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Assessment: Measuring Students' Moral Development

Grading assignments that include an ethics component, a survey at the end of the course, or some form of pre and post test are some ways that can keep you informed about what (or if) your students have learned about professional ethics. Ideally, at the end of your course, students should show a developing sensitivity to identifying ethical issues, have increased knowledge relevant to ethical issues, improved ethical judgment, and an strengthened commitment to practicing and promoting ethical behavior in the workplace. While the last item cannot be tested for, the preceding three can be measured in a number of ways.

Below are some teaching and assessment tools that have been developed and successfully used by past workshop participants. To view specific assignments, click here.

Graded Assignments

Homework Problems
Students can be asked to read a short case study outside of class, either as a separate assignment or as part of a problem set, and be asked to respond. Assignments should usually include some general guidance on how to respond to the case, such as the seven step method (link), or a series of more specific questions. (1)
Exam Questions
Much like an in-class version of the homework cases, students are given a short case to read and can be asked to either evaluate the responses of the participants, or to identify the ethical issues the case and formulate and defend a course of action. (2)
Students can be asked to write a longer response to a more complex case. This option has the advantage of helping students understand most the issues in one case better then any one of the issues in shorter homework cases. (3)
A “one-minute” essay
Students write a few sentences at the end of a discussion summarizing its content and what they picked up on. This allows the instructor to see what the student caught and helps the student organize and retain the experience before it begins to fade.
Ethics Case Lab Reports
Give an ethics case as a group lab assignment. Ask the students to discuss, and prepare a “lab report” of their discussion.
Students can either be assigned a role in a situation a few days before and try to act as they think one should in that situation.

Have students do an ethical analysis of their class projects using something similar to the following checklist.

  1. Identify stakeholders and their interests
  2. Identify the standards or norms they are using to make decisions about
  3. Technological developments
  4. Economic impact
  5. Safety
  6. Public health
  7. Environmental impacts
  8. Assess whether they are adhering to the professional guidelines, such as the NSPE Code of Ethics in an engineering course.
  9. Review their project from at least three ethical perspectives. (4)

For more ideas, see Davis, Michael. Ethics and the University. New York: Routledge, 1999. pp. 143-174.

Grading Ethics Assignments

Often, instructors are wary of grading ethics assignments. They may feel that any grades they may give out will be subjective; because morals are in some way a product of feelings, religious upbringing, and culture, does an instructor have a right to give out these types of grades? This can be answered by asking yourself, “What did I teach my students about professional ethics?” and the follow-up question, “Can I grade them on that?” (5). For example, if one of your main goals was to make students sensitive to the ethical issues of safety, did the student manage to identify the relevant ethical issues in the case or problem? Fair grading will measure a student’s ability to recognize an ethical issue and analyze possible courses of action, not a student’s personal values or moral beliefs.

One tool for grading longer, more complex essays and case study responses is the Pittsburgh-Mines Engineering Ethics Assessment Rubric. This grading matrix was developed by a team of researchers from engineering, philosophy, and bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh and the Colorado School of Mines. (6) While made for analyzing students’ analyses of engineering ethics cases, variations of this kind of rubric could be used for almost any assignment of this kind. The rubric measures the following five attributes: on a scale of “1 (lowest) through 5 (highest)”

Recognition of dilemmas
(1) students fail to see problem;
(5) student clearly identifies key ethical issues.
(1) students ignore important facts;
(5) students identify unknown facts and use their own expertise to add appropriate information
(1) students provide no analysis;
(5) students cite analogous cases, offer more then one alternative solution, and identify risks for each solution.
(1) students have wondering perspective;
(2) students have one perspective;
(5) students have global perspective.(6)
(1) No resolution, resolution lacks integrity;
(5) resolves case thoroughly through clear argumentation and understands consequences of various actions.

Assessment of Course’s Effectiveness

Surveys are a good idea to include when you first begin teaching ethics in your class. It will give you feedback about the satisfaction level of your students with materials used, and perhaps help you improve for next year. From 1993-2003, Professor Michael Davis asked past participants in the EAC workshop to have their students fill out a survey evaluating the effectiveness of ethics teaching in their course.

