Ethical Principles
for College and University Teaching
By Harry Murray, Eileen Gillese, Madeline Lennon, Paul Mercer, and Marilyn Robinson

from the December '96 AAHE Bulletin

What should it mean to be a university teacher? That's a question driving much of AAHE's work on behalf of American higher education. But Americans aren't the only ones asking it.

In May 1996, with the aim of improving teaching by stimulating national discussion around just such a question, Canada's Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) began distributing a document it calls "Ethical Principles for College and University Teaching," drafted and endorsed by a select group of exemplary teachers.

The first recipients of the Principles were the Society's 500+ members — mostly faculty, plus students and teaching/learning resource professionals in campuses across Canada. Then came some 8,000 copies sent in bulk to Canadian university presidents and directors of instructional development centers, to be distributed to their CAOs, deans, and chairs of departments, committees, unions, and senates.

As the preamble to the Principles states: "Ethical principles are conceptualized here as general guidelines, ideals, or expectations that need to be taken into account, along with other relevant conditions and circumstances, in the design and analysis of university teaching. The intent of this document is not to provide a list of ironclad rules … that will automatically apply in all situations. Similarly, the intent is not to contradict the concept of academic freedom, but rather to describe ways in which academic freedom can be exercised in a responsible manner."

The Society thinks of its document as "food for thought, not necessarily as a final product," and it is with that purpose in mind that the AAHE Bulletin now makes it available for discussion in the United States.

— Eds.

Principle 1: Content Competence
A university teacher maintains a high level of subject matter knowledge and ensures that course content is current, accurate, representative, and appropriate to the position of the course within the student's program of studies.

This principle means that a teacher is responsible for maintaining (or acquiring) subject matter competence not only in areas of personal interest but in all areas relevant to course goals or objectives. Appropriateness of course content implies that what is actually taught in the course is consistent with stated course objectives and prepares students adequately for subsequent courses for which the present course is a prerequisite. Representativeness of course content implies that for topics involving difference of opinion or interpretation, representative points of view are acknowledged and placed in perspective. Achievement of content competence requires that the teacher take active steps to be up-to-date in content areas relevant to his or her courses; to be informed of the content of prerequisite courses and of courses for which the teacher's course is prerequisite; and to provide adequate representation of important topic areas and points of view.

Specific examples of failure to fulfill the principle of content competence occur when an instructor teaches subjects for which she or he has an insufficient knowledge base, when an instructor misinterprets research evidence to support a theory or social policy favored by the instructor, or when an instructor responsible for a prerequisite survey course teaches only those topics in which the instructor has a personal interest.

Principle 2: Pedagogical Competence
A pedagogically competent teacher communicates the objectives of the course to students, is aware of alternative instructional methods or strategies, and selects methods of instruction that, according to research evidence (including personal or self-reflective research), are effective in helping students to achieve the course objectives.

This principle implies that, in addition to knowing the subject matter, a teacher has adequate pedagogical knowledge and skills, including communication of objectives, selection of effective instructional methods, provision of practice and feedback opportunities, and accommodation of student diversity. If mastery of a certain skill (e.g., critical analysis, design of experiments) is part of the course objectives and will be considered in evaluation and grading of students, the teacher provides students with adequate opportunity to practice and receive feedback on that skill during the course. If learning styles differ significantly for different students or groups of students, the teacher is aware of these differences and, if feasible, varies her or his style of teaching accordingly.

To maintain pedagogical competence, an instructor takes active steps to stay current regarding teaching strategies that will help students learn relevant knowledge and skills and will provide equal educational opportunity for diverse groups. This might involve reading general or discipline-specific educational literature, attending workshops and conferences, or experimentation with alternative methods of teaching a given course or a specific group of students.

Specific examples of failure to fulfill the principle of pedagogical competence include using an instructional method or assessment method that is incongruent with the stated course objectives (e.g., using exams consisting solely of fact-memorization questions when the main objective of the course is to teach problem-solving skills); and failing to give students adequate opportunity to practice or learn skills that are included in the course objectives and will be tested on the final exam.

Principle 3: Dealing With Sensitive Topics
Topics that students are likely to find sensitive or discomforting are dealt with in an open, honest, and positive way.

Among other things, this principle means that the teacher acknowledges from the outset that a particular topic is sensitive, and explains why it is necessary to include it in the course syllabus. Also, the teacher identifies his or her own perspective on the topic and compares it to alternative approaches or interpretations, thereby providing students with an understanding of the complexity of the issue and the difficulty of achieving a single "objective" conclusion. Finally, in order to provide a safe and open environment for class discussion, the teacher invites all students to state their position on the issue, sets ground rules for discussion, is respectful of students even when it is necessary to disagree, and encourages students to be respectful of one another.

As one example of a sensitive topic, analysis of certain poems written by John Donne can cause distress among students who perceive racial slurs embedded in the professor's interpretation, particularly if the latter is presented as the authoritative reading of the poem. As a result, some students may view the class as closed and exclusive rather than open and inclusive. A reasonable option is for the professor's analysis of the poem to be followed by an open class discussion of other possible interpretations and the pros and cons of each.

