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Push me-Pull you: The value of group deliberation on ethical reasoning among interpreting students

by Daniel Maffia & Kathleen Holcombe


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The Defining Issues Test (DIT) is an internationally used instrument that measures an individual’s moral reasoning skills. DIT scores are correlated with age, education, and clinical practice. It is designed and administered by the Center for the Study of Ethical Development and has an extensive research literature.

As part of an ethics course in an undergraduate interpreting program in the fall of 2017, the DIT was administered to approximately 35 third-year interpreting students. The average student score was 47 which is higher than the normative data for their age and education level. As an example, an individual with a graduate degree scores on average a 41 on the DIT. Whereas an individual with a graduate degree in moral philosophy or public policy (arguably someone well-versed on these issues) gets an average score of 65.

The students’ individual scores had an extensive range with a high score of 72 to a low score of 20. This raises the question of how ethics classes are traditionally designed – students deliberating amongst each other about how professional ethical tenets are effectively applied to scenarios. Does the more sophisticated student pull the less sophisticated student up to their level of ethical reasoning or is it the other way around? If the DIT was taken as a collective, if answers were negotiated, would the high scoring individuals have an effect on the low scorers or would the low scorers have an effect on the high scorers? Would there be no effect at all?

In this study, the same students were divided into seven groups with the individual high scorers assigned as “leaders.” Each group took the DIT as a collective approximately two months later. The leaders (the seven highest scorers) were taken aside and given the test materials and asked to be responsible for documenting the group’s answers. Four of the seven leaders were told that they were high scorers and directed that during the DIT question / answer negotiations to make sure that their opinions were heard. They were also advised not to be overly forceful with their opinion but to just make sure they spoke up during group deliberations. The other three leaders were not told that they were high scorers; they were just supplied with test materials and asked to document group answers.

The results of this study showed that all seven groups’ negotiated DIT scores were higher than the individual group participants’ combined, non-negotiated median scores. Students also did better on the DIT as a collective than they did individually with the exception of the “high scorer” who led the group. In most cases, the high scorer’s DIT score was still higher than their group’s negotiated score. Also, whether the group leaders knew or didn’t know they were high scorers did not make a difference on the effect. All of the findings had statistical significance.

Participants will be able to:

  • Define the Defining Issues Test (DIT)
  • Cite current research on the application of the DIT on working interpreters and interpreting students
  • Walk away with approaches to successfully integrate the DIT into their own ethics courses in interpreter training programs

A white man with short black hair wearing a blue shirt smiles at camera. Daniel Maffia is the program director and a senior lecturer with the department of American Sign Language and English Interpreting Department’s Interpreter Education Program at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf teaching at both the Bachelors and Master’s degree level.  He obtained his bachelors degree in Interpreting at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2009. In 2010 he became certified and in 2014 recently earned his Masters in Interpreting Studies with an emphasis in Teaching Interpreting from Western Oregon University. Previously Daniel served as a staff interpreter in the Department of Access Services at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Daniel continues interpreting in the Video Relay, Community, and hospital settings. Daniel is also the co-author for the Introduction to VRS Curriculum Guide. He has shown his commitment to the field by serving on the board of directors for his local RID chapter. Daniel’s research interests relate to reflective practice and Demand-Control Schema, in which he presents workshops for interpreters nationally and internationally.

A white woman with medium length red hair wearing wire-rimmed glasses smiles at camera. She is sitting outside in front of a window.Kathleen Holcombe recently accepted the position of lecturer and practicum coordinator at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and continues training facilitator candidates of Demand Control Schema supervision with Interpreting Institute for Reflection-in-Action and Supervision. Kathleen interprets primarily in the Video Relay Service (VRS) setting with considerable previous experience as a K-12 Educational interpreter, and is NIC and EIPA K-12 (4.5) certified. Kathleen completed a Master’s degree program, Interpreting Studies with an emphasis on teaching at Western Oregon University. Her research and instructional interests are in the area of ethical decision-making, reflective practice, and the development of ‘soft skills’ (collaboration, impartiality, optimism and radical empathy). In collaboration with colleagues she has presented at the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters, Critical Link, and A Visual Language Interpreters of Canada on a multi-nation research project regarding the phenomenon of Group Think within various professional cohorts. Kathleen has had the privilege to participate in the Dong Nai University Project training interpreters in Vietnam through Rochester Institute of Technology’s Pre-College Education Network International.