  • Did this course do anything to change your awareness of ethics issues likely to arise in your profession or job? (89% answered “yes”)
  • Did this course do anything to change your understanding of the importance of professional or business ethics? (Just over 74% answered “yes”)
  • Did this course do anything to improve your ability to deal with the ethical issues it raised? ((Almost 78% answered “yes”)
  • In your opinion, did this course spend too much time on professional business ethics, too little, or just the right amount. (Almost 70% answered “right amount, 10% answered “no.”) (7)

For a full analysis of the survey results see “ A Symposium – Integrating Ethics in Engineering and Science Courses” in the October 2005 edition of Science and Engineering Ethics

A pre and post-test can be used to measure student’s improvement over the course of the semester without taking up much class time. The pre-test can be given the first day of class, and a post-test can be worked into the final exam.

Assessment Across Numerous Courses/University Programs

Philosophers who study the effectiveness of teaching ethics have developed a few standardized ways to assess students’ growth in moral judgment for purposes of research. As these are standardized tests, they would most likely be too far from the materials taught in your course to be helpful. However, these tests may be helpful in accessing the effectiveness of ethics teaching over an extended period of time, or over a wide range of courses.

Defined Issues Test (DIT): This machine scored test is perhaps one of the only standardized ways of measuring changes in a person’s moral judgment. Based on Kolberg’s stages of moral development, the DIT has test-takers read about five moral dilemmas has them rank a number of statements about each situation according to their importance. The data gathered reveals information about the three schemas of moral reasoning, Personal Interests, Maintaining Norms, and the Postconventional. This test is appropriate for measuring changes over longer periods of time (months to years).

For more information, visit the Center for the Study of Ethical Development of the University of Minnesota.


(1) Davis, Michael. Ethics and the University. New York: Routledge, 1999. pp.169

(2) Davis, 170

(3) Davis, 170.

(4) Steneck, Nicholas H. “Designing Teaching and Assessment Tools for an Integrated Engineering Ethics Curriculum.” Presentation at the 29th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. November 10-13, 1999 San Juan, Puerto Rico.

(5) Davis, 135.

(6) Rudnicka, Ewa A. “Ethics in an Operations Management Course.” Science and Engineering Ethics. 11:4 (October 2005) 649; 652.

(7) Davis, Michael. "A Symposium- Integrating Ethics into Engineering Education" Science and Engineering Ethics 11:4 (October 2005) 632.

Assessment Bibliography

Bebeau, Muriel J. “The Defining Issues Test and Four Component Model: Contributions to Professional Education.” Journal of Moral Education. 31:3 (September 2002) 271-295.

Clancy, Edward A, Paula Quinn, and Judith E. Miller. “Assessment of a Case Study Laboratory to Increase Awareness of Ethical Issues in Engineering.” IEEE Transactions on Education. 48:2 (May 2005) 313-17.

This article discusses the assessment of a three-hour “laboratory period,” during which students read and discussed three short cases on engineering ethics. The assessment included focus groups and surveys, and while in focus groups students agreed that this activity enhanced their awareness of ethical issues, the survey results, however, were equivocal.

Newton, Lisa H. “Outcomes Assessment of an Ethics Program: Purposes and Challenges.” Teaching Ethics: The Journal of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum. 2:1 (Fall 2001) 29-45.

Kirkman, Robert. “Teaching for Moral Imagination: Assessment of a Course in Environmental Ethics.” Teaching Philosophy 31:4 (2008) 333-50.

This article looks at the results of an assessment project on a course in environmental ethics whose goals were to measure the impact of the course on students, as well as to contribute to a broader goal of developing assessment tools for ethics education.

Steneck, Nicholas H. "Designing Teaching and Assessment Tools for an Integrated Engineering Ethics Curriculum." Proceedings of the 29th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. (1999): 12d6-11, 12d6-17.

This bibliography is a work in progress. Please help us by recommending assessment articles, or letting us know of any assessment projects that you may be involved in.