Can Faith-Based Education Impact Ethical Behavior?

Nov 5th, 2019 | Category: Faith/Learning
By Wanda K. Foster


The Hebrew root word for justice means “straightness.” Biblical justice is the moral and ethical standard by which God measures human conduct (Harnish, 1991). This standard is entrenched in the culture of faith-based education but does it make a difference in our behavior? Research has verified that ethics can be learned (Cloninger & Selvarajan, 2010; Marnburg, 2003; Neubaum, Pagell, Drexler, McKee-Ryan, & Larson, 2009; Nguyen, Basuray, Smith, Kopka & McCulloh, 2008). Although teaching ethical theory is the foundation for a lasting understanding of ethics, scholars agree that teaching ethical theory is not sufficient to promote ethical behavior (Bowden & Smythe, 2008; Hanson & Moore, 2014; Marnburg, 2003). The problem with teaching ethical norms is that this learning must be translated into moral action (Sekerka & Bagozzi, 2007; Gunia, Wang, L., Huang, Wang, J. & Murnighan, 2012). There is a disconnection between “knowing” versus “doing” what is right. The remainder of this article will explore the behavioral changes in an undergraduate business ethics course at a faith-based university. 

Research Study on Moral Action

Teaching ethical theory is the foundation for a lasting understanding of ethics, but scholars agree that teaching ethical theory is not sufficient to promote ethical behavior (Bowden & Smythe, 2008; Hanson & Moore, 2014; Marnburg, 2003). If teaching theory is not enough, then different ways must be investigated to improve ethical learning. Consider the biblical teaching from the book of Amos, around 750 BC. “This is what he showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.’” (Bible Gateway, Amos 7: 7-8a, 2019). Amos was learning moral behavior, not by theories, but instead by visualization. The visual representation of a plumb line was used to signify that straightness is essential for moral conduct. This is an early example of experiential teaching for learning ethics. It has been well documented that experiential learning can be used to bridge formal learning to practical application of that learning. Active and engaged teaching methods impact learning more effectively than passive methods for complex issues (Lavine & Roussin, 2012). Experiential exercises give students a practical, first-hand experience with ethical dilemmas and allow the students to explore and reflect on their own feelings and attitudes (McWilliams & Nahavandi, 2006). Examples of experiential methods used in the business ethics classroom include: case methods, interactive dialog and discussions, field experience, business games/simulations, debates, visualizations, role plays, and reflection. This study compared experiential or “active-learning” methods to that of a traditional classroom to investigate the impact these methods have on ethical behavior.

Ethical learning can be defined as an ongoing process, which requires raising ethical sensitivity and upholding moral values by intention and behavior to promote ethical decision-making (Nguyen et al., 2008). A second consideration for this study is how to measure ethical learning. The measurement of ethical behavior in past studies has been based on ethical intention. Ethical judgment and moral intention have been shown lacking as an accurate predictor for ethical behavior and moral action (Rest, 1986). Because of the disconnection between reasoning and behavior, Marnburg (2003) challenged educators to investigate teaching business ethics to promote moral action. This study was designed to measure actual behavior rather than the intention to act in order to better explore changes in behavior resulting from a business-ethics course. 

Study Construct

The purpose for this research study was to investigate the effects of experiential learning on undergraduate student behavior after taking a business ethics course compared to that of students taking the same course taught with traditional theories and methods. The research question asked was: “Does teaching business ethics with the use of experiential methods affect moral action?”. The hypothesis resulting from this question was based on findings from McWilliams and Nahavandi (2006) that indicated experiential methods were superior pedagogies for teaching ethics. H1 stated that participants taking a business ethics course based on traditional methods, TM1, would demonstrate significantly less improvement in moral action than participants engaged in experiential learning, TM2. To measure moral action rather than the intent to act, this study tested the hypothesis with a decision-making game based on Gneezy’s (2005) deception game. 

