Teaching with Integrity

The Kutak Ethics Center is dedicated to helping you teach with integrity.

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Below you'll find information on learner-centered pedagogy, inclusive pedagogy, and resources that can help you teach with integrity.

For more information or guidance about teaching with integrity, please, feel free to contact us at (402) 472-8229 or ethics@unl.edu.

  • Overview

    We understand learner-centered pedagogy as pedagogy that aligns or integrates instruction, learning activities, and assessments with learning objectives selected on the basis of learners' needs. In what follows, we'll briefly delineate each component.

  • Learning Objectives

    We understand a learning objective as statement that indicates how an instructor would like their students to be different after their course. This differs from the way most of us in higher education are taught to think about learning objectives. Typically, in higher education folks conceptualize learning objectives as statements that state what a student will be able to do. To formulate such statements we're instructed to identify a level of Bloom's taxonomy that corresponds with what we want students to be able to do by the end of the semester.

    Though taxonomies like Bloom's are instructive in the development of learning objectives, the idea that learning objectives should simply be statements about what you want students to be able to do is somewhat misguided. An instructor may have a learning objective or two that identify particular things that a student will be able to to do after taking their course, but learning objectives need not identify such a thing. Rather, they can identify a more general ability or disposition that will be developed in the course. For instance, one might have the objective of developing student ability to maturely reason about complex moral issues or hone their epistemic humility. The ability to maturely reason or the disposition to be epistemically humble may be attached to precise actions, but the focus of the objective is broader than the performance of any single act. The focus in on the development of abilities and dispositions required for doing a number of acts.

    Our suggestion is that instructors identify no more than two or three learning objectives that will be the explicit focus of the course. There may be unspoken objectives lurking about, but it is these two or three objectives that will guide course design and decision making. Beyond thinking about whether you're interested in having students develop content knowledge, a skill, or a disposition, you want to think about what you're student's need that you're in a position to provide them with as an instructor of your specific discipline. Try to imagine a student who has completed your course bumping into you two years from now. In the best scenario, what does that student say about what they learned in your course that continues to impact their life? The answer to that question should guide your development of learning objectives just as much as taxonomies like Bloom's should.

  • Instruction/Learning Activities

    Learning objectives should inform what you will do and what you will ask your students to do in and out of the classroom. Thus, learning objectives should help you decide which type of learning activity students will perform and they should help you develop those activities for your specific situation. For instance, if your learning objective is to develop students' ability to critically analyze texts, students should be asked to do more than read a text or answer who/when/what/why/etc.-questions about it. Instead, students should be asked to engage the text critically by identifying and questioning key assumptions that an author or creator has weaved into their work.

    Learning activities are squished in between learning objectives and assessment. In a nutshell, the idea is that learning activities present us with the opportunity to have students create artifacts or do things that give us an insight into their progression toward to the learning objectives. Thus, a course is more or less aligned/integrated to the extent that learning activities offer feedback on progression toward learning objectives.

    I'll elaborate the role learning activities play when it comes to assessment in the bit about assessment. Prior to that we should be clear that lecturing may align well with ones learning objectives. But, we must keep in mind that the lecture is a learning activity in which what students are doing or being asked to do is listen. As such, if we want to develop a student's ability to, say, critically engage a text, it is unlikely that listening is what students should be asked to do. Likewise with discussion. Discussion may align will with ones learning objectives, but it may not be what students need in order to successfully achieve the goal of developing their ability to critically engage a text or performance.

    Hence, it is imperative that instructors expand their understanding of what students can be asked to do in and outside their classroom. For instance, instead of lecturing over or discussing a text that students were asked to read at home, you could ask students to do something that is going to help them experience what's being said in the text. For example, if the text focuses on the difficulty of eliminating noise from a system set to test or explore a hypothesis, have students try to eliminate all the noise they are hearing by covering their ears. Follow up by having them jot down their thoughts about what noise remained and why it might compromise completely clean results about whether there is anything like complete silence. Of course, this is a toy example, but the broader point can be seen in it. Don't just have students do for the sake of doing or listen for the sake of listening. Have students do things that help them get at the learning objectives of the course. Sometimes that's just listening and discussing. Other times it is much more.

  • Assessment

    In higher education today, the term, 'assessment' has earned its place in the litany of things academics despise. However, in the context of learner-centered pedagogy, assessment is simply the practice of ascertaining the extent to which students are changing as you hoped they would. And, assessments are the mechanisms you use to carry out that practice.

