The Hardware Lab


How does a new teaching assistant handle a student with a learning disability? What responsibility does the university and/or faculty members have to train a graduate student in the universities policies? This case explores the potential conflicts between students, TA's and faculty when policy is not clearly defined.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 1

The students in the lab sections for an engineering course are required to work in pairs. Laurie, a first-year graduate student, is assigned as the assistant for the lab sections at the beginning of her first term. During the fifth week of classes, Laurie is approached by Fred, who says that his partner, Mike, is never prepared and that he spends at least 30 minutes during each two-hour lab explaining the material to Mike. The rest of the time, Fred explains, he ends up performing the experiments while Mike only watches.

Laurie mentally notes that Mike has been asking a lot of procedural questions during lab time, which has been cutting into her ability to spend an equal amount of time with the other teams. At the next lab session, Laurie reiterates that she expects all students to email their procedural questions to her beforehand so that she will not have to use lab time to answer these questions.

Discussion Questions

1. As Laurie understands her job, she is to demonstrate the use of the lab hardware to the students, review relevant material from the lecture during the lab, and answer any questions about the experiments. However, she is also concerned that Mike and Fred are having problems. Should Laurie actively get involved in helping to solve their partnership difficulties?

2. Laurie knows that the professor will not allow Fred and Mike to find new partners. Should she even bother telling the professor about this problem?

3. What other options does Laurie have?

4. If Laurie asks Mike for his opinions on his understanding of, and progress in, the lab, and he insists that he is fine, does she have any obligations beyond those described in Question 1?

5. As a first-quarter graduate student, Laurie has not been trained as a TA, although she is enrolled in a concurrent class that familiarizes new graduate students with several aspects of being a TA. Her assistantship represents her major source of funding for the school year. Given the lack of training for new graduate students before the academic year starts, what obligations do the professor and the department have to Laurie and her students in terms of training, accessibility and accountability?

Part 2

Laurie decides to ask the professor for advice. After hearing her explanation of the situation, the professor tells Laurie that Mike has a special-learning waiver that requires that he be given extra time for reading-based tests. The professor tells her to give Mike some extra time for the lab exam, but that the partnership must either continue or dissolve without changing partners. Laurie subsequently tells Fred that he cannot partner with another student and that she can't help with partnership problems.

Two weeks before the term ends, Laurie finishes writing the lab exam and announces the testing schedule. The exam focuses on a practical demonstration of the use of the lab hardware, but it does include a short written portion. The exam is expected to take 20 minutes. Mike approaches her after this announcement and tells her that he has a special-learning waiver and should therefore have more time. Laurie lets him know that she is aware of the waiver and reassures him. Because the test is mostly a hands-on hardware demonstration, he should not have a problem; however, because the test requires some reading, he will have 10 extra minutes. Mike appears mollified.

Discussion Questions

6. Who is responsible for informing Laurie about the waiver, and during what time frame? Is she responsible for determining this information herself?

7. Laurie believes that Mike's waiver does not apply to the nonreading portion of the exam. Is that fair to Mike?

8. Is Laurie qualified to make this decision? Is it ethical for her to make this decision herself?

Part 3

Approximately 35 percent of the students easily pass the lab exam. Other students take longer, but most complete 80 percent of the test. Two students do not complete any portion of the test, including the make-or-break hardware demonstrations. One of these students is Mike, who is very upset and complains about the time constraints. Laurie realizes that she definitely underestimated the time to complete the test; however, through observation of Mike during the test she believes that the major factor in Mike's performance was a lack of understanding of the lab equipment.

Discussion Questions

9. Should Laurie have let Mike simply demonstrate understanding of the equipment, regardless of how long it took?

10. Should Laurie have made similar provisions for the other student who failed the exam?

11. Would other students have a legitimate reason to oppose this strategy?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 5, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2001.

. . The Hardware Lab. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

The educational system, since the days of the Greek skholē, has been organized around a simple plan: The student is to be helped with seeking out knowledge and is expected to work hard at learning this knowledge, and then the student is tested to ascertain the level of achievement. The modern university is no different, although corrupting influences threaten to turn our large public institutions of higher learning into circuses and beer drinking spas.Sperber, Murray. Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. The faculty at most universities steadfastly continue to support a system that has proven to be most effective and productive: a system of meritocracy - a system in which success comes from achieving certain norms and skills. It is strict adherence to this principle that has made the American university the envy of the world.

