The study

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Teaching and Learning Virtue

Can Virtue Be Learned?
An Exploration of Student Learning Experiences Using Select Pedagogies and Their Implications for Fostering Altruism, Compassion, and Solidarity as Learning Outcomes in Undergraduate Ethics Courses

Co-PIs: Darlene Fozard Weaver, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Catholic Faith and Culture and Associate Professor of Theology; and Elizabeth Agnew Cochran, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Theology

This project is partially funded by a grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, located at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN. Wabash Center programs are funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.

Proposal Abstract
What does it mean to teach virtue, or to learn it? We consider this question through research related to student learning outcomes in undergraduate ethics courses at a religiously-affiliated university with an explicit commitment to social justice. We will gather qualitative data on student learning experiences, with particular focus on select pedagogical approaches that involve exposing students to the experiences of others. We also focus our inquiry around the implications of these pedagogies in relation to student understanding of and attitudes regarding three character traits identified as "other-regarding" virtues in theological and philosophical scholarship--altruism, compassion, and solidarity. Our research will assist us in refining student learning outcomes for our ethics courses and will also generate a collaborative journal article exploring virtue and select pedagogies in the undergraduate classroom.

Presenting Question or Problem
The title character in Plato's Meno asks, "Can you tell me, Socrates, is virtue something teachable? Or, if not teachable, is it something to be acquired by training? Or, if it cannot be acquired either by training or by teaching, does it accrue to me at birth or in some other way?" In the dialogue Socrates concludes that virtue cannot be taught, principally because we cannot find those capable of teaching it. Meno raises questions that are important to teaching and learning in theology and religion, particularly around ethics: Is virtue a kind of knowledge? What does it mean to teach and learn virtue? Is the basic human problem principally epistemic (i.e., confusion with regard to knowing the good) or appetitive (i.e., confusion with regard to desiring the good)?

Our study tweaks Meno's question to focus on student learning experiences in ethics courses and their implications for learning outcomes. The task of our project is to conduct qualitative research in our courses. Our central question is: How do our students understand and experience ethics learning, particularly with regard to pedagogical strategies that emphasize exposure to the experiences of others? To answer this central research question we will pursue several subordinate questions that can be tiered as follows:
     • How do our students understand the purposes of ethics courses?
     • What are their attitudes toward the value of virtue for everyday life or for their intended vocations/professions more particularly?
     • How do they understand and experience the impact of course material and specific pedagogical approaches for their learning, development in moral reasoning skills, and character development?
          o Do their attitudes regarding the purposes of ethics courses and/or the value of virtue shift during the course?
          o Do their attitudes toward the moral value of theological resources shift during the course?
          o How do students describe the impact of pedagogical strategies that emphasize exposure to the experiences of others, particularly with regard to fostering student character development in other-regarding virtues of altruism, compassion?
                In their experience, do these strategies impact their attitudes toward the purposes of ethics courses, value of virtue, and value of theological resources?
We will analyze student experiences and learning during the 2015-2016 academic year using graded assessments, completed questionnaires, and guided discussions, investigators' research journals, and coded examination of learning outcomes stated in the syllabi for other ethics courses.

Colloquium Series for Faculty
With the support of the Wabash Center, we will be organizing and facilitating a three-part colloquium series on Teaching and Learning Virtue in the Undergraduate Classroom. We hope that these colloquia will promote interdisciplinary conversation concerning the place of required ethics courses in a university curriculum, in part by exploring arguments that support and challenge a conception of the undergraduate classroom as an appropriate setting for moral and civic formation. We welcome participation of any interested part-time or full-time faculty members at the university. Please contact the Center for Catholic Faith and Culture at for more information or to be added to our email list.