As counselors, we recognize the importance of ethics, so much so that it is a required component of our training. Particularly in our current social climate, with issues such as personal values versus counselor competencies being debated in U.S. court systems, it is crucial for students to prepare to be ethical practitioners.

Unfortunately, students do not usually look forward to ethics classes. They often perceive ethics as boring or, as Karin Jordan and Patricia Stevens noted in a 2001 article for The Family Journal, “legal mumbo-jumbo.” In our experience as instructors, students often enter ethics classes thinking that the ACA Code of Ethics will “have the answer” or that they will be able to refer to a law to tell them what to do. They typically don’t understand the ambiguous nature and complexities of ethical dilemmas.

The use of case studies can help students conceptualize ethical dilemmas, but we believe a need exists for more hands-on, applied training to prepare students for their future practice. Moving beyond lectures and case studies to truly engage students in their learning assists them with problem-solving and increases their confidence in tackling future ethical dilemmas. Here, we share a few activities we have used through the years to engage students in their ethical development.

The use of base groups

On the first day of ethics class, we split the class into base groups of three to five students each. The membership of these base groups will remain consistent throughout the semester. We tell students they should check in with their group at the beginning of every class.

Base groups begin classroom activities and help engage students in small group discussion, which is usually related to assigned readings. Base groups also serve to create an intimate, safe learning environment in which students get to know some of their classmates very well. We encourage students in base groups to exchange contact information with one another. That way, if a student is ever absent or late, one of his or her group mates can provide that student with notes, discuss what happened in class or bring a paper to class for the student.

Base group discussions prime students to participate in more in-depth conversations on specific topics with the entire class later in the class period. Topics of discussion might include “What concerns do you think clients have about confidentiality? Make a list of five” or “Would you be willing to lend a client $5? Attend the same gym? Attend the same weekly yoga class? Why or why not?” As the students hear other perspectives and collaborate with one another, they generate a myriad of options on the basis of their classmates’ experiences, values and understanding of ethical obligations. This structure also teaches students the practice of consulting with colleagues when complex situations arise. Occasionally, we offer questions meant simply to allow the students to get to know one another better, such as “How did you spend fall break?” We then generalize these base group conversations to the overall class discussion, creating space for an even more developed class dialogue.

One final note: Base groups are a nice, practical way of transitioning, allowing the instructor a few minutes to get organized at the beginning of class while students are engaged in discussion. (Resource: David W. Johnson and Frank P. Johnson provide a nice description of base groups and other cooperative learning activities in the 10th edition of their book Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills.)

Values Auction

The Values Auction is an activity that helps students identify the values they hold in their private and vocational lives. Students are placed in small groups of three to five individuals. We supply a handout containing several general life values (family, love, culture, etc.) and work values (high income, security, helping others, etc.). As the auction begins in each group, each student can bid on any value he or she considers most important — family, religion, nature, freedom and so on — but the student has only $500 to spend in total. Bidding begins at $100 for each value, and bids can be increased only in increments of $10 up to the total limit of $500. This activity can prove to be quite lively, with students often becoming emotionally invested in the process. We hear, “Oh! I lost family!” or “Yes! I got religion for $400!”

After completing the activity in small groups, the whole class can process the experience of choosing values. Students can discuss some of the reasons for selecting their chosen values in the auction and reasons for sacrificing the other values. This prompts further discussion of the importance of values in the counseling process and how values affect the practitioner’s ethical decision-making process. It can also be useful to have students write a reflection paper on the process of selecting their values and how this relates to ethical practice in counseling. (Resource: Values Auction activities can be found online through an Internet search, or refer to Mark Pope and Carole W. Minor’s book Experiential Activities for Teaching Career Counseling Classes and for Facilitating Career Groups.)

Jigsaw activities

A jigsaw activity allows students both to teach and to learn from their peers. It is particularly useful in helping students comprehend large amounts of material. With the jigsaw, students can focus on one area in depth and then teach that area to their peers in small groups.

