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The Ethics of Student Evaluations and Program Accreditations

Abraham Schwab

I just received my student evaluations for my Spring Semester courses at IPFW. Despite ongoing concerns that such evaluations are not particularly valuable methods for evaluating the quality of instruction, I always end up paying too close of attention to them. The scores and open-ended comments this year were pretty typical, and there’s one kind of comment that always seems to bother me. There’s always a student or two who interprets classroom dialogue and exchange, challenges and rebuttals, as something gone fundamentally wrong in the classroom. As “fighting”. This is particularly true in my Phil 312 — Medical Ethics course. 

This particular course serves a population of students who are in fields requiring great deals of memorization and retention—dental hygiene, nursing, radiography, etc. As a result, they come to my class ready to memorize. And there are things to memorize: the definitions of autonomy, paternalism, and confidentiality; the features of informed consent and surrogate decision-making; and the arguments dealing with abortion, euthanasia, and the just distribution of health care resources. But "medical ethics", for it to be worthy of the name “ethics", must go beyond memorization.

If my students walk out of my class with an encyclopedic understanding of informed consent, this will be of value. But it will not prepare them to handle their future work. They will, as a matter of fact, encounter issues in their careers that go beyond any definition they memorize in 2016.

And so, class time includes more than the review of information. It asks students to reflect, to think, to articulate their view. When they find themselves on the job and a situation comes up in which they have to decide what to do, a textbook definition may or may not be helpful. They’ll have to be ready to think for themselves, to provide answers to questions that weren’t asked when they were in school. Moreover, they will need to explain why their answer is a good answer, and articulate the values that undergird their answer. When I ask them for their answers in class, it begins a dialogue. I ask questions of their answers, point out implications that may not be anticipated, and ask them to consider how others, who don’t share their worldview might interpret their answers. And sometimes they convince me. Every semester my view on some subject or other is changed by a perspective, argument, or view, a student articulates.

And yet, every year, I get marked down on my student evaluations by some students because they think I’m trying to prove them wrong when I ask them questions about the views they express. To borrow from Jerry Maguire: They think we’re fighting and I think we’re just starting to talk.

One reason it’s important to stimulate and challenge my students, whether they are pre-professional, business, or something else, is their need for this kind of thinking in their work life. To be able to think clearly and to challenge the given wisdom of a dominant perspective needs more emphasis. My favorite example in this regard is Warren Buffett’s attempt to avoid the confirmation bias. In the past, Warren Buffett has invited someone highly critical of him and his approach to annual meetings, just to provide a check on his thinking and assumptions. 

It’s not surprising, then, that “Ethics” has become a required part of the accreditation for programs throughout IPFW. These include the Commission on Dental Accreditation (which accredits IPFW’s Dental Programs), the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business(which accredits IPFW’s Doermer School of Business), the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (which an IPFW Counseling Program is seeking the accreditation of), and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (which accredits IPFW’s Engineering Programs). What’s discouraging is the possible strategies that might be used to fulfill these requirements. A two-class period discussion (so two-hours or so) of ethics, led by someone in the profession or led by a member of the occupation. A review of the laws and regulations that govern the occupation in question. Business Ethics could become Compliance Training or something similar. Ethics in medical fields could focus solely on the Codes produced in the field and the memorization and rigid application of those codes. In my most cynical moments, I wonder how far off this parody of ethics training really is.

And this kind of simplistic, “follow the rules” training for ethics is personally limiting and can be publicly disastrous. Martin Shkreli’s price hikes, for example, did not violate any Code of Ethics or rules of conduct

And this is why programs in Philosophy as well as other Humanities and Social Sciences are so valuable for undergraduate (and graduate) training. As strange as it would be for me to try to teach Accounting, so it would be for someone in an Accounting Program to teach Ethics. And so when I do get students from these programs in my classes, I push them and prod them. I explore their ideas and arguments. I ask questions, in the hopes that in the future, they will ask questions, too.

Abraham Schwab is an associate professor of philosophy and medical ethicist at IPFW.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff, management or board of Northeast Indiana Public Radio. If you want to join the conversation, head over to our Facebook page and comment on the post featuring this column.