The study was conducted at Saint Xavier University, a faith-based university in Chicago, and included students enrolled in an undergraduate sixteen-week business ethics course. Saint Xavier is one of the top five percent of business programs globally and among the top fifteen most innovative small college business programs in the United States (Graham School of Management, 2018). Two classrooms of business ethics were used in this study. Each classroom had approximately twenty-eight students participating in the study. The students had no knowledge of the different teaching methods that were to be used when they registered for the course. The students self-selected into one or the other classroom based on their particular schedules and without previous knowledge of the study. No stratification was done on the sample. Although this study sample was representative of the larger population, it is considered a non-probability sample because the students were pre-assigned and chosen based on their availability and convenience for taking the course. The random assignment of students into two groups would be disruptive to classroom learning. This study is classified as quasi-experimental (Creswell, 2012). 

This quasi-experimental study utilized a pretest-posttest design. Independent variables were the teaching methods used in the classroom. The control group, TM1, was the classroom which learned ethics through traditional methods; readings, lecture, class discussion, assignments and exams.

The other classroom, TM2, learned ethics with the same text, materials, and instructor, but the assignments were based on experiential methods. TM2 was rooted in experiential learning, which is defined as learning from experience (Lewis & Williams, 1994). Reflection is encouraged as experience is gained to develop new attitudes and ways to think. The action-oriented methods used in this study emphasized individual and group exercises, which required that participants take an action based on ethical decision-making with a reflective component (Chapman et al., 1995). Experiential learning, TM2, was the second independent variable and served as an intervention or treatment variable for the study. 

The dependent variable in this study was the outcome, moral action. Moral action was measured as an outcome for both groups with pretest and posttest exercises based on variations of Gneezy’s (2005) “deception game.” The “deception game” required the participants to take an action rather than to give their intention of what they would do in a particular situation. The actions taken by participants in the game revealed moral behavior. The pretest was conducted at the outset of the study. The posttest was administered at the end of the sixteen-week study. The results from TM1 and TM2 participants were compared for significant differences to provide evidence about moral behavior. Data from the comparison of the two groups pretest and posttest were used to provide understanding for translating ethical learning into moral action. 

A moderating variable, moral development, could mislead the understanding of the dependent variable, moral action. Because students entering a business ethics course may vary in their moral development, a reference point was needed to compare the two groups. The DIT-2 (Rest et al., 1999) was given to both groups. TM1 and TM2 were compared for significant differences in moral development. A demographic survey was also utilized to compare both groups for variables which could impact moral behavior: age, gender, credit hours earned, grade point average, type of business major declared, and faith background. The demographic survey and the DIT-2 were administrated early in the course.


Instrumentation for this research study included: a demographic survey, the Defining Issues Test, Version 2, DIT-2 (Rest et al., 1999), and a pretest and posttest exercise based on Gneezy’s (2005) “deception game.” The demographic survey and the DIT-2 were administered at the beginning of the sixteen-week course. The “game” was conducted twice; at the beginning and at the end of the course. 

The purpose for the demographic survey was to gain information about the study sample. The DIT-2 provided a baseline measurement to assess the moral maturity of the participants from the two groups tested. The pretest and posttest assessments measured moral action. Lying, cheating, and deception are considered immoral behaviors (Brown, Miller, & DeTienne, 2014). The principle behind Gneezy’s (2005) “deception game” was to identify the participants’ behavior as either truthful or deceptive. The “deception game” was labeled, “decision-making game” in this study so not to bias the participants that right or wrong behaviors were being measured.

DIT-2 scores have been validated to the measures of moral comprehension (r = .60) (Center for the Study of Ethical Development, 2017). Two studies, Crowson, DeBacker and Thoma (2007) and Thoma, Derryberry and Narvaez (2009), confirmed that moral judgment is independent from intellectual ability, socio-political views, and verbal abilities (Mayhew et al., 2015). The reliability of the DIT-2 has been measured by Cronbach’s alpha from .77 to .81 (Center for the Study of Ethical Development, 2017). Gneezy’s (2005) “deception game” was adapted from Crawford and Sobel’s (1982) “Cheap Talk.” “Cheap Talk” has been used in research since the 1980s and the longevity of this game indicates the value in both validity and reliability when used to investigate behavior.  

