' and 'good creative pressure upon us faculty to really outline and clarify our thinking ... which in turn helps students'. Those who welcome laptops and cell phones are also persuasive: 'The laptop and smart phone bring almost all available knowledge right into the classroom'; 'We can't live in the past; thinking is no longer primarily silent reflection', and 'I bring mine to work; this is their work zone -how can I forbid them from bringing theirs?'

    Still others have adopted a PowerPoint policy or adjustment ('I still use it ... only a lot less'; 'It's for the first part of class only ... but then we turn up the lights and have great discussions.') Some also use a laptop policy such as 'They can use it only if they sit in the back row so no one else is distracted' and 'Their Wi-Fi access must be turned off so then cannot zoom in on baseball scores, email and porn during class... they know in advance my penalty for their losing focus.'

    When asked 'How do you prepare to teach?' the most frequent replies were rereading class reading assignments (55 per cent), reviewing notes (53 per cent), thinking about and searching for new examples, questions, and topics (38 per cent), writing a new outline or plan (38 per cent), reading widely from related texts and journals (38 per cent), preparing media clips, PowerPoint, and other technologies (23 per cent), finding topical tie-ins to class readings (20 per cent), collecting and updating materials (20 per cent), writing the entire lecture afresh (15 per cent) and originating and adapting key questions (13 per cent). Less frequently mentioned forms of preparation were unique to individuals such as 'preparing spatial organisation on blackboard', 'seeking input from senior professionals', 'following up on student questions' and 'getting enough sleep'.

    Primary teaching problems (Questions 15, 16, 34, 35)

    Faculty in the current study discussed both the problems they face in the classroom and also the problems they perceive that students face. When asked: 'What problems do you face working with students?', staff members replied as in Figure 4.

    Figure 4

    When asked the same question only from a student perspective (i.e. 'Which problems do you perceive that students face in learning from you?'), staff members replied as in Figure 5.

    Figure 5

    These two charts, in which faculty and students share overlapping problems, reveal just a few of the challenges. Depending upon geography other reported problems faculty and students may face include dependency upon drugs and alcohol, preference for skills (rather than cognitive) training, grade inflation, blind acceptance of 'relativism', a factory approach to teaching, mono-cultural bias, dogmatic religious or political beliefs (by either party), the teacher's hand-writing, class conversation 'bullies', speed-driven lecturing and many others.

    In response to this debate, participants were quizzed: 'How does your ethics instruction impart a free and rational inquiry without bias?' They replied as within Figure 6 below.

    Figure 6

    While the field is still divided about whether modelling one's positions constitutes 'bias', there is near unity about the importance of engaging in honorable disagreement and respecting students' diverse views. In the debate about 'neutrality' vs. 'advocacy', those leaning toward being an 'even-tempered referee' had much to say. Mark Schroeder, at USC, explained:

    I don't reveal any of my own views when I teach. I'm pretty successful with this as evidenced by the fact that I take open questions about what I think during the last day of classes. Students are always obviously surprised by many things ... there is no implication that students must come to think anything in particular.

    Outstanding teaching (Questions 30, 40)

    Questions 30 and 40 seemed most important to many teachers because they were asked if there were keys or secrets to both excellent teaching at large (Question 30) and to drawing forth 'the best ethical thinking, passion for learning, and growth' (Question 40) from ethics students. Only two staff members by-passed these questions and most spoke or wrote passionately and at great length.

    In the recent 2015 study when asked: 'Are there any keys and secrets to outstanding teaching?' participants responded as in Figure 7.

    Figure 7

    When asked the similar, but more ethics-specific, question about 'What draws forth the best ethical thinking, passion for learning and growth?' participants replied as in Figure 8.

    Figure 8

    There were many aspects to what participants considered excellent teaching. One involved modelling: 'The more relaxed you are, the more relaxed they can be which helps with your first job - building community,' Stanford/MIT Professor Tamar Schapiro explained. At the Australian National University, Tamara Browne agreed: 'When you enjoy it, the students enjoy it too. You must have a passion for the subject ... and enjoy the performance aspect.'

    The final question on the survey asked: 'Given that the Latin root of education, educare, means to rear or draw forth, what have you discovered draws forth the best ethical thinking, passion for learning and growth from your students?' Although it was the longest question, in 2008 it drew the shortest, and possibly most important reply. At Cambridge, Professor Simon Blackburn replied with only one word: 'Honesty.'

    Enhancing pedagogical effectiveness (Questions 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27)

    One of the most important areas of research pertained to how teachers improve teaching over time whether through trial and error, feedback from students and peers, or more formal mechanisms such as workshops, mentors, teaching centres, video playback and assessment. Faculty in both surveys relied more upon student feedback and personal reflection than upon other approaches.

    In the Pacific study, most participants (90 per cent) reported making temporary or long-term changes in their approach to teaching. Almost two thirds (65 per cent) of all changes were made to accommodate student (including graduate assistant 15 per cent) feedback.

