Teaching is a social endeavor that involves others. As professionals, we have an ethical obligation to ensure that our investigations into our teaching practices and student learning in our courses or programs are aligned with the appropriate ethical guidelines for research involving human subjects. Nancy Chick provides a helpful overview of ethical considerations in SoTL research in her SoTL Guide.
What is IRB and why do you need to get IRB approval before you start collecting data?
Any investigations involving humans is subject to review by your institution’s review board (or your Institutional Review Board, known as IRB for short) to determine if (1) it is considered human subjects research or not; and (2) that your investigation plans meet approved IRB standards for human subjects work to protect participants (e.g. students).
NOTE: It is important that IRB project approval or a determination of “Not Research” is documented BEFORE you collect any data. Any data collected prior to such approval cannot be used. The approval process can take weeks to months depending on your institution. Be sure to submit for review the semester before you want to collect data.
IRB processes and standards can vary widely across institutions, so it’s important to identify your IRB and their submission process. Research intensive institutions, like George Mason University, typically have submission form templates, an entire office/staff dedicated to help you through the submission process and a formal an IRB that meets on a regular schedule. Community colleges or small, private teaching-focused institutions may manage requests on an ad hoc basis and may take longer to review your submission. Some institutions, like Rice University, have umbrella IRB protocols for teaching-related research that you can join (note: these may not meet IRB approval standards for receiving federal funds if you are grant funded).
In most cases, you will have to submit either a “human subjects determination form” or a “full IRB project proposal” that typically includes items such project description; research questions; target audience, recruitment strategies and copies of proposed advertising materials; copies of proposed survey instruments or assessment tools; and copies of participant consent forms. If you are not sure where to start in locating your IRB office or preparing an IRB proposal, reach out to your Center for Teaching and Learning or Faculty Affairs Office for assistance.
When should you request IRB review?
It is important that IRB project approval or a determination of “Not Research” is documented BEFORE you collect any data. Any data collected prior to such approval will require a process requesting retroactive consent, and depending on the request details, may not be granted. The approval process can take weeks to months depending on your institution. Be sure to submit for review at least one semester before you want to collect data. Note: If you plan to use existing data, program evaluation data, or find yourself in the middle of a semester in which you didn’t intend to conduct an investigation, reach out to your IRB to discuss available options.