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  • Moral Judgment and Student Discipline:What Are Institutions Teaching? What Are Students Learning?
  • Cooper Merryl (bio) and Schwartz Robert (bio)

College students find themselves in conflict with their college or university when they make choices counter to the expectations of the institution. Typically, these expectations for conduct are outlined in a published code of conduct, which is, in a sense, a moral code for student behavior. "The special function of the construct of moral judgment is to provide conceptual guidance for action choice in situations where moral claims conflict," (Rest, Narvaez, Bebeau, & Thoma, 1999, p. 499). This statement highlights the essence of a question often raised in college and university judicial affairs offices across the country—do students who violate conduct codes operate at a lower level of moral judgment than those who do not?

Purpose of the Study

To investigate the moral judgment of college students who violate campus judicial codes, a group of students who had been referred for a judicial hearing and sanction process were studied to determine the relationship between levels of moral judgment, type of discipline code violation, and selected demographic variables, e.g., age, gender, Greek affiliation, grade point average (GPA), and year in school. A second group of students who were not involved in the judicial process were examined for comparison purposes. Moral judgment scores were gathered from violators and non-violators via the Defining Issues Test 2 (DIT2; Rest, Narvaez, Thoma, et al., 1999).

The primary research question in this study was: What differences in moral judgment, if any, exist between those students who have violated a university conduct code and those who have not? Specific research questions included:

  1. 1. Are there differences in moral judgment among students who commit different types of conduct code violations?

  2. 2. Are the differences in judgment affected by age, class level, gender, GPA, or affiliation with a Greek-letter fraternity or sorority?

  3. 3. Are there differences in moral judgment between students who violate alcohol regulations versus students who have other types of violations?

Review of Related Literature

Current research on moral action breaks the process of moral decision-making into four parts: (a) the ability to recognize a situation as having a moral dimension, (b) the ability to discern right and wrong, (c) the ability to choose a course of action among competing values, and (d) the ability to implement that choice (Rest, 1986). These four dimensions, which Rest (1986) described as The Four Component Model, represent a synthesis of processes that individuals use for moral behavior. The second component, how a person decides something is morally right or wrong, is moral judgment and is the interpretive lens for this study. Current literature identifies [End Page 595] several key factors that appear to influence moral judgment among college students. These factors include age, level of education, academic performance, Greek affiliation, and alcohol use. Each factor is discussed briefly below.


Thoma (1986) found that although gender differences accounted for only 0.2% of the variance in the Defining Issues Test (DIT) scores, age and education levels were 250 times more powerful in predicting moral judgment abilities (r = .52). Thoma's research corroborates and supports many research studies where age and education level are the most powerful correlates to moral reasoning as measured by the DIT (Rest, 1979).


Rest (1986) reported that despite the strong correlation between moral judgment and age, years of formal education had the strongest influence on moral judgment development over time. However, it is unclear what pieces of a formal education experience, e.g., challenging one's views, role-taking, out-of-classroom experiences that promote reflection, and the like, most influence a person's moral judgment.

Rest (1979) reported that age and education accounted for 38–49% of the variance in moral judgment scores. Rest and Thoma (1985) used the DIT with 39 subjects in high school and then every 2 years after graduation over a 6-year period. Two groups were created: a "low" group of students with no more than 2 years of formal education beyond high school and a "high" group with 3 years or more of formal education. Several scores are generated from the DIT. The most...


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