Data Analysis  

Both descriptive and inferential statistical analyses were performed on the data by the use of the IBM software program, Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). Descriptive statistics were performed on data from the demographic survey to describe the characteristics of the participants in TM1 and TM2. The two groups were compared in relation to age, gender, credit hours earned, GPA, type of business major declared, and their faith background. The scored DIT-2 results were analyzed to determine if a significant difference was present in the level of moral development between participants from TM1 and TM2. The mean and standard deviation were calculated to describe the central measure of tendency for the DIT-2 scores for both TM1 and TM2. The t-test for independent samples, was used to determine if a significant difference was evident in moral maturity between the two groups. The level of significance (alpha level) was set at 5%. Because the development of moral cognition is gradual, a posttest of the DIT-2 was not necessary. As Rest (1986) stated, “there is no reason to believe that the reorganization of basic cognitive structures can take place instantaneously or even overnight” (p. 205). Moral action was tested with the decision-making game pretest and posttest for TM1 and TM2. Analysis of the pretest-posttest data was performed with cross tabulation for observed and expected counts from the decision-making game. Pearson’s chi-square test for independence was performed to test for significant association between the pretest and posttest game results. The level of significance was set at 5%. Changes in moral behavior between pretest and posttest scores were determined with cross tabulation for the outcomes of: Truth/Truth, Lie/Lie, Truth/Lie, and Lie/Truth.


Demographic Survey. When the demographic data from TM1 and TM2 were compared, the groups were closely related as shown in Table 1. The only category that indicated a discrepancy was that of the primary language spoken, χ2(1, N = 27) = 5.80, p = .016 (Table 4.1). Although U.S. citizenship was similar for both TM1 and TM2, only 59% of the participants from TM2 used English as their primary language. Ninety four percent of the participants in TM1 used English as their primary language. Because the hypothesis was based on the comparison of two teaching methods, it was important to identify significant differences between the two groups, which could affect moral action. Overall, the demographic results from TM1 and TM2 were consistent; the groups could be compared.

Table 1

Descriptive Results for Demographic Data for TM1 and TM2

Demographic traits TM1 TM2 TM1 & TM2 Chi-squares   &   t-tests
n = 16 n = 11 n = 27
Age (mean years) 22.1 20.9 21.6 t = 1.71
Gender: Female 44% 37% 41% χ2 = 0.15
Grade Level:1 χ2 = 1.10
           Sophomore 6% 18% 12%
           Junior 50% 36% 44%
           Senior 44% 46% 44%
GPA:  > 3.0 62% 72% 67% χ2 = 0.88
Political Ideology (mode)2 Neutral Neutral Neutral χ2 = 5.67
Citizenship: U.S. 100% 91% 97% χ2 = 1.51
Primary Language: English 94% 55% 78% χ2 = 5.80*
Religious Activity: χ2 = 3.78
           Weekly 25% 27% 26%
           Monthly 13 0% 8%
           Occasionally 13% 18% 15%
           None/No answer 49% 55% 51%
Prior Ethics Course: Yes 38% 27% 33% χ2 = 0.31
1 Determined by number of completed units
2 Political Ideology ranged from extremely conservative to extremely liberal
* significant at the .05 level