    Most student-directed changes (70 per cent of all changes made) pertained to adjusting to the students' 1) self-reported thinking capacity, 2) media preferences, 3) learning pace, 4) homework saturation point, and 5) other forms of feedback. Faculty respondents disclosed becoming 'more relaxed', 'more varied in approach', 'less didactic', 'more aware of students as individuals', 'more conversational', and 'less ambitious' and thus many teachers often reduced the amount, speed, or level of course presentation, reading material, homework or lecturing. Often participants increased the amount of 1) discussion (28 per cent), 2) spontaneity (20 per cent), 3) newer media (20 per cent), 4) reading and homework incentives (15 per cent), 5) online presence (15 per cent) and 6) updated material (15 per cent). They also decreased the length of lectures (15 per cent), essays/papers (15 per cent) and readings (13 per cent) in response to student feedback.

    Student written (formal) and spoken (informal) feedback effected instructor changes 'frequently' (65 per cent) or 'sometimes' (33 per cent) although one instructor (2 per cent) felt that feedback was unnecessary and unimportant. Seven (18 per cent) deliberately initiated additional student input by creating their own feedback forms and processes or by using college-wide mid-term evaluation forms.

    Student feedback coupled with the passing of time seems to have had a tempering effect on many rigidities and possibly unrealistic expectations of some younger staff members. Bill Damon, at Stanford, revealed: 'I've become a better improviser and more fluid ... and I require less reading.' Berkeley's Tom Goldstein has become a 'little looser about the lesson plan ... and a little less doctrinaire about when the plan gets covered'.

    A second means for potentially enhancing pedagogical effectiveness is the input of other faculty. While 10 per cent felt that their courses were 'not influenced' by faculty colleagues and 20 per cent felt they had 'only rarely learned' from their peers, almost three fourths (73 per cent) felt they had either 'frequently' (30 per cent) or 'sometimes' (43 per cent) accrued teaching insights from colleagues. Many of those felt they had learned:

    1. informally, by observing their own teachers, guest lecturers and other faculty (40 per cent);
    2. from collaborative or team-teaching processes (20 per cent);
    3. by sitting in on each other's classes (15 per cent), and
    4. by more formal peer evaluation (10 per cent).

    To a lesser extent participants also learned from other formats such as teacher surveys, conference panels, correspondence and instructor supervision.

    Participants were asked not only how they evaluated their teaching via student and faculty input, but also via their own reflection and independent analysis. Almost all (98 per cent) reported some mode of self-inspection whether they described it as 'self-criticism' (38 per cent), 'thinking about my teaching' (35 per cent) or 'continual assessment' (25 per cent). Some 23 per cent took the practical approach of quickly discarding what had not been working in class, but others (13 per cent) first utilised either graduate assistant feedback, informal student feedback such as after class or during office hours, or requested a meeting with CITL (a campus programme for teacher training) personnel. Still others (10 per cent) said that they welcomed peer classroom visitation.

    Some 20 per cent reported some additional means of evaluating their work. A participant at the University of Southern California said: 'Every class ... I hand out a sheet that asks them to “name two things about the class you would change ... and two things you would not change”. I then aggregate these results, share the trends with the class, and make relevant adjustments.'

    Why teach? (Questions 14, 17)

    Figure 9 below shows not only how current participants answered the question 'Why do you teach?' but also shows how this question was answered in 2008 and the averaged answer when the two surveys are treated as one.

    Figure 9

    Many other reasons were articulated in both parts of the study such as 'relating theory to practice', 'I'm good at it' and 'it is important for its own sake'. Many teachers teach ethics for the gratification of engaging in an effective or rewarding job. When asked 'How do you know when you've done a good job teaching?', the largest number of 2015 participants answered 'the degree of student engagement with the material' (43 per cent), including in class, in assignments, by e-communication and during office hours. Positive feedback about the course and teacher, whether informally (40 per cent) such as students rushing the podium at the end of class, ovations, thank you notes and spontaneous comments, or more formally (28 per cent) such as through mandatory written evaluations, were also key indicators.

    Other important 'signs' of perceived effective teaching included the increased comprehension of material (23 per cent), greater quality of student contributions (20 per cent), unexpected positive feedback such as via holiday cards, requests for recommendations, and invitations to student events (20 per cent); increased retention of ideas (15 per cent), greater sophistication of discussion (15 per cent), depth and refinement of final papers (15 per cent) and more independent thinking (10 per cent).

    To be sure almost one quarter of the participants (23 per cent) stated that they were not certain when they had been successful in their teaching. Nevertheless, the majority experienced positive perceptions that they translated as momentary if not sustained success. As Bill Damon, at Stanford, indicated: 'You can really tell ... they have those visible “Eureka” moments.'

    Analysis and interpretation

    When analysing the two studies seven years and several thousand miles apart, there are clearly factors of both time and space which separate the two studies. In some cases it is hard to be certain which differences might be caused by time, space, a mixture of the two and other factors both known - such as the participants and their backgrounds - and unknown - including hidden influences upon each participant and institution.