While a system based on merit seems an obvious choice for a university, we have seen many universities and many social systems where that was not true. Even today, for example, in some universities, it is common practice to cheat on examinations. A recent incident at Bangladesh demonstrates that the merit system is not universal. Apparently friends and parents traditionally stood outside the windows where students were taking a test and helped them with the answers. A riot ensued when the faculty closed the windows, thus preventing the blatant cheating. In other countries, one's connection to political parties or powerful people ensured graduation. In the former Soviet Union, for example, entrance to the university was not determined by merit, but rather depended on one's parents' participation in the Communist Party. Even in the United States, some schools, such as a small private college in South Carolina, ignore all appeals by faculty to curb cheating and routinely side with tuition-paying students. As a result, faculty give up on trying to attain some semblance of academic integrity in their courses and allow students to cheat as much as they wish.

Students and faculty at most universities understand that a system where cheating is condoned is not the system they want for their university. Witness the recent demonstration at Howard University, where students protested the faculty's apparent laxity in enforcing academic integrity guidelines. The only way students can be proud of their university and their degree is to know that they worked hard for this certification. The desire to make a university a merit-based organization designed for the common good is a commendable moral goal.

However, this moral goal unfortunately sometimes conflicts directly with another moral concern - providing unequal assistance to the disadvantaged. Ever since John Rawls' arguments in A Theory of Justice,Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. our American society has agreed that it is morally permissible, and indeed necessary, to give preference to those with the least ability to achieve the good life. Rawls' "veil of ignorance" asks us to propose unequal treatment for those who will enter life with the least talents or the least raw material, lacking social, economic or physical advantages. Thus we now have affirmative action, giving certain persons with identifiable traits such as racial ancestry preference in jobs, education and other social goods. In the universities, we have extended this unequal advantage to students with identifiable learning disabilities such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (ADD). In college, these students are diagnosed as either having or not having a learning disability and, once positively diagnosed, are given certain advantages.

Unfortunately, what is not recognized is that all of these disabilities are present in all students to a certain degree. Some students have great difficulty in focusing on a lesson, but through sheer determination and willpower overcome this problem. Other students might have sleeping disorders and figure out various tricks to stay awake. These students persevere and succeed in a world where they have been given the short straw.

But other students in college find that they have difficulty mastering the material or keeping up with the work and seek assistance from psychological services. Through various tests, these students may be diagnosed as having various learning disabilities (LD). But having learning disabilities is not a black/white, off/on condition. Having some form of LD is not like being pregnant, where you either are or you aren't - there is no middle ground. In LD there is a continuum, with all students having some signs of all identifiable disabilities.

In this case study, Mike has been diagnosed as having some form of LD (unspecified) and has been given a special-learning waiver. This waiver simply means that Mike is to have an advantage over all other students. If the skill to be tested is a hands-on laboratory exam and a written report, as in this scenario, then Mike apparently believes, and Laurie, the TA, apparently agrees, is that his waiver allows him to have extra time. But it seems that Mike has also been blowing off the hands-on lab procedures, which apparently have nothing to do with his learning disability. Mike has played up this diagnosed disability in his own mind and now thinks of himself as a victim. Because he has a disability, he has an excellent excuse for not completing the lab, and he makes no attempt to do so. He does not read up on the procedures and does not even bother to e-mail Laurie with questions. He is convinced that he is simply not able to do the work in the same time and at the same rate as other students because of his disability. Mike is hiding behind this diagnosis to excuse himself from doing any work and is now asking Laurie and the professor to have pity on him.

There is no ethical quandary here. Laurie has done everything in her power to help Mike, and the rest is up to him. The sooner someone explains this fact to Mike, the more likely he is to pull himself together and get to work.

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Bucknell University.

This case study deals with a situation that can easily occur given a few seemingly reasonable institutional policies. The policies regarding the financing of graduate students can create various ethical problems if other policies are not already in place to resolve them. In this situation, first-term graduate students are being asked to be teaching assistants in undergraduate classes; their training is concurrent with their assuming teaching responsibilities.

The secondary issue is that of Mike, a student with a special-learning waiver. While handling such situations may not be considered difficult, the fact that this situation has arisen during Laurie's first (untrained) experience as a TA can create several ethical problems that may not be realized until later. A tertiary issue is the role of the professor who is teaching the class. In this case study, the professor is largely absent. This possibility is realistic; if no standards or requirements specify the appropriate level of oversight by the professor, then the level of involvement can vary dramatically.

Part 1 focuses primarily on a generic problems-between-partners issue, which allows the introduction of Laurie, Fred and Mike before the issue of the special-learning waiver is introduced. Given that Laurie has not been informed about the waiver, this part is reported primarily from her point of view.