Another example of a sensitive topic occurs when a film depicting scenes of child abuse is shown, without forewarning, in a developmental psychology class. Assuming that such a film has a valid pedagogical role, student distress and discomfort can be minimized by warning students in advance of the content of the film, explaining why it is included in the curriculum, and providing opportunities for students to discuss their reactions to the film.

Principle 4: Student Development
The overriding responsibility of the teacher is to contribute to the intellectual development of the student, at least in the context of the teacher's own area of expertise, and to avoid actions such as exploitation and discrimination that detract from student development.

According to this principle, the teacher's most basic responsibility is to design instruction that facilitates learning and encourages autonomy and independent thinking in students, to treat students with respect and dignity, and to avoid actions that detract unjustifiably from student development. Failure to take responsibility for student development occurs when a teacher comes to class underprepared, fails to design effective instruction, coerces students to adopt a particular value or point of view, or fails to discuss alternative theoretical interpretations (see also Principles 1, 2, and 3).

Less obvious examples of failure to take responsibility for student development can arise when teachers ignore the power differential between themselves and students and behave in ways that exploit or denigrate students. Such behaviors include sexual or racial discrimination; derogatory comments toward students; taking primary or sole authorship of a publication reporting research conceptualized, designed, and conducted by a student collaborator; failure to acknowledge academic or intellectual debts to students; and assigning research work to students that serves the ends of the teacher but is unrelated to the educational goals of the course.

In some cases, the teacher's responsibility to contribute to student development can come into conflict with responsibilities to other agencies, such as the university, the academic discipline, or society as a whole. This can happen, for example, when a marginal student requests a letter of reference in support of advanced education, or when a student with learning disabilities requests accommodations that require modification of normal grading standards or graduation requirements. There are no hard and fast rules that govern situations such as these. The teacher must weigh all conflicting responsibilities, possibly consult with other individuals, and come to a reasoned decision.

Principle 5: Dual Relationships With Students
To avoid conflict of interest, a teacher does not enter into dual-role relationships with students that are likely to detract from student development or lead to actual or perceived favoritism on the part of the teacher.

This principle means that it is the responsibility of the teacher to keep relationships with students focused on pedagogical goals and academic requirements. The most obvious example of a dual relationship that is likely to impair teacher objectivity and/or detract from student development is any form of sexual or close personal relationship with a current student. Other potentially problematic dual relationships include: accepting a teaching (or grading) role with respect to a member of one's immediate family, a close friend, or an individual who is also a client, patient, or business partner; excessive socializing with students outside of class, either individually or as a group; lending money to or borrowing money from students; giving gifts to or accepting gifts from students; and introducing a course requirement that students participate in a political movement advocated by the instructor.

Even if the teacher believes that she or he is maintaining objectivity in situations such as these, the perception of favoritism on the part of other students is as educationally disastrous as actual favoritism or unfairness. If a teacher does become involved in a dual relationship with a student, despite efforts to the contrary, it is the responsibility of the teacher to notify his or her supervisor of the situation as soon as possible, so that alternative arrangements can be made for supervision or evaluation of the student.

Although there are definite pedagogical benefits to establishing good rapport with students and interacting with students both inside and outside the classroom, there are also serious risks of exploitation, compromise of academic standards, and harm to student development. It is the responsibility of the teacher to prevent these risks from materializing into real or perceived conflicts of interest.

Principle 6: Confidentiality
Student grades, attendance records, and private communications are treated as confidential materials, and are released only with student consent, or for legitimate academic purposes, or if there are reasonable grounds for believing that releasing such information will be beneficial to the student or will prevent harm to others.

This principle suggests that students are entitled to the same level of confidentiality in their relationships with teachers as would exist in a lawyer-client or doctor-patient relationship. Violation of confidentiality in the teacher-student relationship can cause students to distrust teachers and to show decreased academic motivation. Whatever rules or policies are followed with respect to confidentiality of student records, these should be disclosed in full to students at the beginning of the academic term.

In the absence of adequate grounds (i.e., student consent, legitimate purpose, or benefit to student) any of the following could be construed as a violation of confidentiality: providing student academic records to a potential employer, researcher, or private investigator; discussing a student's grades or academic problems with another faculty member; and using privately communicated student experiences as teaching or research materials. Similarly, leaving graded student papers or exams in a pile outside one's office makes it possible for any student to determine any other student's grade and thus fails to protect the confidentiality of individual student grades. This problem can be avoided by having students pick up their papers individually during office hours, or by returning papers with no identifying information or grade visible on the cover page.

Principle 7: Respect for Colleagues
A university teacher respects the dignity of her or his colleagues and works cooperatively with colleagues in the interest of fostering student development.

This principle means that in interactions among colleagues with respect to teaching, the overriding concern is the development of students. Disagreements between colleagues relating to teaching are settled privately, if possible, with no harm to student development. If a teacher suspects that a colleague has shown incompetence or ethical violations in teaching, the teacher takes responsibility for investigating the matter thoroughly and consulting privately with the colleague before taking further action.