    There are various types of assessment and corresponding assessments. First, we should distinguish between formal and informal assessment. Formal assessment is as it suggests--i.e., it typically involves a set date at which students will perform a task or set of tasks for which they've been preparing. Formal assessments usually figure largely into a student's final grade. Informal assessment is less, well, formal. Informal assessment and corresponding assessments comprise anything that you or your students do in or outside of the classroom that provide you and them with feedback about their progress. Unlike formal assessments, these typically do not figure into a student's final grade.

    Second, distinguish summative assessment and formative assessment. Summative assessment is typically formal assessment but need not be. Summative assessment and corresponding assessments serve to provide us with a summation of where students are with respect to their growth toward the learning objectives. Formative assessment is typically informal but need not be. Still, rather than provide us with a summative snapshot of where students are with respect to the learning objectives, formative assessment and corresponding assessments should be used to shape our instruction and feedback.

    Finally, I think of all forms of assessment and assessments as feedback mechanisms. We should constantly being seeking feedback about our students' progress and we should constantly be providing feedback to our students about their progress and ours. Thus, it is helpful to see learning activities as chances to gather and provide feedback to students. And, whether formal or informal, summative or formative we should select feedback mechanisms in light of our learning objectives.

  • Overview

    Learner-centered pedagogy naturally involves inclusive pedagogy. However, its not enough to align learning activities and assessment with learning objectives chosen on the basis of what learner's in your class need. Inclusive pedagogy is a deliberate stance or broad orientation one takes with respect to course design and instruction. As Coleen Macnamara explains, stances structure our “presumptive interpretations […,] behavioral dispositions […,and…] emotional proclivities” (2011, 84). Hence, taking up what we might call the, "inclusive-stance", is to deeply affect your understanding of and reaction to teaching and the students you teach.

    Though some of the inclusive pedagogy resources highlighted in the Resources tab on this page do a better job capturing the essence of inclusive pedagogy, in what follows I'll briefly elaborate Macnamara's idea as it relates to the inclusive-stance.

    Presumptive Interpretations

    Its no secret that we make assumptions about our students. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Reflecting on who are students are and what they're like helps us select relevant learning objectives and appropriate learning activities and assessments. But, an individual's assumptions about others under the light of the inclusive-stance are shaped by the recognition of differences in privilege, power, access, struggle, and experience. As such, she sees the need to provide a wide variety of learning experiences and perspectives as integral to developing and facilitating the successful achievement of the course's learning objectives.

    But, it isn't just about course design and developing learning activities. It is also about your comportment in the classroom and in office hours. The inclusive-stance relaxes the tendency to interpret, say, a student's first-time request for an extension on her work as gaming us in some way. Instead, the request is met with respect. Through the inclusive-stance we take the request for what it is and trust that the student wouldn't be making the request were she able to meet the deadline. Of course, further interaction with the student may reveal an ulterior motive. But, until that's revealed the inclusive-stance paints the student-teacher relationship as non-adversarial.

    A colleague, Rebecca Scott likened being inclusive to being a good host. As a host you provide guests with those things you presume they'll need. And, while hosting, you continue to tend to their needs. If a guest says that they can't stay long enough to see the main event, a good host presumes that the guest is simply being honest and, perhaps, offers a way for them to experience it or something similar later. Likewise, if a student is voices a need, an inclusive teacher presumes good intentions and, if need be, attempts to find a solution.

    The analogy to hosting may be fraught with problems, but the key take away is that being inclusive is partly about presuming the best of our students. Its about not letting biases shape how we understand our students. Its about trust. Its about interpreting our students as motivated to learn and succeed in what may be a strange, off-putting, or otherwise intimidating institution or situation. Taking up the inclusive-stance is to see and hear students as members in a community of learning as opposed to adversaries attempting to undermine our best efforts.

    Behavioral Dispositions

    As teachers, we mimic what we've seen from other teachers. The worry is that we may be mimicking behaviors that are not inclusive. For instance, we may be disposed to behave as if all students these understand how to navigate academic applications like Canvas or Blackboard. The inclusive-stance challenges that disposition. It pushes us to question whether that behavior makes good sense. And, in fact, it doesn't. Whether students have been exposed to technical applications or not, many will find the academic applications unintuitive or confusing. Thus, we should show students how to do the things we want them to do.

