New Kenan research: honesty, respect top list of values important to students

Research which suggests that many students have a fairly well-developed sense of moral identity was recently presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in San Antonio by Amber Díaz Pearson, research scholar at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, together with Tara Hudson, a post doctoral scholar and collaborator at the University of Notre Dame. The authors found that college students think about the meaning of a moral and ethical life in complex ways and that understanding these ideas can shed light on students’ future participation as citizens of a democratic and pluralistic society.

The paper, “Developing the Moral Self: College Students’ Understandings of Living a Moral or Ethical Life,” presented findings from surveys of undergraduates at two private U.S. universities: one faith-based and one independent. “Honesty” and “respect” were the most frequently cited principles and values identified as important by students, followed by characteristics like kindness, loyalty and compassion. Responses specifically referenced interest in promoting the wellbeing of others, avoiding acts of harm, and doing what is morally or ethically right even when it may not be the easiest choice. One respondent noted it was important to “use your light to bring out the light in others.”

“One of our most interesting findings was how often students used other-centered language when describing their values and what living morally and ethically means to them,” Pearson said. “Over half of responses from students at both institutions referred to other people and their needs.”

The study producing this research was funded by a three-year, multi-institutional grant from the Teagle Foundation. Overall, the study aimed to understand the frameworks of students’ ethical and moral decision-making and identify educational practices that promote moral and ethical development. This research provides insight to institutions seeking to fulfill their missions of educating students for citizenship and lives of meaning and purpose.

Suzanne Shanahan, Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Robert Thompson, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, and Jay Brandenberger, director for research and graduate student initiatives at the Center for Social Concerns at University of Notre Dame are co-PI’s of the project.

Researchers are currently developing articles focused on other findings from the study. The full draft of the conference paper, “Developing the Moral Self: College Students’ Understandings of Living a Moral or Ethical Life,” will be posted in the AERA Online Paper Repository along with other papers presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting.