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How Can We Maximize Student Comfort When Teaching Controversial Topics in Bioethics?

The national report Vision and Change was a blueprint for what should be taught to undergraduate biology students. It outlined a set of core concepts and core competencies that undergraduate biology students should possess by the time they graduate.
One of the core competencies is understanding the relationship between science and society and bioethics courses are often used to help teach students this competency. Often, bioethics courses include controversial topics and ethical dilemmas that surround the science, which can be both engaging for students but also can be challenging if they hold minority views about the topic. Despite calls to incorporate bioethics into the undergraduate curriculum, no studies have examined undergraduate student experiences and comfort in bioethics courses based on their identities that may be relevant to these discussions. However, a recent study has tackled this issue by exploring student experiences learning about three controversial topics in bioethics: gene editing, abortion, and physician-assisted suicide. Here are some of the main takeaways:

Undergraduate biology students may be less polarized in their views than the American public

The researchers found that undergraduate students in bioethics courses typically claimed to support controversial bioethics topics such as gene editing, abortion, and physician-assisted suicide in only certain situations rather than in no situations. This is surprising because it indicates that these students overall may be less absolute in their views than might be expected given the divisive nature of these topics in the American public. Students were also surprisingly comfortable when learning about these controversial topics, indicating that bringing up these topics during class is not necessarily uncomfortable for students. Past studies indicate that instructors may avoid teaching controversial topics because they fear creating conflict and discomfort, but this result indicates that instructors may be able to touch on these issues in a way that still makes students feel comfortable.

Students from different social groups have different levels of support and comfort surrounding bioethics topics which reflects the broader American public

These researchers found that women reported lower comfort than men when learning about gene editing. Religious students were less comfortable than non-religious students when learning about abortion and PAS. Non-liberal students were less comfortable than liberal students when learning about abortion. Thus, given that students with different genders, religions, and political affiliations have different comfort levels, the results show that comfort may vary depending on the cultural makeup of students in the class and the topics covered. Thus, instructors may want to think carefully about group dynamics or putting individual students on the spot as far as sharing their thoughts during class about these issues, since women, religious students, and non-liberal students may not be as comfortable voicing their opinions.

Religious cultural competence may be useful in the context of bioethics courses

The researchers found that religious students were both less supportive of and less comfortable when learning about abortion and physician assisted suicide than nonreligious students. This implies that religious cultural competence may be useful in the context of bioethics courses. Religious cultural competence is the ability of someone to adequately communicate to someone with a different religious belief. Biology instructors are typically nonreligious, so they have views different from their religious students and thus may not have experienced the same discomforts when learning about each topic. This cultural disconnect could act as a barrier to effective instruction and communication of bioethics topics.

Religion and politics have their own independent effects on students’ support and comfort

Non-liberal students were both less supportive of abortion than their liberal peers and less comfortable when learning about it. Religion and politics are often assumed to be aligned or conflated with one another; however, the researchers in this study controlled for religious identity, showing that politics each had its own independent effect on students’ support and comfort. This means that to address the comparatively low comfort of non-liberal students, further action may need to be taken than simply addressing discomfort related to religion and perhaps there is also the need for political cultural competence in bioethics courses given the predominant liberal attitudes and beliefs of most biologists.

It may be important for instructors to consider student identity when teaching bioethics topics

This study’s findings indicates that student identity can impact comfort and support in a way similar to that previously shown in the public, although college students seem to be less polarized. Thus, it may be important for instructors to consider student identity when teaching bioethics topics to maximize student comfort, ultimately encouraging thoughtful consideration and engagement with these topics. If instructors teach bioethics but ignore student identities, they may miss the opportunity to specifically address identity-based hurdles related to student comfort.

For more resources see:

Edwards, B. A., Roberts, J. A., Bowen, C., Brownell, S. E., & Barnes, M. E. (2022). An exploration of how gender, political affiliation, or religious identity is associated with comfort and perceptions of controversial topics in bioethics. Advances in Physiology Education, 46(2), 268-278.

Post Author

Tasneem Mohammed is a Ph.D. student in the Research for Inclusive STEM Education (RISE) Center at ASU. Her research focuses on how the mismatch between students, cultures, and the culture of academia affects their experiences in science.


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