In the first phase of the activity, the class is divided into groups. If six topics need to be covered, we form six groups; if four topics, four groups, and so on. Each group is assigned a portion of reading or a topic in the area of ethics to research. The students meet in their groups to share, discuss and debate what they believe to be their topic’s most important points. They then reach agreement concerning what they want to “teach” to others in the class. The first phase looks like this, with each letter representing one student: (A, A, A, A) (B, B, B, B) (C, C, C, C) (D, D, D, D).

In the second phase, the members of each group are placed into another group with students who have reviewed different topics. Each individual is required to summarize the information about his or her topic thoroughly, yet make the topic as easy to understand as possible. As each student explains his or her topic, the other students ask questions and discuss how the concepts relate to their practical work in the field. The second phase might look like this: (A, B, C, D) (A, B, C, D) (A, B, C, D) (A, B, C, D).

In this activity, students are given the opportunity to dialogue about the complicated issues of ethical practice, legal guidelines and ethics codes. In our class, we use the jigsaw technique to review a seminal article by Naomi Meara, Lyle Schmidt and Jeanne Day that appeared in The Counseling Psychologist. The article, including references, exceeds 70 pages. Each student group is assigned different portions of the article, and each portion covers different principles and virtues with which the students must familiarize themselves and share in jigsaw groups. This type of activity can be used with a variety of articles, book chapters and ethical and legal guidelines. (Resource: For more information regarding jigsaw activities, refer to The Jigsaw Classroom by Elliot Aronson.)

Role-plays and skits

Role-plays can be useful in transferring textbook knowledge into practice by having students act out what they would say or do in a given situation. Through role-plays, students can practice the counselor role in assessing suicide risk, discussing limits of confidentiality or going over a release of information form with a client.

In this activity, students are assigned to groups of three to four individuals, depending on class size. One student plays the counselor, another plays the client, and the remaining group members function as observers providing feedback. During the activity, the roles shift, giving each student the opportunity to play every role. By acting in these roles, students prepare for real-world ethical dilemmas that arise in counseling practice. This activity allows students to gain practical experience, while also helping them consider different ways of handling difficult situations as they observe other students. As students “try on” these roles, they become more familiar with the roles and gain useful feedback in a supportive setting. Later on, as these situations arise in actual practice, students will possess some experience to fall back on.

The main difference between role-plays and skits is that role-plays are performed in small groups, while skits are acted out in front of the entire class. Class skits provide a way for students to use their creativity to construct a story that centers on ethical concerns in counseling situations. Students might use props, costumes and the room layout to set up a case scenario, and then invite the class to process the ethical issues involved and generate possible solutions.

We typically bring a suitcase full of hats, scarves, dishes, cups and random items such as sunglasses, baby bottles and stuffed animals to class. The class can be broken into small groups of three to five students, depending on class size, allowing for several different skits to take place in one class period. In this activity, the instructor assigns a specific issue related to counseling ethics. The small groups can then create any storyline or scenario in which an ethical dilemma must be solved. In our class, small groups are asked to create a situation in which a multiple relationship is exposed (such as running into a client at a party) and act out how the counselor handled the situation, both in the moment and in a therapy session. After each skit, the class is invited to discuss the story, the decision-making process and how the situation could have been avoided or handled differently.

Constructive controversy

Constructive controversy is an activity that places students in situations in which some kind of conflict exists between two opposing ideas, opinions or theories. The students present their opinions and then work together to reach an agreement.

In this activity, students may be paired (one student engages with another student), work in small groups (a pair of students engages with another pair of students), or the class can be split in two (a group of five to 10 students engages with another group of five to 10 students). The students are presented with two sides of an argument, but instead of deciding which side they wish to argue for or against, they are assigned to a side arbitrarily. This forces students, many of whom have preconceived notions or opinions about certain topics, to think critically and consider both sides of an issue. A number of controversial topics within the area of counseling ethics could be presented for consideration using this activity.

