Skip to main content

Should Law Teachers Teach Ethics?

There is disagreement in the academy about whether or not we should be teaching ethics in our classrooms. The truth is that ethics are in our classrooms--whether we explicitly discuss them or not. As one scholar notes:

Teaching is always, first and foremost, a social encounter. But when human beings power up their ethical grids--both teachers and students--they do so with such quickness and immediacy that they are usually unaware of having done it at all.[1]

The bottom line is that we are constantly making snap judgments about our students, and they are making those same judgments about us. Students quickly make judgments about whether we will treat them fairly and with respect, or not. Students may not realize they are making these ethical judgments, but all students judge us on whether we are fair, concerned, honest, willing to see them as distinct individuals—and these judgments have a profound impact on students’ and teachers’ classroom experiences and students' level of engagement.

In his chapter on Ethical Pedagogy, Marshall Gregory lists just a few of the questions students ask themselves that are ethically-related:

·         Is my teacher really interested in what I am saying?
·         Is my teacher really interested in what he or she is saying?
·         Is my teacher energetic and committed or lazy and inattentive?
·         Does my teacher understand and care about my anxieties in this class?
·         Is my teacher fair and generous or prejudiced and mean-spirited?
·         Is my teacher going to judge me with sensitivity, charity, and fairness, or superficially, uncharitably, and contemptuously?
·         Is my teacher showing proper respect to me as a person?[2]

Even if we do not want to have direct conversations with our students about ethics, it is critically important to remember that we are modeling ethics through our interactions with our students. The answers to the questions above can have a profound impact on how students feel they need to act in their professional relationships.

Numerous factors inform our students in making these judgements — from non-verbal cues like our facial expressions and our eye contact to our tone of voice, the way we interrupt our students, and the manner of our pauses. Moreover, by the time law students enter our classrooms, they have been greatly impacted by those ethical experiences they’ve had earlier in their educations; those previous interactions can have a profound impact on how students view us. While our teaching expertise in our discipline and our delivery of material are important, the

most salient aspect of classroom experience is the ethical nature—what students would call the ‘personal’ nature—of their social relationship with the teacher as an ethical agent. Teachers who fail to understand the significant of this point from their students’ point of view are not full participants even in their own classrooms because they are blind to the single most influence dynamic that sets students up for learning or not learning.[3]

Gregory identifies four ethical commitments that must be central to effective teaching: fairness, respect, charity, and civility.

1.      Fairness: Students must believe that teachers are evaluating their work in a fair manner, using standardized measures of evaluation. For law instructors, this might mean having a rubric for assignments or exams and giving feedback on assignments in such a way that is consistent with those rubrics.
2.      Respect: Respect, in its most basic portrayal, is treating other humans with dignity. This can mean overcoming your own bad day to treat students kindly--and not matching even the most rude student's behavior. We have a professional obligation to treat all our students with respect--even when they may not treat us that way.
3.      Charity: “Charity is the tolerance and forgiveness that heals our gaps in performance and leaves us free (rather than bound in guilt) to do better on another day.”[4] In the law school environment, this might mean giving students a pass on answering one day or taking it easy on a student who seems to be having an off day. Obviously, we have an obligation to teach students professional responsibility, but at some point in their professional lives, they will be the ones in the position to grant tolerance. Let’s model that behavior.
4.      Civility: According to Gregory, there are two aspects of civility. The first means not presuming innate superiority over others. The second involves acting in a courteous, friendly manner. This is one where law teachers may struggle, presumably because we may be superior because of our educational training and professional experience. This does not, however, make us superior human beings—and having such a manner conveys condescension and often contempt. This is a particularly important message to model to our students; as attorneys, they will be the ones in a position of power, and they must not treat their clients with superiority.

None of these ethical qualities require that teachers be entertaining or put on a show for our students (note how often enthusiasm, niceness, and humor come up in evaluations)—even if you’re more reserved or have a more serious temperament, if you observe these four ethical commitments, your students will likely view you favorably.When students reflect back on their classes, these ethical qualities are what they tend to remember about their teachers.


