GeoEthics > Case Studies Collection > Setting the Context, Goals, Obligations and Commitments for a Course

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This page first made public: May 29, 2014

Setting the Context, Goals, Obligations and Commitments for a Course

Vincent S. Cronin, Baylor University


THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. This activity is a way to begin a course with reflection by students about their extraordinary good fortune in being able to take advantage of higher education. Students are asked to define their obligations, course goals, and commitments to work and integrity during the course. The student activities include two homework exercises assigned in sequence at the beginning of a course. In-class discussion held after the assignments are completed and the responses are reviewed by the teacher will hopefully establish some shared community ideas of ethical norms in the course.


This activity is perhaps most appropriate for students who are just beginning their college career, but it is useful to reiterate the activity in any class with majors or non-majors.

Class size: More than 50 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Students need to be able to seek, find and critically evaluate information on the web. Students also need to be willing or able to reflect on brief descriptive statements and write a thoughtful, honest and coherent response to a question.

How the activity is situated in the course
This activity consists of two homework activities, followed by some classroom discussion. The first homework activity is assigned either before (by email) or during the first lecture class, and the second is assigned after the first homework activity is submitted. After all results are submitted and reviewed by the teacher, a discussion should follow that is guided by questions arising from the homework responses.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
The overall goal of this activity is to have students think about how fortunate they are to have access to higher education, to have them define any corresponding obligations they recognize, to articulate some goals, and to make some self-defined commitments that will (hopefully) result in a better educational outcome in the course.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
The homework exercises are intended to cause students to think about several important issues related to their participation in the course. Students are asked to frame their own statements of obligation and commitment relative to these issues.

Other skills goals for this activity
  • searching on the web
  • writing
  • discussion

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

This pair of homework exercises and the subsequent classroom discussion touch on issues of obligation, commitment, stewardship of resources, recognition of communities of stakeholders, integrity, cheating, and full utilization of educational opportunities.

Description and Teaching Materials

The motivation for this activity is a set of common observations by undergraduate teachers about students who do not seem to be taking full advantage of the opportunity to learn. The goal is to have students confront a series of issues that might lead them to short-circuit their educational experience in a course, and to have them commit to several more constructive approaches to learning.

The teacher administers two homework exercises at the very beginning of the course. The exercises require students to answer a variety of questions, or to respond to various statements or scenarios. They also ask students to define their obligations with respect to their education, and various commitments with respect to how they will approach learning in this course.

In the first exercise (A Guided Meditation (Microsoft Word 37kB May29 14)), students are asked to view their undergraduate education as an opportunity to develop themselves (rather than just a product that is purchased), and to explore the "stakeholders" responsible for making the opportunity possible. Students are asked to define their obligations as university students. Students are encouraged to view their education as a resource for the global community rather than as just a personal resource.

In the second exercise (Goals and Commitments (Microsoft Word 38kB May29 14)), students are asked to articulate some of their goals for the course. They are also asked to think about the need to do the assigned reading for the course, to reject cheating or the facilitation of cheating, and to acknowledge that it is important to ask the teacher for help when necessary.

After all of the responses have been submitted and reviewed by the teacher, it is appropriate for the teacher to make some summary comments that describe the responses in an aggregate manner. (Students need feedback if they are asked to do homework exercises that require significant time, thought and effort.) Ethical behavior is based on a personal commitment to do what is right. Of course, discerning "what is right" is the core issue. It is probably worthwhile to note areas of consensus in the student responses, to reinforce the idea of positive, self-defined "community standards" among the students in the course. (Of course, if the consensus is "everybody cheats so it must be OK" or "nobody really does the assigned reading," the teacher might have to stage an intervention.)

Teaching Notes and Tips

As of May, 2014, this is an exercise that is under development and has not been implemented yet.
The materials supplied with this resource are Microsoft Word .doc files, to facilitate modification by teachers to suit their particular situations. For some or perhaps many, it will make more sense to use learning management systems like Blackboard or Canvas to collect student responses, or perhaps a service such as SurveyMonkey. One potentially significant benefit of using traditional Word documents instead of online surveys or questionnaires is that a student can spend more time on, think about, and revise their responses on a Word document, whereas online surveys tend to elicit quick responses rather than necessarily thoughtful responses.


The completed homework assignments become a part of each student's portfolio. The teacher might choose to evaluate the quality of response or the quality of effort exhibited by each student, using categories that differentiate between students who submit a serious, neo-adult response, from students who submit quick-and-dirty responses, from students who are non-responsive.

References and Resources

Carter, Stephen L., 1996, Integrity: New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 277 p., ISBN 9780060928070.