Teaching Tuesday: How Do We Measure Character?

Smiling female teacher helping students

Have you ever asked yourself whether you are a good person or doing the right thing? When people reflect on their character, they have no concrete measures to determine whether they are a good person. Instead, they rely on subjective self-reflection, and their assessment is dependent upon personal opinions and experiences. People strive to act with good intentions and do good deeds in life, but there is no instrument to measure what constitutes a “good person” or whether a decision is morally right.

In This Article:

How does one become a “good person,” learn to have strong character virtues, and possibly flourish? Although the development of character happens over time, it is not a purely natural and intuitive process — it also involves learning through educational experiences. Neo-Aristotelian character education is a form of education that can be a culture — not just a curriculum — that develops character virtues in youth and helps them to develop phronesis, or practical wisdom.1 Character education holds great significance because it acts as the driving force to what remains the ultimate goal in life for most people: achieving happiness or flourishing, also known as fulfilling one’s potential.1,2

Education develops character that helps one to be a “good person.” But how can schools ensure that students acquire moral virtue balance and practical wisdom, or learn how to be what society considers “good”? When school systems measure effectiveness through data points and achievement scales, assessing a character education program (which is not easily measured with tests) becomes problematic. How can schools measure whether students have internalized desirable character traits and balance? That is, how can schools be a good judge of their students’ character? And, if schools cannot, how will they be able to defend character education programs to students’ parents and other stakeholders? 

These unanswered questions often hinder the implementation of character education in many school systems, or at least compel them to employ a less-than-Aristotelian-grounded form of character education. Yet, character education remains the foundation for cultivating good people and improving society. Given the importance of neo-Aristotelian character education and the difficulty of measuring the outcomes, would it be reasonable to teach character education without depending on measurements? Is the measurement of what we teach children the only way to know that what we teach is valuable? 

What Is Good Character Development?

Education has always consisted of academics and character building. Throughout history, character education content has fluctuated and changed, and it currently rises in popularity across the globe. A few key points of character education include:

  • A neo-Aristotelian character education is about developing and enhancing positive personal strengths (also known as “virtues”) that help us understand what is ethically right in given situations. 
  • The goal is to achieve phronesis, which is practical wisdom and the balance of virtues in everyday situations. One who possesses practical wisdom would be able to discern the right action choice based on the common good when virtues collide within a situation. 
  • The ability to do what is right and for the right reasons leads to human flourishing (reaching one’s potential), which is the ultimate goal of life.

Implementing Character Education

If we wish to see a better world, more people doing good and acting good, we must help our youth to become:

  • Better people
  • Stronger decision makers
  • Wiser individuals

It remains the responsibility of all — teachers and schools included — to cultivate these virtues and knowledge in children. Therefore, schools must incorporate character education as part of their culture and curriculum if they want to contribute to the creation of a better society. However, without a clear understanding of what it means to be a good judge of character, and without a clear instrument or method to measure the impact of neo-Aristotelian character education, many schools may hold reservations for implementing the content, or may do so without including the moral aspect.

The question is not whether schools should integrate character education — indeed they must, for it is necessary. Instead, schools should consider whether it is of value to implement neo-Aristotelian character education without concern for measurement, given the lack of reliable measurements and the importance of character education.

Current Modes to Character Evaluation in Education

Judging good character is subjective, and character evaluation is by no means simple or clear; in fact, Kristjan Kristjansson, a character education professor at the University of Birmingham, posits that measurement of Aristotelian virtue in young moral learners is “character education’s profoundest problem” (p. 60).2 It is important to note that measurement of character education may relate to several aspects that include, but are not limited to:1,3

  • Impact on school culture
  • Effect of character education implementation on student behavior
  • Effect of character education implementation on student academic achievement
  • Implementation fidelity 

Within each of these purposed character education examples, there exist various types of measurements and instruments. For example, some instruments measure observable behaviors, self-reported demonstration of virtues or traits, or quantifiable measures of virtue alignment. Here, we will focus on the pros and cons of currently used instruments.

