Teaching ethics is important in every field. Often it is taught with case studies or simulations. Students read a scenario and then decide whether an ethical violation has occurred, or the material faces them with a decision that has ethical ramifications. How do students make these judgments?
Teaching ethics is important in every field. Often it is taught with case studies or simulations. Students read a scenario and then decide whether an ethical violation has occurred, or the material faces them with a decision that has ethical ramifications. How do students make these judgments? Often they rely on their personal value systems, which serve as a “compass” that guides their decision-making. But how cognizant are students, especially beginning ones, of these personal value systems?
The authors of a recent study don't think students are particularly insightful, and if they aren't, that has implications for the kind of ethical decisions they will gravitate toward in college courses and the actual decisions they will make in their professional careers. “Challenging students to understand their personal values is a fundamental step that aids in the development of an individual's professional ethics.” (p. 157)
Before they were confronted with case studies in subsequent courses, students in this introductory marketing class completed an assignment in which they created their own personal mission statements. It was a two-part assignment. First, they completed an online values/strengths exercise that helped them identify their personal values, and then they wrote a 1,500-word reflective paper that expanded on what they'd learned in the first part of the assignment.
Based on an interesting cognitive complexity measure, an analysis of the papers revealed that 76% of the students belonged “in the embryonic to fundamental states of articulating … individual values.” (p. 159) “As only 25% of this study's business students could articulate a firm understanding of their own personal values, it would be difficult to assume these students could engage in ethical decision-making activities or navigate case studies successfully.” (p. 160) All the students in the study indicated that writing this paper was the first time they had to articulate their personal values.
The values expressed by these students “focused on fundamentals”—what they had been taught by their parents or what they had learned from their association with a church or some other community organization about moral development and personal responsibilities. “Their descriptions did not yet illustrate a deep cognitive moral development or the ethical sensitivity that [other researchers] suggested were necessary components for ethical decision-making.” (p. 160)
It's an interesting assignment and one not only useful in business curricula. It could be used in many fields to help students think more clearly about their value systems. The authors suggest another interesting use of the assignment. Students could complete it early in their major, and then return to it in a capstone course. Have their values changed? How would they revise their personal mission statements now? Using the assignment this way would give students insight as to how their value systems had changed and/or how their understanding of them had deepened. At the capstone level, it might be appropriate to compare and contrast value systems, and to explore the implications of those systems for the students individually, for their professions, and for the larger society.
Teachers have a responsibility to prepare students to deal with ethical issues and situations. An assignment like this can establish the foundation needed to more effectively promote moral development.
Laird-Magee, T., Gayle, B. M., and Preiss, R. (2015). Personal values and mission statement: A reflective activity to aid moral development. Journal of Education for Business, 90 (3), 156-163.