At the University of Tulsa, a unique course on making ethical decisions is helping both student-athletes and local grade school students navigate life's difficult choices.
By Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham
Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham has been the Director of Athletics at the University of Tulsa since 2005, leading the Golden Hurricane to 34 Conference USA championships. He has also served as Director of Athletics at Ball State University and Associate Athletic Director at the University of Notre Dame. At Tulsa, he has implemented and continues to develop a strategic plan for personal and professional growth and development for student-athletes, coaches, and athletic staff. He also serves on the NCAA Division I Men's Golf Committee and the Gatorade National Advisory Board, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A head coach once told his student-athletes to watch out for the three W's: women, whiskey, and wheels. That was the extent of his advice to them about ethics and decision-making. And no one questioned the need for anything further.
Today, universities provide student-athletes with classes in life skills and implement prevention programs on issues such as gambling, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual violence. Many schools have tougher behavior standards for student-athletes than in the past and the media calls us to task whenever a student-athlete gets out of line. We know there is more to talk about than the three W's.
But are we teaching student-athletes how to make ethical choices? Even though they've heard the lectures and participated in the trainings, do they know how to make good decisions in the ever-changing world of social media, smart phones, overzealous boosters, intricate compliance standards, and many other potential pitfalls?
Here at the University of Tulsa, we have begun teaching a class titled "Ethics & Decision-Making: Critical Thinking Skills Development and Implementation." It is helping our student-athletes, as well as other students, better navigate their undergraduate experience and prepare themselves for life's ongoing challenges.
Our objective is responsible behavior, which acts as the foundation upon which character is built. Our focus is what I believe to be the basis of ethical training: decision-making skills. Athletic personnel, coaches, and educators play a key role in the physical, emotional, and intellectual growth of students and student-athletes. As leaders charged with the task of developing these young men and women, it is critically important that we provide a roadmap for students to make ethical decisions.
The concept of teaching a decision-making class to student-athletes began over a decade ago when I was an Associate Athletic Director at the University of Notre Dame. I was speaking with Dr. Thomas J. Reynolds, a professor at Notre Dame, who was explaining his "LifeGoals Critical Thinking Curriculum" that had just been implemented at local elementary and middle schools to help those students improve their decision-making skills.
The curriculum, as he outlined it, allowed grade school students to "rehearse" real-life situations that could potentially occur in their lives by utilizing a decision-making model. The students mapped out numerous options prior to being faced with a choice. By analyzing these potential scenarios, the model served as a preventive tool in which students go through the process of hindsight before they actually get there.
In reflecting upon this concept, we realized that many college students and even many adults could use some training in decision-making. We began to envision a course at the college level for student-athletes with a similar curriculum.
However, it struck us that educating people on how to make decisions is not nearly as effective as asking those people to learn and then teach others about the decision-making process. Our vision for the class expanded to include an outreach component.
From there, Tom and I worked on a concept for the class. It would be a decision-making course taught to college students who would then teach what they learned at local elementary schools or other agencies that could use positive role models and mentors.
Along with developing the class, I knew I wanted to teach it. I think it is very important for athletic personnel to be active participants in the academic setting on campus. We have very public roles and are frequently seen as having only an athletic interest. Teaching in the classroom and being in front of students in a variety of ways demonstrates that we are working to enhance the educational experience.
We implemented the decision-making course at Notre Dame and had great success, so much so that I continued the curriculum as Director of Athletics at Ball State University. I then began the class here at The University of Tulsa this past spring.
To get the course off the ground at Tulsa, there were some important logistics to figure out. The first was to have it approved. I was able to gain approval, as a one-time exemption, by the College of Arts and Sciences Dean to have it listed as a three-credit-hour elective for students in that school. We are now working on getting this course accepted by the curriculum review committee for permanent standing within the College of Arts and Sciences.
The class is taught each Monday night from 6 to 9 p.m., with the aid of a teaching assistant who handles all the coordination aspects. The teaching assistant co-authored the LifeGoals book of 360+ lessons and student assessments and contributes to the class in many ways.
The course is open to all students and there are no specific prerequisites. Some of those enrolled are student-athletes, some are general students, some are leaders in various campus activities, some are in music groups, and some are just interested in the topic. There is a maximum enrollment of 25 students, which allows for active participation, development, and assessment of the necessary critical thinking and teaching skills.
Having both general students and student-athletes in the class contributes to a better academic environment. A diverse classroom allows students with various backgrounds and interests to learn from each other, and provides a richer experience for the elementary school children and others involved in the outreach program. It also ensures the course goes beyond being just another team building activity for the athletic department and gives student-athletes the experience of working with peers who may be very different from themselves.
To attract students to the decision-making course, we make sure our academic advising office for student-athletes and all collegiate advisors are aware of it. They mention it to various students as an opportunity to participate in a service-learning program that could be beneficial to their own experience and influence others in the community. Our office of student affairs also promotes the class.