Question 1 focuses on the uncertainties of the untrained TA, Laurie. She would certainly like to help resolve problems, but is not sure how to do so. To a very limited degree, however, this is the same problem as personally working to stop world hunger or war, or to save the environment. People know they should help, but they are limited by means and/or motivation. Laurie knows that it is important for the students to learn how to work with partners they do not enjoy working with, given the likelihood of this experience in the workplace. She also believes that Fred is doing an unfair amount of the work. Ethically, what is the balance point, if one exists?

Question 2 introduces the possibility of going to an authority figure to resolve the issue, given the small likelihood that any solution will be provided. However, Laurie is being short sighted here; she is under the impression that the only solution is allowing Fred and Mike to change partners. The position of a TA, however, does require some degree of independence and the use of personal judgment. Is a full policy regarding the extent of problem solving between the professor and TA necessary or even useful?

Question 3 focuses on other resources that might be available for Laurie. However, the need to protect Mike's privacy will impact some of the ideas brought up in discussion.

Question 4 has two sides. First, Laurie is giving Mike an opportunity to air his concerns. Second, Mike fails to mention the special-learning waiver at this point. If readers have not read Part 2, the discussion will be limited to refining the issues discussed in Question 3 to include Mike's opinion of his performance.

Question 5 directly addresses the impact of the school's financing and training policies on Laurie. Frequently, fiscal limitations or timing constraints cause people and institutions to cut ethical corners when creating such policies. In this case, what ethical issues have been overlooked? What happens to the students who need first-term funding if they are not able to serve as TAs during that time? Should TAs be trained before they are allowed to work with undergraduates? Are mentorship programs a viable alternative, if enough experienced graduate students are available? Trials by fire are a common occurrence in the workplace; should academic institutions be held to a higher standard?

Part 2 introduces the special-learning waiver, which specifically requires special consideration for Mike in reading-based tests. The conflict here arises because of the nature of this lab; a hands-on practical test does not fall into the same category as a reading-based test. This difference sets up a conflict between Laurie's personal judgment that this difference is both logically and ethically correct and Mike's concern about his ability to pass the test. Fred's concerns in Part 1 are important to remember here; both Fred and Laurie know that Mike has not been using the equipment enough to become familiar with it. Is it possible that this knowledge may bias Laurie against Mike? Could she be inappropriately limiting his extra time on the test to 10 minutes because of bias?

Question 6 reflects on Question 4 in that the issue of personal responsibility would have required that Mike inform Laurie about the waiver earlier than the end of the term. Apparently, he has not relied on her knowing about the waiver, as he does eventually tell her after the test has been written. Should this issue be covered by policy? Should the professor have informed Laurie about the waiver before it had become obviously relevant?

Questions 7 and 8 again address an untrained TA's development of personal judgment. The existence of the waiver implies the existence of an office that issued the waiver; Laurie has not used this resource. Is it ethical for her to fail to ask for guidance from this office, given what appear to be explicit instructions on the waiver? Is it possible for her to determine how much extra time is reasonable without such guidance? What would be required of Laurie to ensure fairness to Mike?

Part 3 Both new TAs and experienced professors might misjudge the length of time required for a given exam. A common resolution to this problem is to curve the grading scale to prevent this misjudgment from affecting the students' grades. Does Laurie's misjudgment apply unequally to Mike as compared to the rest of the class? Part 3 also returns to the issue of dealing with learning disabilities -- even disabilities considered minor -- in the classroom; Laurie may feel vindicated that Mike demonstrated a lack of understanding of the hardware, as she may have expected, but her lack of effort to do everything she could have done to help Mike can still provoke strong reactions in the discussion group.

Questions 9-10 create a parallel between the allotment of extra time for Mike and the other student (who did not have a known learning disability) who failed the exam. While issues of fairness for learning disabilities are discussed, the definition of the extent of a disability is not in Laurie's hands. Suppose the other student had a migraine on the day of the exam. Would that be a good reason to allow extra time? To what extent do considerations for a specific learning disability (reading, in this case) apply to other applications (e.g., use of equipment)? Who is responsible for making these decisions (e.g., the office that issued the waiver, the university, the professor, the TA, the student)?

Question 11 addresses the perceived impact of special considerations on other students. What would happen if Fred had just managed to pass the exam, after doing more than 90 percent of the work in the lab, and Mike managed to pass the exam (with extra time) after doing only 10 percent of the work in the lab? What could be the impact on the profession that these two students will enter? What could be the impact on the reputation of the university with respect to the quality of the engineers it graduates, or with respect to how it treats students with learning disabilities?