In our course, we use the following topic:

Situation: An agency has a policy in which clients are given a diagnosis in the first intake session, after which clients can be seen under a brief counseling model for a total of five counseling sessions. Side A will argue that early diagnosis is crucial in this situation. Side B will argue that rushing into diagnosis is harmful.

Each side is given time to prepare its position, including a rationale and conclusion. Each side then takes turns presenting its position without interruption or rebuttal from the other side. Students are encouraged to take notes and prepare for rebuttal while listening to the other side’s presentation. Both sides then engage in a rational discussion of the issues, with each side defending its own position and pointing out flaws in the reasoning of the other side’s argument. The next step, which is crucial, involves each group reversing positions. Each side must now summarize the other’s arguments to ensure understanding. Finally, both sides discuss the situation and reach a consensus. (Resources: For more information regarding constructive controversy, see Johnson and Johnson’s Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills or David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson and Karl A. Smith’s article “Constructive controversy: The power of intellectual conflict,” which appeared in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning in 2000.)

Illustrations of decision-making models

This is a fun activity that facilitates visual learning and creativity. In this activity, students work collaboratively to create a graphic presentation of an ethical decision-making model. We first introduce the class to several well-known ethical decision-making models through readings and discussion. Students are divided into small groups, and each group is given a large poster-size paper (we use the paper that is like an enormous sticky note, available at office supply stores, so these can be hung up around the room). Each group selects a different model, and group members collectively come up with a design to illustrate its particular model.

Students really embrace their creativity in this exercise. We have seen a “Mario Brothers” video game illustration, a flower, a cartoon strip, a house, a road map and several trees. Each group then presents its poster and explains how the picture relates to or simplifies the ethical decision-making model. The visual serves as a reminder of the steps for that particular model. This activity provides students with presentation experience, encourages group work and collaboration, and inspires creativity in understanding and retaining some of the most common ethical decision-making models in the field. (Resources: R. Rocco Cottone and Ronald E. Claus provide a nice overview of several different decision-making models in their 2000 article “Ethical Decision-Making Models: A Review of the Literature,” which appeared in the Journal of Counseling & Development. In our course, we also use models by Marcia Hill, Kristin Glaser and Judy Harden, and Karen Kitchener.)

Informed consent analysis

The informed consent analysis is an activity in which pairs of students review sample informed consent forms from several agencies. These forms can be downloaded online or gathered from local internship sites, hospitals and practices. We typically allow time for four different informed consent documents.

Students are provided a handout of a table with agency names across the top and different components of informed consent down the side. We ask students to look for a number of these components, including (but not limited to) credentials, responsibility for payment, supervisory relationship, confidentiality and privilege. Using this table as a guideline, students examine each consent form and check which aspects are covered sufficiently.

In the small group, students discuss the content, format, brevity and level of reader friendliness of each form. In this process, students identify commonalities and differences within the various forms, what information must be presented, what information should be presented and explain their reasoning. (Resource: In our course, we utilize a table adapted from Appendix C of Cottone and Vilia M. Tarvydas’ book Counseling Ethics and Decision-Making.)

Our takeaway message

Ethics can be fun! Fun to teach, fun to think about and fun to learn. This is not to take away from the seriousness of our duty to be ethical practitioners. Rather, we think it is important to instill in students the idea that ethics is neither scary nor boring. We want to communicate to them that proper consideration of ethics is more than a duty or an obligation — it is something that should be aspirational and inspirational. We believe that by providing students with these experiences and practice, we are preparing them to be more confident later when faced with real-life dilemmas.

In our experience, the use of active learning strategies increases students’ level of engagement, encourages them to engage in critical thinking, raises their level of preparedness for future practice and increases awareness of how ambiguous ethical dilemmas can be.


“Knowledge Share” articles are adapted from sessions presented at past ACA Annual Conferences.

Julie Koch is an assistant professor in the College of Education’s School of Applied Health and Educational Psychology at Oklahoma State University. Contact her at

Adrienne Erby is a doctoral student in the College of Education’s Department of Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Contact her at

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