Moral Development. The instrument used for measuring moral development was Bebeau and Thoma’s (2003) Defining Issues Test (DIT-2) version 3.0 obtained from the Center for the Study of Ethical Development at the University of Alabama. The DIT-2 results were scored in three ordered categories based from lowest to highest level of moral maturity: Personal Interest, Maintaining Norms, and Post-Conventional Maturity. The P Score was reported as a percent representing a person’s preference to post-conventional moral thinking (Bebeau & Thoma, 2003). Descriptive statistical tests were performed for each of the three ordered categories and the P Scores from the DIT-2 data. Central tendency was calculated and reported for the entire sample population; separately for TM1 and TM2 and combined for TM1 and TM2. Independent samples t-tests were run on the three categories of the DIT-2 and the P Scores to determine if the differences in results between participants in TM1 and participants in TM2 were significant. The results indicated that there were no significant differences for Personal Interest between TM1 (M = 37.75, SD = 16.08) participants and TM2 (M = 37.27, SD = 13.48) participants; t(25) = .081, p = .936 (Table 4.3). Results also indicated that there were no significant differences in Maintaining Norms scores between TM1 participants (M = 28.50, SD = 10.80) and TM2 participants (M = 33.10, SD = 14.92); t(25) = .930, p = .361 (Table 4.3). The t-test run on the third category, Post Conventional, also resulted in non-significant results between the participants of TM1 (M = 25.63, SD = 15.70) and participants of TM2 (M = 22.00, and SD = 12.46); t(25) = .639, p = .529 (Table 4.3). The results for the t-test of the overall P Scores from the DIT-2 were also not significant in differences between TM1 participants (M = 24.75%, SD = 14.98%) and TM2 participants (M = 17.95%, SD = 11.37%); t(25) = 1.272, p = .215 (Table 4.3). The lack of significant differences in DIT-2 scores between the control group (TM1) and the experimental group (TM2) provided evidence that moral development was similar prior to the intervention of action-oriented teaching methods to TM2. A summary of these results is available in Table 2.

Table 2

Statistical Results for Differences in Moral Development by Teaching Method

DIT2 Categories TM1 TM2
n = 16 n = 11 t-statistic
Mean (SD) Mean (SD)  
Personal Interest 37.75 (16.08)       37.27 (13.48) t(25) = .081, p = .936
Maintaining Norms   28.50 (10.80)   33.10 (14.92) t(25) = .930, p = .361
Post Conventional   25.63 (15.70)   22.00 (12.46) t(25) = .639, p = .529
P Scores 24.75% (14.98%) 17.95% (11.37%) t(25) = 1.272, p = .215

Moral Action. Because the control group, TM1, and the intervention group, TM2, had similar demographic traits and moral development, the groups were compared for the dependent variable, moral action. Pretest and posttest data from the groups were analyzed with chi-square to determine whether a significant difference existed between TM1 and TM2. Table 3 summarizes the results from the pretest cross tabulations for TM1 and TM2.

Table 3

Cross Tabulation:  Moral Action between TM1 and TM2 during the Pretest

  Pretest Game Results
Teaching Method   Truth Lie Total
TM1 (n = 16) Count 7 9 16
Expected 8.9 7.1 16
TM2 (n = 11) Count 8 3 11
Expected 6.1 4.9 11
Total 15 12 27

Cross tabulation from the pretest decision-making game, indicated participants from TM1 yielded a greater number of participants lying or taking deceptive action than participants from TM2 (Table 3). Moral behavior resulted in 43.75% of TM1 participants compared to 72.73% of TM2. Pearson’s chi-square test for independence was performed and it indicated that there was no significant association between teaching method and pretest game results, χ2(1, N = 27) = 2.217, p = .137.  

The posttest cross tabulation results from TM1 and TM2 are summarized in Table 4.

Table 4

Cross Tabulation:  Moral Action between TM1 and TM2 during the Posttest

Posttest Game Results
Teaching Method   Truth Lie Total
     TM1 (n = 16) Count 6 10 16
Expected 7.1 8.9 16
TM2 (n = 11) Count 6 5 11
Expected 4.9 6.1 11
Total 12 15 27

Cross tabulation from the posttest decision-making game, indicated participants from TM1 yielded a greater number of participants lying or taking a deceptive action than participants from TM2 (Table 4.5). Moral behavior resulted in 37.50% of TM1 participants acting truthfully compared to 54.55% of TM2 (Figure 4.2). Pearson’s chi-square from the posttest indicated that no significant difference was evident between the two teaching methods, χ2(1, N = 27) = .767, p = .381.