CRITICAL THINKING CURRICULUM
Based on the LifeGoals Critical Thinking Curriculum, the heart of the class entails teaching the Goal-Oriented Option Development (GOOD) Decision Model. This breaks down decision-making into a step-by-step process, allowing students to understand the options that arise with any situation. It also guides them through analyzing the pros and cons of those choices.
Here's one introductory example we sometimes use in class to familiarize students with the model:
John, the star on the football team, has to get an 85 percent or above on his final paper in order to pass his literature class and keep his GPA above the minimum to avoid ineligibility. The paper is due tomorrow, but John finds himself staring at a blank screen due to extreme writer's block. Suffice it to say, John is feeling discouraged when his friend Paul walks in and shows him an extra ticket he has for the concert that night. After John explains to Paul about his paper, Paul gives him a Web site address where he can simply buy a paper about the topic that will guarantee him an A. Paul adds that the girl John is interested in will be with the group attending the concert that night. If you were John, what would you do?
From here, we can generate choice options or things that we, as John, can do in this scenario. The two most obvious choice options are to either buy the paper online or write the paper himself, each of which will yield positive and negative short-term consequences. For instance, the positive consequence of buying the paper online is that John will be able to go to the concert, while the negative consequence is that he could get caught cheating.
Based on each choice option and its relative positive and negative consequences, the decision model extends into the long-term implications. Specifically, this part of the model determines what will likely happen in the future as a result of the consequences. For example, getting caught cheating means that John is expelled from school and cannot participate on the football team.
This, in turn, translates to goals--desired end-states or things we want to achieve. We also talk about driving forces, which are intrinsic values that determine which goals are important to us. If John is no longer in school and on the team, will that hinder or destroy the attainment of any of his long-term goals?
The final and most important element of the GOOD Decision Model is the trade-off method, which is a comparison between the positives of one choice option versus the positives of the other related to one's goal attainment. The reason comparing positives is important is because most poor decisions made by young people are the result of comparing the positive of one choice option versus the negative of another. This is a biased contrast since the positives will always outweigh the negatives.
For example, a student-athlete may say, "studying is boring and playing video games is fun" or "I wanted to look cool and funny to my friends by putting down women instead of being made fun of because I was afraid." In both cases, the student-athletes compared a positive of the behavior that they wanted to do in the short-term versus the negative of the behavior they did not want to do. The results were poor decisions.
A positive-to-positive comparison yields greater insight into the situation and the potential to change behavior. For example, the positive of playing a video game is "I'm having fun," while the positive of studying is "I will get a better grade." This translates to long-term implications of "have a good time" and "stay eligible," respectively. After linking these consequences and outcomes to the student-athlete's goals of "fun" and "start on the football team," the best decision for long-term development becomes apparent.
The pedagogy of the course is service-learning, which is a combination of teaching, learning, and reflecting. We structure this, over the 16-week semester, into the following three phases:
Development: The first phase of the course, which takes five weeks, covers conceptual and practical development. During this time, we meet as a class and students learn the theory, decision-making model, and method of teaching behind the curriculum.
The classroom environment is hands-on as opposed to lectures. Upon learning the GOOD Decision Model, students are placed in cooperative groups of two to three with their classmates. Each group then practices teaching the concepts of the model to the rest of the class. This prepares them to run an elementary school classroom and keep control of 25 to 35 young people.
Standing in front of their classmates also helps students gain an appreciation of the professor's perspective, which is a great academic experience. I believe that most students sitting in a classroom cannot perceive how the professor views them. By taking the position of the professor, students see things very differently. They gain a much better understanding of where is an appropriate place to sit, what a student looks like when he or she is not paying attention (including looking at a cell phone or texting), and other social dynamics. All of the advice that coaches and staff members give student-athletes about classroom behavior begins to resonate when they are standing in front of the class looking at their peers.
I also believe that communication is an invaluable asset for everyone no matter what they choose to do in life. Whether someone is a coach, teacher, salesperson, artist, husband, wife, father, or mother, a key ingredient for success in all these roles is communication skills, which the course cultivates through these presentations.
Application: The second phase of the course is the application of accumulated knowledge within a seven-week outreach program. During this timeframe, the student-teaching groups are assigned two elementary or middle school classrooms, which are each taught a 30- to 45-minute lesson every week.
The elementary and middle school involvement was helped by the outstanding partnership between the University and the Tulsa Public Schools System, through which we work with Wilson Middle School and Kendall-Whittier Elementary. Both of these schools are adjacent to the campus, which gives our students easy access to the classrooms.
The student-teachers conduct lessons for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders during the outreach. As the course further develops, the breadth of the program will expand to include first, second, and third graders in order to begin the process of developing decision-making skills at a younger age, thereby optimizing the effectiveness of the outreach curriculum.
In addition to internalizing the decision-making model due to the teaching requirement, students and student-athletes enjoy being mentors and role models. They like that they are teaching something of substance rather than just providing words of encouragement or advice.
We have also received great feedback from the schools. "A lot of kids, unfortunately, don't have that skill to see beyond the moment," says Jamal Bogle, Dean of Students at Wilson Middle School. "This particular character education program is great because it gives the kids decision-making skills.
