As human-subjects research, SoTL requires careful consideration of ethics, or the “codes for determining what one ought to do and why one ought to do that,” providing “the tools needed to develop practical compromises between what is correct universally and what is right in particular situations” (Healey et al., 2013, p. 24-25).
Research ethics committees operate on the principle that researchers generally cannot and should not harm or deceive human subjects in the name of advancing human knowledge. When this ideal cannot be met, the following considerations become critical:
- if there is a potential for harm, participants must know the risks before agreeing to participate in the research, and
- if deception is necessary for the research, the potential benefits must outweigh the risks.
SoTL’s ethical challenges arise from the fact that the researcher is also typically the instructor, thereby “playing multiple roles” with different and potentially conflicting goals, leading to situations which “a researcher would handle differently than an instructor” (MRU, 2012 1-2). In such situations, the ethics board thus aims to help prioritize the educational goals over the goals of the research. Additionally, special precautions are required when working with students. Students are considered a “vulnerable” population because of the inherent power differential between instructor and student, giving students “a diminished ability to safeguard [their] own interests in the context of a specific research project” (Canadian Institutes, 2014, p. 210).
Ethics boards aim to mitigate the potential conflict of the instructor-researcher and the vulnerability of students. They think about the proposed research activities from the students’ perspectives. Researchers know the intentions and potential benefits of the research, but students may not. If students might think their instructor doing research in the class will affect their learning or their grades in any way—accurate or not—steps need to be taken to prevent that perception. The researcher’s intent is, in some ways, irrelevant. In fact, this process of examining the students’ perspectives can become “opportunities to examine the critical relationships between teachers and students and how they affect learning” (MacLean & Poole, 2010, p. 9). (To explore these issues further, consult these essays and other materials.)
To address concerns about students’ perceptions, an ethically conducted SoTL project begins with informed consent—or giving students the opportunity to a) learn about the research and b) decide whether they agree to being included in the study. For consent to be informed, researchers must adequately explain the purpose of the research and any potential risks and benefits from participating in the project. The key principle here is transparency. While every detail of the project doesn’t need to be revealed, especially if there are concerns about the effect on the data, the act of informing potential participants should include no deception.
To give true and voluntary consent, students must fully trust that they can safely agree or refuse to be included in the study and that they can withdraw from the study at any time—with absolutely no negative consequences (e.g., harming their grades, hindering their learning experience). This trust is instilled by ensuring that their decision on consent is private: free from peer pressure, the instructor’s disappointment of knowing who didn’t grant consent, and any other concerns.
Research participants should also be assured that all of their identifying information will remain private. This right is critical in cases where participants have provided sensitive information that, if released, could link back to them personally. Students may want their privacy maintained in SoTL research that uses, for instance, information on their study habits, personal grades, or assessments of the quality of their work.
Each institution will have specific information about its ethics policies and procedures available to its faculty and staff. For those at the University of Calgary, see the PDF linked below.
[ Canadian colleagues should visit this “Ethics in SoTL” guide by Lisa Fedoruk. ]