A new paper looks at how universities can ensure that a focus on character in the classroom can prove useful for students.

by Ryan King (’21)

A new paper authored by four scholars connected with the Program for Leadership and Character shows how a research-based approach to developing virtues can create lasting effects on students’ character.

The paper, “Commencing character: A case study of character development in college,” was published in September by The Journal of Moral Education. In it, authors Michael Lamb, Elise Dykhuis, Sara Mendonça, and Eranda Jayawickreme detail the implementation of a first-year seminar course offered to Wake Forest students entitled “Commencing Character: How Should We Live?” The paper demonstrated that the course had a significant effect in helping students various virtues of character – including purpose, compassion, kindness, generosity, humility, temperance, and practical wisdom – when compared to a control group.

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Designed and taught by Lamb, the “Commencing Character” course builds on seven key strategies laid out in a previous paper also co-authored by Lamb and gets its name from students’ engagement with several commencement speeches, whose authors act as exemplars of specific virtues. Students in the course further develop  virtues by analyzing  readings on character, engaging diverse perspectives on virtues and vices, reflecting on past experiences, and even keeping a gratitude journal. In their final assignment, students give their own commencement speech on a virtue they deem most important. Each activity is aimed at implementing one of the seven key strategies, providing students with various methods and opportunities for engaging practices of character development. The goal of the study, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, was to test whether character education can have significant effects on students’ character and—having demonstrated its impact—to offer a proven design for such a course. But the paper’s aim was to do more than demonstrate how one course can be effective in providing character education. Its authors also hope to spark a larger conversation on how colleges and universities can design intentional courses that help students develop their character. “We are excited that this study shows what our experience suggests is true: that intentional, research-based efforts to develop character actually work,” says Dr. Michael Lamb, Executive Director of the Program for Leadership and Character and Assistant Professor in the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program. “We are so encouraged by how committed the students were to strengthening their character.”

“We are excited that this study shows what our experience suggests is true: that intentional, research-based efforts to develop character actually work.” -Dr. Michael Lamb

“One of the critical functions of a liberal arts education is to educate for moral and civic character,” says Dr. Eranda Jayawickreme, the Harold W. Tribble Professor of Psychology. “I’m hopeful that our project will stimulate meaningful discussions on how we can evaluate how successful we are at achieving this important goal.”

In finding that the course did in fact have positive effects on students’ character and virtue, the paper not only provides a precedent for developing and testing such courses and programs, but it also shows that students can be taught the value of using skills and virtues they learn in college education to improve their lives and the world around them.

For more information, contact Michael Lamb or communications director Jeremy Markovich.