    The introduction of specific new technologies in the classroom might well be partially explained by 'time' since some technologies were unavailable in 2008. On the other hand, a greater emphasis upon Taoist, Buddhist and Confucianist ethics in the curriculum of some Pacific institutions might seem more due to a 'bias' of 'space' or geography. Yet other differences such as the number of faculty who, for example, now prefer Aristotle to Kant or vice versa, who did not before, may have little to do with time or space and might be explained by yet other factors or remain unknown.

    The ongoing expansion (from 28 per cent to 40 per cent) of ethics taught within the professional schools and other expansion within programmes, institutes and departments other than philosophy, might be seen as a product of time if that growth pattern may be shown to be part of a national or international trend. However, such 'growth' might not be a trend at all but rather an accidental over-representation of participants from such applied programmes. They might constitute a sample not likely to be replicated by the demographics of other samples. More and different research is needed to find out. Moreover, one must be very careful about the interpretation of data based upon only eighty participants.

    'Time' refers to far more than a literal eight-year interval and also includes movement into an age of 'super-speed-up'. Does this sort of 'time change' help explain why it seems that both students and faculty find the primary limitation to their learning is a perceived or real 'lack' of time? Might this 'time starvation' also have bearing upon the trend toward 'short' papers, faster technologies and smaller content 'dosages?' Or not? Common sense and research alike suggest that technology and socio-cultural trends 'link' to the psychology of time and its perceived quantification and speed.

    The reaction to PowerPoint, laptop use by students and cell phones in the classroom seems more driven by time than space since many faculty welcomed these technologies initially, then reacted to their impact upon students over time. Such a pattern happened across many regions and cultures and the impulse to react seemed largely based upon first-hand experience rather than geographic accent. More faculty than not who phased out PowerPoint or who banned laptop and cell phone use did so following an initial trial phase, that is, over time. And their objections were based more upon over-arching general philosophical and pedagogical concerns, not derived from national or cultural belief systems which were location-specific (i. e. 'space').

    Another dimension of time pertains to the age of the participants' institutions. When one considers the history, standards and traditions of universities in the Atlantic region and remembers that the average age of Oxbridge and Ivy institutions taken together is more than 4000 years old, then the other Pacific institutions - which average a little more than one hundred years each - look quite young by comparison.

    Although Stanford and Berkeley, among others, stand somewhere in between the 'older' and 'younger' institutions, throughout their development and those of the surrounding schools in California, western Canada, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, such universities also felt the need to emulate if not compete with the prototypical Oxbridge and Ivy cultures.

    Many of these 'parent' Atlantic institutions sought to define and to some degree transplant curricular templates not only for higher education writ large but also for the ethics classroom. Nevertheless, the degree of influence varies from institution to institution and cannot be seen as homogenous or conclusive.

    What about 'space'? One participant in Asia wrote directly about the decades of influence of Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, Taoist and even Maoist ethics upon institutions of the Asian Pacific and their curricula. One is more likely to find a higher proportion of courses about Confucian or Taoist ethics taught in Hawaii and California (not just Singapore or Hong Kong) than in Rhode Island or Scotland. Space matters.

    Moreover, evidence seems to suggest that, despite exceptions, teaching styles, student requirements and even university dress codes are somewhat more relaxed and 'pacific' in the Pacific. Overall the 2015 participants, despite notable exceptions, did appear to be somewhat but not substantially less formal, demanding and competitive.

    But how much of that may be accounted for by 'space'? Many other factors, not just time, space, culture and their mixture, are often more subtle or undetected. For example, the selection, training and predispositions of each participant, the time that each allotted the interview (some were laconic, others comprehensive), what they ate and drank the night before, and a host of other factors, had unmeasured impact upon the outcome of both studies.

    All researchers must stay humble in the light of uncertainty, the likely misinterpretation of culture and many types of possible human error. Moreover, it is impossible to calculate the interplay of seen but misunderstood influences, not to mention invisible factors not perceived until years later. Would 40 different participants from the same institutions answer the 40 questions identically to those in 2008 or 2015? That seems unlikely. Would 40 participants from neighbouring institutions or fields answer identically? That too is unlikely. Would these same 40 or 80 answer identically one year later or earlier? Also unlikely. But in general would most if not all of the over-arching patterns emerge despite variations? That seems more likely.

    So the comparisons seem noteworthy, but neither absolute nor permanent. Nor has their reliability and validity been tested by other researchers choosing different samples.

    • Graphics by Angela Carlson-Bancroft assisted by Michael Duggan


    1. Bain, K. (2004) What the best college lecturers do, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press

    Note on the contributor

    Dr Tom Cooper has been a guest scholar at Stanford, Berkeley, the East-West Center and the University of Hawaii. He is Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. The Association for Responsible Communication, which he founded, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and he has received many awards and scholarships. Cooper taught at Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude, and at Temple University, the University of Hawaii and at University of Maryland. A former assistant to Marshall McLuhan, he is the author, editor or co-author of seven books and more than one hundred academic and professional published articles on media ethics and related topics. Musician, poet, playwright and Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do, he is currently also one of the speechwriters and editors for Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of Puma. He was a consultant to the Elders Project which involved global ‘elders’ such as Nelson Mandela, Kofi Anan and Jimmy Carter.