This document provides a brief introduction to some of the ethical considerations involved in conducting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning research at Elon University with Elon students. This document also describes the steps necessary to apply for approval to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is required for anyone conducting research with human participants at Elon University.
For the purposes of the IRB, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) can be defined as research on teaching and learning that may result in public presentations or publications, or classroom-based research in which data collection extends beyond normal student work products and teacher observations. In addition to student work, SoTL researchers often use surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, interviews, and video- or audio-recording of student work sessions.
The purpose of the IRB is to ensure that all research involving human participants meets the standards issued by the Federal Government for the ethical treatment of human subjects in research (Office for Human Research Protections - OHRP ) and for the handling of student education records (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – FERPA ) at all institutions that receive federal funding (this includes Elon). These requirements include:
Information about the IRB and application materials are available at http://www.elon.edu/irb. We recommend that you review the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) document linked to that site (especially the Special Topics section) and complete the CITI on-line research ethics training made available to all Elon faculty, staff, and students.
The IRB application and consent form templates are Microsoft Word documents with spaces left for you to fill in specific information about your project. The templates ensure that applicants provide all information necessary for an IRB review; some modifications can be made to tailor the application to your project, but be cautious about making major changes without consulting an IRB expert.
A list of the primary components of the IRB application and consent form are at the end of this document.
We have provided two examples of successful SoTL IRB applications and consent forms that use Elon undergraduates as research subjects. Jeffrey Coker’s materials are an example of in-class research on students in his biology course. Katie King & Alexa Darby’s materials are an example of out-of-class research on students in a co-curricular program. CATL can provide other examples of successful applications and consent forms [note we will need to be specific about how these examples can be accessed].
As you prepare for your SoTL research, allow ample time for both completion of the application and turn-around from the IRB prior to beginning your study. SoTL work typically falls under the “exempt” or “expedited” review category, but the process of getting approval often takes at least two weeks. SoTL projects with minimal risk to the participants and de-identified data (see below) are likely to be determined to be exempt from oversight of the IRB; however, this determination is made by the chair of the IRB based on the information provided in the IRB application. Even projects that are likely to be determined to be exempt need to be submitted to the IRB.
In your IRB application, you should be explicit about your research methods, the way in which you will ensure that participation is voluntary, your procedure for obtaining informed consent, the efforts you will make to minimize risks, and how confidentiality and privacy will be maintained. Additionally, if you are conducting research in a class you are teaching (rather in a colleague’s class), you will need to explain why you must use your own students (rather than a colleague’s) as research subjects. The chair of the IRB may contact you with questions, or indicate that changes need to be made to the proposal prior to approval.
If part way through an approved SoTL research project you decide you would like to collect a new kind of data or make other modifications to your research protocol, you will need to file an addendum with the IRB prior to collecting any new data.
Faculty members are invited to meet with CATL staff prior to submitting their IRB application to work through questions of research design and data collection and to explore any practical and ethical issues involved in conducting their SoTL research.
Faculty members in many science and social science disciplines have received training in research ethics as a part of their own education; however, this training typically concerns the use of human subjects for research purposes only, not the addition of a researcher-participant dimension to an already existing teacher-student relationship. Some disciplines have addressed these concerns; for example, Composition Studies has a tradition of pedagogical research and the Conference on College Composition and Communication has issued guidelines for the Ethical Conduct of Research in Composition Studies . The growing SoTL community has also begun to address the dual nature of SoTL research and some guidelines have been offered (see Burman and Kleinsasser, 2004).
CATL encourages faculty to carefully consider the following questions in preparation for conducting ethical SoTL research:
I am working on a research project that seeks to investigate how students learn qualitative research skills. I plan to use this research to help me better teach qualitative research methods and to enhance how future students learn the subject. In this class, we will do three in-class exercises (about 30-45 minutes each) to help you develop as a qualitative researcher. (These are exercises that I would normally do while teaching, regardless of my research.) I plan to analyze your work in these exercises for my research project. In any presentation of the results, I will not include your name or any identifying details. If I plan to quote extensively (i.e., more than one sentence or an image of your work), I will follow up with an email to check that this is acceptable to you. If you are under age 18, I would ask you to let me know so that I can disregard your work from the analysis. However, you will still do the same work as the rest of the class. Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns about this research.
Some faculty members are not comfortable with the standard informed consent procedure in which students are given a consent form to sign at the beginning of the semester. Although students are told that they do not have to participate in the study, they may not feel comfortable declining a request from the person who is responsible for determining their grade. You may want to consider ways to reduce this implicit pressure. You may want to get someone else to distribute the consent forms. You may want to keep the consent forms in a sealed envelope until after the semester is over so that you don’t know who assented and who declined to participate until after the grading is completed.
The use of audio, video or other recording requires special consideration, because of the difficulty of ensuring the anonymity of your participants. It is important to allow students to indicate whether or not they agree to the use of their image or recording. Only tapes in which all potentially identifiable students have consented to the use of their recorded voice or image may be used for research. Consider having someone else collect any potentially sensitive data from students. For example, in a study of students’ critical thinking about course content an undergraduate research assistant interviewed students at multiple points during the semester. The interviews were transcribed and not viewed by the professor until after the course was completed. In the interviews students frequently expressed frustration, confusion, and disagreement with the professor – crucial information that she could not have collected as effectively herself.
The above suggestions are not meant to be prescriptive or exhaustive; they are meant to give new SoTL researchers a sense of the scope of ethical issues they will likely encounter as they plan their research projects. The work of Hutchings (2002; 2003) and Gurung and Schwartz (2009) provide more information about SoTL research in general. Zeni (2001) discusses classroom research as self-study in education which challenges both the theory-practice dichotomy and the insider-outsider dichotomy typical of university research. Discipline-specific models for conducting pedagogical research can often be found in journals published by disciplinary societies (see http://www.podnetwork.org/resources/periodicals.htm for suggestions). Faculty members are also invited to consult with the staff of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning for guidance.
The consent form requires:
Burman, M.E., & Kleinsasser, A. (2004). Ethical guidelines for use of student work: Moving from teaching’s invisibility to inquiry’s visibility in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The Journal of General Education, 53, 59-79.
Gurung, R. A. R., & Schwartz, B. M. (2009). Optimizing teaching and learning: Practicing pedagogical research. Wiley-Blackwell.
Hutchings, P. (2002). Ethics of Inquiry: Issues in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Hutchings, P. (2003). Competing goods: Ethical issues in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Change, 35(5): 26-33.
Manor, C., Bloch-Schulman, S., Flannery, K., & Felten, P. (2009). Foundations of Student-Faculty Partnerships in SoTL: Theoretical and Developmental Considerations. In, Carmen Werder & Megan Otis (Eds.) Engaging student voices in the study of teaching and learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishers.
Zeni, J. (2001). Ethical issues in practitioner research. New York: Teachers College Press.