The most common credible instruments for measuring skills related to character education include:4

  • Self-reported questionnaires
  • Teacher observation
  • Teacher reported questionnaires
  • Performance-based projects 
  • Proxy variables

Issues of Character Evaluation and Measurement

Self-reported questionnaires rely on student reflections and perceptions of their growth in character education. This may mean whether they think their character improved or they understood what was being taught to them. Although self-reported data may at times be useful information, in some cases — particularly involving young children — self-reporting may not accurately measure the effect of a curriculum for a multitude of reasons, such as:2,5,6

  • Potential bias due to students giving the response they think is desired
  • Lack of student self-transparency
  • Students may respond to questions differently than how they might truly react in each situation 
  • Students may not interpret questions correctly
  • The possibility of not measuring the motivation or emotion involved 

Similarly, teacher observations, teacher-reported questionnaires and performance projects rely on the teachers’ opinions. This may be skewed due to:2,5,6

  • Misinterpretation of student behavior
  • Unfounded inferences about why students make the choices they do
  • Reference bias
  • Personal views of “good character”
  • Lack of honesty 

Another type of character education measurement relies on instrumental performance values or proxy variables (such as student attendance or student discipline data) and achievement measures (such as drop-out and graduation rates, GPA or homework completion).3 These measurements reflect whether students acquired a virtue by self-reports or observational methods. For example, one such instrument might measure student perseverance or self-control, as reported by teachers before and after the character education content delivery.

This is a relatively simple measure, but it does not dive deep into moral motivations or decision making; it lacks the review of intrinsic moral underpinnings.7,8 Also, everyone’s development of character and practical wisdom will differ based on contextual experiences, culture and knowledge. Furthermore, the correlation between proxy variables and character education content is rarely a logical connection, making it a less reliable measure of character education.3

There are additional forms of character education measurement that present innovative ideas related to neo-Aristotelian moral concepts, such as moral-dilemma tests. Such tests present participants with dilemmas related to virtues such as fairness, responsibility, loyalty, self-discipline, honesty, courage and respect. However, presenting students with situations and observing their reactions may not be reflective of their true character education because:

  • Teachers cannot always provide situations that require balancing virtues and demonstrating the act of good in the context of a situation. 
  • Teachers cannot model for students how to make hard moral decisions in all contexts, as that would eliminate the idea of phronesis and their development of ethical, reflective reasoning and virtue balance.
  • Fabricated situations may not permit students to truly act as they would in life. 

What Can Schools Do?

Because judgment of another person’s character is inherently subjective and likely to vary in interpretation, schools can use a mix of data points to gather more accurate measurements of character. One example involves looking at virtue knowledge and observing student-behavior data, or discipline data, as well as notes taken while speaking with students. By combining the results of these different types of measurement, schools can gain a deeper insight into various aspects of student outcomes in relation to character education.

These insights would balance the issue of subjectivity in instruments such as self-reports and informant reports, as well as observations with objective numerical data such as moral-dilemma instruments.2 With the prospect of using a combination of data points to measure character education as a step toward addressing character education’s greatest challenge, we can now consider why schools might use such methods to measure character education or why those measures may not be necessary to implement neo-Aristotelian character education.

Why Should Schools Measure Character Education?

Increasing pressure on schools to demonstrate the effectiveness of interventions, programs and curricula helps explain why schools would want to measure how character education impacts students.1,2 Schools often fund new programs and curricula with the intent of later measuring their impact to whether if they will continue to use the content. Character education would be no different; schools want to know whether character education is effective. Moreover, the overall goal with any new product in education is to increase student success. Analysis of the results can help schools find areas for improvement or continue to implement what works. This might also allow educators to determine which programs and procedures in character education produce optimal results to develop programs of the highest quality.

Berkowitz explained that measurement is aligned with desired outcomes and that one must understand the desired outcomes to determine what content to implement. Thus, schools determine what to teach within their respective character education curricula by identifying desired outcomes and determining what they want to assess or measure — which is a backwards design.3 In this case, schools cannot provide character education without knowing and measuring what students should gain from the content.

It is necessary to measure character education because schools must demonstrate their effectiveness, determine their content or modify their curriculum and instructional practices. Although student success may be at the heart of these motivations, they lack focus on the students themselves and their moral virtue development as defined by neo-Aristotelian character education.

Why Wouldn’t Schools Measure Character Education?

Because schools must assess the effectiveness of the programs they offer, measurement seems completely reasonable. However, it has been noted here that accurate measurement of neo-Aristotelian character education examples is very complex. Furthermore, based on Berkowitz’s explanation that measurement must align with desired outcomes, schools should measure phronesis.3 To measure phronesis, it is important to ensure that students have the technical knowledge of virtues required, as well as a balance between extremes to act within a given circumstance for the right and the good.9

The current measurements of virtue acquisition are potentially biased or unreliable self-reports and observations.2,5,6 Schools may use unreliable instruments to measure acquisition of virtue and judging good character and the measurement of phronesis is complex.2,10 Flourishing, virtue capacity, exhibition of phronesis, motivations and emotions differ in each person. Additionally, the “right” way to respond to the data differs based on context; thus, schools cannot measure whether the ultimate goal of character education is achieved without taking into account each of these variables.5,10 The misalignment of measure and desired outcomes indicates that schools should consider not measuring character education and focusing more on the development of phronesis.