    The precept that we should show students how to do things isn't confined to tech and gadgets. Rather, how-to instruction is a huge part of being an inclusive teacher. As a teacher, you're asking students to learn something that you're already quite skilled at. The inclusive teacher is reflective about what it was like to be a novice with respect to those things that she is now an expert at. And, she translates that into learning activities that help move novices toward expertise. These learning activities are structured with explicit, how-to instructions. If you want someone to write a certain sort of paper, you have to show them how to do it. You have to explicitly explain how to write the introduction, how to support ideas with evidence, how incorporate the thoughts of other authors, etc. And, you have to explicitly explain how to put it all together in a coherent whole. The inclusive teacher does this across the board.

    Some may see this as spoon feeding students. Its not. And, perhaps it makes sense to be at least a little offended at the suggestion insofar as it implies a picture of teaching that is adversarial and a picture of learning that is akin to hazing where only the strong survive. The classroom is not a colosseum in which the only students who succeed are those antecedently equipped with the know-how to keep up. The inclusive teacher recognizes this and attempts to facilitate learning through explicit how-to instruction. These how-to instructions are not the only thing that can help reduce a student's struggle to learn. Things like scaffolded assignments and differentiated assessments (see Resource tab) play a role here as well. Scaffolding helps students achieve difficult tasks by starting with a task that is easier but integral to completing the more difficult task. The difficulty of the tasks increase gradually until the student is asked to complete the main and, so, most difficult task. Differentiation pays attention to the fact that not all students will learn as much or as easily from the same sort of task. Some students require more difficult challenges while others may need to start at the basics. Being disposed to find ways to differentiate learning, then, is integral to being inclusive.

    Emotional Proclivities

    Emotions play a large role in our interpersonal relationships and activities. Compassion, care, empathy, and sympathy are some of the first that come to my mind when thinking about teaching. However, resentment, indignation, and guilt are also important in pedagogy as are gratitude, praise, thankfulness, and pride. In this final section, I'll briefly elaborate how each factors into inclusive pedagogy and our role as teachers.

    Compassion, care, empathy, and sympathy help us feel for and sometimes feel as another. When someone we know is angry or frustrated, compassion tends to arise. We rightly feel as though this individual is suffering and we can offer something to ease their discomfort. Likewise, with care, sympathy, and empathy. Our feeling of care push us to help and our feelings of sympathy help us approach the situation as individuals who have also felt angry or frustrated. Our empathy helps us feel what they feel in a manner that calls us to help them find a path to well-being. Unfortunately, like so many other things, whether one feels compassion, care, empathy, or sympathy for another is tempered by who that other is. For one, women's pain is often discounted. For another, the pain of someone perceived to be black is often discounted. The inclusive-stance works to wash away our tendencies to feel these ways only for certain segments of the population and, so, primes us to feel for all as we feel for those most like us or those who we make no untoward assumptions about.

    Reactive attitudes like resentment, indignation, gratitude, praise, thankfulness, guilt, and pride play a role here as well. We often react to the behavior of those we take to have intentionally done something. To respond with indignation when someone hurts someone else is to recognize the agency of the actor as well as the modicum of respect owed to the victim. Likewise, to respond with praise when someone helps another is to recognize the agency of the actor and personhood of the victim. And, as is true with compassion, care, empathy, and sympathy, biases can work to mute these reactive attitudes. If see someone as without agency or see them as undeserving, we will likely feel less when they act or are acted upon. The inclusive-stance paints all persons as agents deserving a certain amount of respect and primes us to feel for them as such.

    But, there's another side to this that I'd to close on. Beyond feeling for each other, it is important to note that we are often too quick to blame and far too lax about praising in classroom situations. When evaluating student work, we tend to mark off or comment on a mistake more often than we remark on a job well done. But, with most mistakes there's something that the student is doing or has done that is actually correct. When that occurs we should be willing to point it out. Doing so encourages the student while correcting the mistake they've made. For instance, a student may support a point with evidence that actually doesn't support the point she's attempting to make. In that case, you should praise her for her attempt to support a point with evidence before pointing out that the evidence doesn't actually support the point that she's trying to make. This reinforces the good behavior while correcting the unwanted behavior both of which are need to effectively develop as a critical thinker. It also helps with student motivation. The inclusive-stance primes us to offer praise where it is fitting to do so as opposed to withholding praise where criticism is also fitting.