A change in moral behavior between the pretest and posttest for TM1 and TM2 was tested with chi-square. Eleven participants changed their behavior between the pretest and posttest. An improvement in moral action was evident in four participants (two in TM1 and two in TM2) who lied during the pretest and were truthful during the posttest. A decline in moral action was seen in seven participants (three in TM1; four in TM2) who were truthful during the pretest and chose to lie during the posttest. Sixteen participants chose the same action in their pretest and posttest. These results are highlighted in Table 5.

Table 5

Cross Tabulation:  Change in Behavior between Pretest and Posttest by Teaching Method

Moral Action
Teaching Method Change in Action from Pretest to Posttest
    Lie-Lie Truth-Lie Lie-Truth Truth-Truth Total
TM1 (n = 16) Count 7 3 2 4 16
Expected 4.7 4.1 2.4 4.7 16
TM2 (n = 11) Count 1 4 2 4 11
Expected 3.3 2.9 1.6 3.3 11
Total 8 7 4 8 27

In order to test the influence of the teaching method, the researcher identified the change in the participants’ behavior from their pretest to their posttest. For statistical analysis, participants were classified into one of four categories. If they lied on the pretest and lied on the posttest they would be in “Lie/Lie.” If the participant lied on the pretest and told the truth on the posttest they would be categorized as “Lie/Truth.” The resulting two categories were for participants that told the truth in the pretest and chose to lie (Truth/Lie) or tell the truth (Truth/Truth) during the posttest. The change in behavior between the pretest and posttest decision-making game for TM1 and TM2 was tested with chi-square. The combination of participants from TM1 and TM2 (n = 27) resulted in changed behavior from eleven participants between the pretest and posttest. Moral action improved (Lie/Truth) for four participants while moral action declined (Truth/Lie) for seven participants. The behavior the remaining sixteen participants remained the same between pretest and posttest. Of these sixteen, eight participants remained truthful (Truth/Truth) and eight continued to lie (Lie/Lie) between the pretest and posttest. A chi-square test was run to identify if there was an association between the teaching method (TM1 or TM2) and the change in behavior from the pretest to the posttest. Results indicated there was not a significant association between the teaching method and the change in behavior, χ2(3, N = 27) = 3.849, p = .278. This researcher will therefore fail to reject the null hypothesis that teaching method has no influence on moral action. It stands that, ‘There is no difference between participants taking a traditional business ethics course, TM1, from that of participants taking the same course with an emphasis on action-oriented learning methods, TM2, in regard to moral action.’


It would have been expected that regardless of the teaching method used, that learning ethics would have had a positive impact on behavior (Block & Cwick, 2007; Felton & Sims, 2005; Fisher, J., 2003; Jones, D., 2009; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Sekerka, 2009; Trevino & Weaver, 2003). Although the small sample size of this study was not robust enough to indicate associations or relationships between the two teaching methods and the participants’ change in behavior, this study did confirm that behavioral changes, not just the intention to act, occurred. The results of the pretest game indicated that 43.75% of participants from TM1 and 72.73% from TM2 took a moral action. The posttest game results demonstrated a decline in moral action with 37.50% of TM1 and 54.55% of TM2 participants acting morally. From this small sample (n = 27), eleven participants demonstrated a change in behavior. Four of these participants demonstrated an improvement in moral behavior, pretest lie to posttest truth, while seven showed a decline, pretest truth to posttest lie. Participants’ changing from ethical behavior to unethical behavior after taking a course in business ethics is contrary to logic. These results are from a small sample and the expected values when using the chi-square were too low for accurate testing. Although these results cannot be verified, this study does raise the issue that the past measurement of intention may not have accurately provided results for ethical behavior. This relates back to the problem statement from this study, ‘Ethics can be learned. but the problem is that this learning must be translated into action’ (Cloninger & Selvarajan, 2010; Gunia et al., 2012; Marnburg, 2003; Neubaum et al., 2009; Nguyen et al., 2008; Sekerka & Bagozzi, 2007).