Kristjansson noted that reflecting impact with measurable results provides scientific credibility and measurement of programs and is needed to determine effectiveness in education.2 However, scientific credibility and effectiveness do not determine value of content. Enter a classroom in any primary school and you will see academic content and some form of character education provided simultaneously. No classroom ignores the need to develop respect, routines and communication. Students learn to sit in their seats, raise their hands, listen to the teacher and respect their peers. These groundwork rules aid in enhancing some performance virtues and are necessary in education. Students are also taught social skills such as active listening, problem solving, collaboration and communication. However, students are rarely graded on these learned skills.

Not measuring what is taught in a classroom does not mean the content is not valuable. Students need these behaviors to function in schools and life, so teachers must provide them as a framework, even without measuring them. As Carr pointed out, students learn from their teachers and character education cannot be set aside in school because students learn it gradually.11 Teachers, parents, schools and the community are responsible for cultivating character and modeling for our youth.1

Developing the Wisdom To Be a Good Judge of Character 

As a teacher, I consistently modeled and taught students how to be a positive and contributing member in the classroom. It was always valuable for my students to be able to listen and collaborate, learn from one another, and problem-solve when they had differences. This enabled students to prepare for their futures in the workforce or general society. If students struggle to exhibit respect or follow routines, this may impact them later in life.1 With true character education, schools must provide the knowledge, even without measure, and work to build stronger character. Schools must take character education to the next level by implementing it into the ethos and academics — to make it a way of life and a way of being.

As Barry Schwartz said, sometimes we need to use our practical wisdom and “bend the rules like jazz” to do what is right;8 in this case, schools need to bend the rules and integrate a neo-Aristotelian form of character education because our children need it, and we do not need a form of measurement to tell us whether it will be valuable or meaningful for students.

At Grand Canyon University, we understand the importance of being a good judge of character and implementing character education in the classroom. If you are being called to the teaching profession, GCU’s College of Education is here to help you get started in the right degree program. Complete the form on this page to learn more about joining our education community.


1 The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues (2017). Framework for Character Education in Schools. Retrieved on September 21, 2021. 

2 Kristjansson, K. (2017, February 15). Aristotelian Character Education. Routledge. Retrieved on September 15, 2021. 

3 Berkowitz, M. (2014, January). Aligning Assessments in Character Education: Integrating Outcomes, Implementation strategies, and Assessment. The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Retrieved on December 21, 2021. 

4 Cox, J., Foster, B. and Bamat, D. (2019, October). A Review of Instruments for Measuring Social and Emotional learning Skills Among Secondary School Students. Department of Education. Retrieved on December 21, 2021. 

5 Fowers, B.J., Carroll, J.S., Leonhardt, N.D. and Cokelet, B. (2020, August 24). The Emerging Science of Virtue. Sage Journals. Retrieved on December 21, 2021.

6 Was, C.A., Woltz, D.J. and Drew, C. (2006). Evaluating Character Education Programs and Missing the Target: A Critique of Existing Research. ScienceDirect. Retrieved on December 15, 2021. 

7 The Myths About Character and character Education (2021). Directed by Kristjan Kristjansson [Virtual Lecture]. London: University of Birmingham.

8 Barry Schwartz: Using our Practical Wisdom. (2010). Directed by Ted Talk [YouTube Film]. New York, New York: Ted Talk.

9 Alexander, H.A. (2016, October 17). Assessing Virtue: Measurement in Moral Education at Home and Abroad. Ethics Education. 11(3), 310-325. Retrieved on December 15, 2021. 

10 Kristjansson, K. (2010, December 1). Positive Psychology, Happiness and Virtue: The Troublesome Conceptual Issues. Sage Journals. Retrieved on December 15, 2021. 

11 Carr, D. (2014, June 9). Educating the Virtues: Essay on the philosophical psychology of moral development and education. London: Routledge. Retrieved on December 15, 2021. 


Approved by the assistant director of the Canyon Center for Character Education on Sept. 29. 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.