"As a Dean, it is now easier for me to approach our students about a good decision or bad decision and ask them how they might choose something different next time," he continues. "It definitely leads to teachable moments and fits right into the mission of giving them usable decision-making skills."
The outreach portion of the class generates genuine excitement not only for our students, but also the elementary students and the Tulsa Public Schools faculty and staff. There is a great feeling that we are all a part of a unique experience where everyone wins. This is the essence of service-learning.
Analysis: The third phase of the course entails conducting in-depth analysis. During this culmination phase, we engage our students in meaningful discussion about risky behavior, social issues, and ethical dilemmas. We do this by requiring the students to create cases and scenarios that are pertinent to them.
Common topics include decisions related to politics, social environment, sports, and business ethics. For instance, last semester, we analyzed the dispute in Wisconsin between the teachers' union and the governor, which was being played out every night on television. Different perspectives within this real-life scenario were generated by the students and then assigned to the cooperative groups for analysis. For instance, the perspectives of the governor, union teachers, Democratic legislators, and Republican legislators were each assigned to and analyzed by one of the four groups. The student analysis utilized the decision-making model to identify the drivers of choice, which when using multiple perspectives, paints a complete picture. This created a robust platform for discussion and further developed their critical thinking skills.
The course culminates with a student reflection paper, outlining conceptual and theoretical knowledge from class, perceptions and impressions about their outreach experience, and evaluations of events and behaviors--past, present, and future. We found these papers demonstrated that students not only internalized the model, but also had an enriching experience that had profound effects.
One student wrote about the outreach experience: "By the last session, the students were able to create their own choice contexts, act out positive and negative scenarios, map out the consequences, outcomes, goals, and driving forces of each choice and then discuss how they would make a fair trade-off. They relayed, step-by-step, how they could make the best decision for themselves."
"It was also wonderful to see the students evolve their own goals to become more significant throughout the course," another student noted. "In the beginning, one [elementary school student] had goals to 'be rich' or to 'get a hot girlfriend' (no joke!) and in the end, there was almost a unanimous goal of reaching some sort of higher education. Students wanted to succeed in their classes, go on to the next grade, graduate high school, graduate college, and one student even wanted to be a cardiologist. It is through this transition that I realized the effects the GOOD Decision Model is capable of accomplishing."
The discussions in the class were very meaningful and we all learned from each other. One student-athlete shared a powerful story: "Just recently I was in a position to make a decision and I ended up making the wrong choice," he told us. "My teammate and I were walking back to my dorm and we knew this girl who stayed on the floor below me. So my friend decided to go and speak with her even though we hadn't talked to the girl in over a week. Things got out of control and the next thing we know an argument breaks out and [campus police] is called. We both got suspended from the rest of spring practice and moved down on the depth chart.
"This was a situation where if I would have just stopped to think about the GOOD Decision Model map and went through all the positive/negative consequences and outcomes," he continued, "I would have definitely made a different choice that night, which would have been to continue on to my room."
While all segments of the class are important, ultimately, I believe the key to teaching students about decision-making is the critical thinking analysis and reflection. This is where they begin to really understand that all decisions in life require analysis and have consequences, positive and negative.
Frequently, when confronted with choices, students will turn to instant gratification. However, the decision-making model enables them to quickly analyze daily decisions and get a better perspective on how those decisions either lead or do not lead to their goals. We all hope and expect people to make good choices but like anything else, training, evaluation, discussion, and review allow for better decision-making than intuition.
Common ethics programs consist of training that teaches abstract values, comprehensive rules instruction, and traditional scenario testing that gives a "right" and a "wrong" answer. However, these approaches ignore the complexity of a decision and do not offer a tool to break down and evaluate its short-term and long-term implications.
I view this program as the next evolutionary step because it does not simply tell a person what is "right" and "wrong." Rather, it builds critical thinking skills so students can determine for themselves what is the best decision in the short-term and long-term for their own goal attainment. Simply put, the program asks the question what would you do rather than what should you do. Responsible behavior is the result because the individuals make a conscious choice based on their own personal goals, which ultimately gives them a sense of direction and higher self esteem.
The results of the class have been outstanding. In their reflection papers at the end of the semester, the students invariably talk about wishing they had taken this course when they were in elementary school or, at the very least, at the beginning of their college careers.
"I recommended the course to the freshmen on my team just for decision-making," says a men's basketball player. "I feel like you really pull something away from it."
"The course teaches you to be more confident and speak in other environments," says a football player. "It also teaches you how to make good decisions. I know that sometimes when I'm about to make a bad decision or a good decision, the decision model is one of the things I think about. I think about positive consequences, negative consequences, and positive and negative outcomes along with goals I want to accomplish."
I strongly encourage athletic administrators to teach a class like this whenever they have the opportunity. We've found that the GOOD Decision Model is helping many of our student-athletes in a big way. And it feels great to positively influence the community and help the school-age children realize their aspirations and dreams.
The author wishes to thank Patrick Reynolds, his graduate assistant in the course, who was outstanding in many ways. He was a terrific asset in coordinating the community service part of the program and keeps the students and the elementary school exceptionally well organized.