In conclusion, past research did not test behavior but relied on moral awareness, moral judgment, and ethical intention to measure learning ethics. Former studies used moral development and reasoning ability to relate to moral behavior (Bowden & Smythe, 2008; Hanson & Moore, 2014; Marnburg, 2003), but recent work has warned that there are problems when using these behavioral variables (Desplaces, 2008; Hanson & Moore, 2014; Lavine & Roussin, 2012; Marnburg, 2003; McWilliams & Nahavandi, 2006; Nguyen, 2008). There are differences between intention and the desire to act from actually taking an action. The outcome tested in this study was moral action, not ethical intention. It stands that no difference exists between participants in TM1 from that of participants taking the same course with TM2 in regard to moral action. The results indicated that one teaching method was not superior to the other method.


  1. The problem in teaching ethics is that ethical learning must be translated into action (Sekerka & Bagozzi, 2007; Gunia, 2012). Because past studies primarily measured ethical intention rather than moral action, there is uncertainty in whether or not the participant would have followed up on their ethical decision-making. When moral action is tested as the outcome for ethical behavior, there is little doubt that the final outcome is accurate. It is recommended that moral action be measured as an outcome for ethical behavior. Gneezy’s (2005) deception game gave the players a choice of taking an action that was truthful or one that was deceptive. Other business games could be modified or new testing developed to record an action. 
  2. Secondly, continued investigation on teaching methods in regard to moral action is recommended. McWilliams and Nahavandi claim that experiential student learning, when applied to ethical theories, is superior pedagogy for teaching ethics (2006). This study did not find, however, that experiential methods were superior. The differences between experiential and traditional teaching methods may have overlapped in this study. Future studies need more delineation between the teaching methods. Another possibility for the difference could have been that moral action was not the outcome used in the study by McWilliams and Nahavandi (2006). Regardless, more work needs to be done on teaching methods and moral behavior. 
  3. The third recommendation for future research is to enlarge the sample and timeframe. This study was based on sound methodology, but the small sample size limited analysis of the data. Future sampling could be from academic settings, but could also be from corporations that conduct ethical training. Multiple settings could be considered as well. Because moral development takes time for the process to be completed (Rest, 1986), a semester-long study may not have been adequate for the assessment of ethical learning. A prolonged timeframe is recommended. For future research, longitudinal studies over an academic program could demonstrate ethical learning throughout the coursework. 
  4. The final recommendation is to conduct cross-discipline research. Business is a field that encompasses economics, psychology, sociology, law, and other disciplines. Each of these areas is doing research in the field of ethics. With collaboration, new knowledge can be combined that leads to a fresh understanding. The deception game used in this study was from Gneezy’s work in economics.


The disconnection between “knowing” versus “doing” affects research on moral behavior. If “knowing” the intention to act is measured, can the researcher be sure that the intention will be actualized? On the other hand, if “doing” is measured, then the outcome is concrete. Again, the problem with teaching ethical norms is that this learning must be translated into moral action (Sekerka & Bagozzi, 2007; Gunia et al, 2012). Moral action as an outcome for learning ethics is needed to provide evidence for the efficacy of teaching business ethics. This study investigated the moral action of undergraduate business students at a faith-based university taking an undergraduate course in business ethics with the question, “Does teaching business ethics with the use of experiential methods affect moral action?” The hypothesis stated that participants taking a business ethics course based on traditional methods would demonstrate significantly less improvement in moral action than participants engaged in experiential learning. The result of this study indicated that no relationship was apparent between participants taking a business ethics course with traditional methods from those taking the same course with experiential methods in regard to moral action. Building on this small study, much more work must be done to continue to build a base of knowledge around learning ethics to promote moral action. LEJ


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Wanda Foster, Ph.D., teaches Principles of Management, Finance, Corporate Finance and Business Ethics at Concordia University Chicago. Her areas of expertise include transition of professionals into management and management of healthcare organizations. Prior to serving at Concordia-Chicago, Dr. Foster worked as the director of the bachelor in healthcare management program at Calumet College of St. Joseph. Dr. Foster has been a member of Concordia-Chicago’s faculty since 2006.