A specific example of failure to show respect for colleagues occurs when a teacher makes unwarranted derogatory comments in the classroom about the competence of another teacher … for example, Professor A tells students that information provided to them last year by Professor B is of no use and will be replaced by information from Professor A in the course at hand. Other examples of failure to uphold this principle would be for a curriculum committee to refuse to require courses in other departments that compete with their own department for student enrollment; or for Professor X to refuse a student permission to take a course from Professor Y, who is disliked by Professor X, even though the course would be useful to the student.

Principle 8: Valid Assessment of Students
Given the importance of assessment of student performance in university teaching and in students' lives and careers, instructors are responsible for taking adequate steps to ensure that assessment of students is valid, open, fair, and congruent with course objectives.

This principle means that the teacher is aware of research (including personal or self-reflective research) on the advantages and disadvantages of alternative methods of assessment, and based on this knowledge, the teacher selects assessment techniques that are consistent with the objectives of the course and at the same time are as reliable and valid as possible. Furthermore, assessment procedures and grading standards are communicated clearly to students at the beginning of the course, and except in rare circumstances, there is no deviation from the announced procedures. Student exams, papers, and assignments are graded carefully and fairly through the use of a rational marking system that can be communicated to students. By means appropriate for the size of the class, students are provided with prompt and accurate feedback on their performance at regular intervals throughout the course, plus an explanation as to how their work was graded, and constructive suggestions as to how to improve their standing in the course. In a similar vein, teachers are fair and objective in writing letters of reference for students.

One example of an ethically questionable assessment practice is to grade students on skills that were not part of the announced course objectives and/or were not allocated adequate practice opportunity during the course. If students are expected to demonstrate critical inquiry skills on the final exam, they should have been given the opportunity to develop critical inquiry skills during the course. Another violation of valid assessment occurs when faculty members teaching two different sections of the same course use drastically different assessment procedures or grading standards, such that the same level of student performance earns significantly different final grades in the two sections.

Principle 9: Respect for Institution
In the interests of student development, a university teacher is aware of and respects the educational goals, policies, and standards of the institution in which he or she teaches.

This principle implies that a teacher shares a collective responsibility to work for the good of the university as a whole, to uphold the educational goals and standards of the university, and to abide by university policies and regulations pertaining to the education of students.

Specific examples of failure to uphold the principle of respect for institution include engaging in excessive work activity outside the university that conflicts with university teaching responsibilities; and being unaware of or ignoring valid university regulations on provision of course outlines, scheduling of exams, or academic misconduct.


The authors are indebted to the following for ideas that were incorporated into the present document:

American Psychological Association. "Ethical Principles of Psychologists." American Psychologist 45 (1990): 390-395.

Matthews, J.R. "The Teaching of Ethics and the Ethics of Teaching." Teaching of Psychology 18 (1991): 80-85.

University of Calgary. Code of Professional Ethics for Academic Staff. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary, 1994.

About the 3M Fellowship Program

The "Ethical Principles" were conceived partly in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the 3M Fellowships, a program of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Supported by 3M Canada, the Society awards up to ten 3M Fellowships yearly to exemplary Canadian faculty recognized for their excellence in teaching and educational leadership. At a three-day retreat, each awardee shares past teaching experiences and discusses new ideas. 3M Canada also supported production and dissemination of the Principles document.

A nucleus of 110 such awardees now is scattered throughout Canada, representing a broad range of academic disciplines. The 3M Fellows work individually and together to enhance teaching and learning, both at their own institutions and through larger collaborative initiatives.

Harry Murray (psychology), Eileen Gillese (law), Madeline Lennon (visual arts), Paul Mercer (physiology), and Marilyn Robinson (physiology/educational development) are faculty members at the University of Western Ontario, London, ONT N6A 5C2 Canada. All are 3M Fellows and members of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, c/o Centre for the Support of Teaching, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, ONT M3J 1P3 Canada; (homepage)

© 1996 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The Principles were produced with the endorsement of the following 3M Fellows: Arshad Ahmad, Frank Aherne, Guy Allen, Wiktor Askanas, Colin Baird, Roger Beck, David Bentley, Beverly Cameron, Norman Cameron, Thomas Cleary, William Coleman, James Erskine, Graham Fishburne, Joyce Forbes, Dean Gaily, Allan Gedalof, William Gilsdorf, Joseph Habowsky, Ralph Johnson, Peter Kennedy, Ralph Krueger, Estelle Lacoursiere, Gordon Lange, Jack London, Nadia Mikhael, Alex Middleton, James Newton, Gary Poole, Manfred Prokop, Pat Rogers, Peter Rosati, Robert Schulz, Ronald Sheese, Alan Slavin, Ronald Smith, Lois Stanford, Susan Stanton, David Topper, Donald Ursino, Fred Vermeulen, and Wayne Weston.

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