[1] Marshall Gregory, Teaching Excellence in Higher Education 6 (Melissa Valiska Gregory ed., 2013).

[2] Id. at 81.

[3] Id. at 83.


[4] Id. at 86-87.

Popular posts from this blog

Making "Thinking Time" for Curricular Development

In academia, we often hear faculty discuss the need to find time to write.  I've recently been reading Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space, in which she discusses the need for those very things in writing.  In the first chapter, she notes, "[A]cademics talk constantly about making time, finding time, carving out time to write. We fantasize about having more of it, and we bemoan our chronic lack of it."[1]

I find the same is true for developing and assessing curricular programming. As librarians, true public servants, our profession is rooted in our service to others. Even if we are not scheduled for the reference desk or to attend a meeting, our "availability" is our calling card and in some cases our badge of honor.  It's expected that we will stop what we're doing should a patron come to our door or call on the phone.

The problem is that without free time to think, to think uninterrupted, we cannot innovate.  We keep with the stat…

Cold-Calling in the Law Classroom

In the years I've spent in legal academia, both as a student and a teacher, there's never been a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of cold-calling students. In the past year, however, I've heard arguments by faculty members that cold-calling works as a form of formative assessment for class, despite the fact that only one student is answering a given question. Recently, however, as I've been exploring brain science, I've been wondering about how much learning actually takes place inside classrooms where cold-calling is the primary method of instruction. Are we making learning more difficult than it needs to be?

I've written briefly before about the effectsof retrieval. Retrieval is the stage of the learning process in which students access information from their long-term memories.[1] Regular practice retrieving information leads to both long-term retention of information (basically, because we have had practice finding information in the knowledge st…

Intuitions About Teaching and Learning

Most learners rely on their own intuitions when selecting their study strategies. The same is true of teachers; we look back to our experiences as both students and teachers in deciding which strategies to use with our students. But how reliable are these intuitions?

It turns out, not veryreliable.

When relying on intuition, both students and teachers can select strategies that may not help learners be successful. We can see this in the tendency of college students to see reading and re-reading their textbooks and notes as the best way to learn.[1] Studies overwhelming demonstrate that re-reading takes more time on the part of the learner, but does not improve students' abilities to retain information in the long term.[2] To learners, however, re-reading feels good. As Yana Weinstein and Megan Sumeracki describe it in their book, "The more we read a passage, the more fluently we are able to read it. However, reading fluency does not mean we're engaging with the informatio…

Spaced Repetition & Interleaved Practice in Legal Research Instruction

Researchers refer to single-minded practice as "massed practice." This concentrated practice is thought to embed skills into memory. Unfortunately, while many students and teachers believe this to be the best way to learn, research doesn't support that idea. The problem with massed practice is that it is often accompanied by quick forgetting. Practice is important, but it is considerably more effective when it's spaced out--there's better retention and mastery.

It can be tough to convince our students of the benefits of spaced repetition. As Brown et al. point out in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

 "[T]hese benefits come at a price: when practice is spaced, interleaved, and varied, it requires more effort. You feel the increased effort, but not the benefits the effort produces. Learning feels slower from this kind of practice, and you don't get the rapid improvements and affirmations you're accustomed to seeing from massed practi…

Embracing Learner-Centered Pedagogy

Most educators pride themselves on putting our students first and try to make teaching decisions with our students' best interests in mind. But, what does learner-centered teaching really mean?

In their 2017 book, Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice, Kevin Michael Klipfel and Dani Brecher Cook set out to answer this question--and how it can be applied to teaching in a librarianship context. When asked to articulate what having a learner-centered approach means, most point to individual exercises or classroom techniques they employ or try to avoid, but are unable to describe the philosophy as a larger concept.

Ultimately, Klipfel and Cook's definition of learner-centered pedagogy is "who we are as people matters."[1] They explain it in further detail as: "Our conception of learner-centered pedagogy encourages library educators to encounter the learner as an individual with personal interests, preferences, and motivations, and uniquely human set of …