Initial Publication Date: December 27, 2018

Responsible Conduct of Teaching

"Do no harm" (and optimize benefits). The geoscience professions do not tolerate use of inappropriate methods or tools in our technical work, why would we accept use of outdated and discredited instructional practices in our educational mission? The evidence is clear, based on Discipline-Based Education Research (NRC, 2012), that students learn best through active-learning methods. In an article published in PNAS (2014), Freeman et al. clearly demonstrate that Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering and Mathematics (Acrobat (PDF) 769kB Oct10 14).

Why learning to mentor and teach is more important for US faculty members than publishing papers--a blog post from Naturejobs by Karen Kaplan posted June 01, 2018. "The report Graduate STEM Education for the 20th Century, released May 2018 by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) in Washington DC calls for providing faculty members with incentives for developing skills such as teaching and mentoring while de-emphasizing the importance of publications. The report recommends that institutions change their promotion and tenure policies and practices to recognise and reward faculty members' contributions to graduate mentoring and education".

To not use the best, demonstrably effective, instructional practices has been equated with medical malpractice (comparing this evidence to the 1964 Surgeon General's report on the health effects of smoking, as reported in Inside Higher Education. "If doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and other professionals are charged with a duty owing to the public whom they serve, it could not be said that nothing in the law precludes similar treatment of professional educators" (Donohue v. Copiague Union Free School District, as cited in TA DeMitchell, 2003, Statutes and Standards: Has the Door to Education Malpractice Been Opened? BYU Educ. & LJ). The Educational Malpractice Doctrine identifies ".... three general categories: (1) a student or a claimant injured by the student alleges that the school negligently failed to provide the student with adequate skills; (2) the student or the claimant alleges that the school negligently diagnosed or failed to diagnose the student's learning or mental disabilities; or (3) the student or claimant alleges that the school negligently supervised the student's training".

  • Statement on Professional Ethics--American Association of University Professors "...has recognized that membership in the academic profession carries with it special responsibilities. The Association has consistently affirmed these responsibilities in major policy statements, providing guidance to professors in such matters as their utterances as citizens, the exercise of their responsibilities to students and colleagues, and their conduct when resigning from an institution or when undertaking sponsored research".

In an interview in Wired, Freeman relates another important dimension of the results of his study: "...there is a strong ethical component. There is a growing body of evidence (Haak et al.Science 3 June 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6034 pp. 1213-1216) showing that active learning differentially benefits students of color and/or students from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or women in male-dominated fields. It's not a stretch to claim that lecturing actively discriminates against underrepresented students." Recruitment and retention has been a long standing issue in the STEM disciplines, and another key factor is making classes student-centered (see, for example, Sheila Tobias' classic They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier (2006) from the Online Ethics Center for Engineering; National Academy of Engineering). Tobias recommends:

  • "A less intense pace for classes.
  • A reduction in the competitive pressure caused by curve grading.
  • A student's motivation and interest should affect performance, not the opposite discouraging effect curve grading tends to inspire.
  • Teachers such as Harvard's Dudley Herschbach are trying methods such as "resurrection points" instead of curve grading and emphasizing to students that it is more important to be "ardent" and "persistent" than "brilliant." His efforts have yielded record success in terms of students, enrolling, and completing the class and outperforming previous years' classes.
  • The use of exit interviews when students do decide to leave a math/science class or major.
  • This provides feedback to the department about potential problem areas. It gives the department a chance to redirect the student's science interest instead of letting the student give up science entirely.
  • It gives the student a sense that his/her departure was not desired or unnoticed."

What can be done to ensure ethical practices in our educational mission?

  • Faculty have a responsibility to keep up to date with the most effective methods of instruction and assessment, and to create a positive learning environment where all students can succeed;
  • Students have an expectation that they will be treated with respect, that assessments are fair and provide feedback to improve their learning, and that instruction will lead to personal development as preparation for continued study or to enter the workforce.
Are we adequately preparing faculty to effectively teach? Here is one perspective:
  • We need to rethink training for Ph.D.s--Whitney Ross Manzo and Kristina M. W. Mitchell, from Inside Higher Education, posted September 11, 2018. "Why aren't our graduate programs teaching students how to teach, Whitney Ross Manzo and Kristina M. W. Mitchell ask, rather than preparing them for the far more rare research job?"

Think about it.