Ethics & SoTL

The following module will discuss the ethical issues that will need to be considered when planning a SoTL project.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the ethical considerations relating to SoTL
  • Define and explain informed consent, right to privacy and protection from harm
  • Describe the role of the Institutional Review Board (IRB)


Ethical considerations in research are critical. Ethics are the norms or standards for conduct that distinguish between right and wrong. They help to determine the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Why are ethical considerations so important in research? First, ethical standards prevent against the fabrication or falsifying of data and therefore, promote the pursuit of knowledge and truth which is the primary goal of research. Ethical behavior is also critical for collaborative work because it encourages an environment of trust, accountability, and mutual respect among researchers. This is especially important when considering issues related to data sharing, co-authorship, copyright guidelines, confidentiality, and many other issues. Researchers must also adhere to ethical standards in order for the public to support and believe in the research. The public wants to be assured that researchers followed the appropriate guidelines for issues such as human rights, animal welfare, compliance with the law, conflicts of interest, safety, health standards and so on. The handling of these ethical issues greatly impact the integrity of the research project and can affect whether or not the project receives funding. Because the scholarship of teaching and learning typically involves human subjects and data belonging to others, the focus of this module will be on the ethics related to working with human subjects, primarily students.

When conducting a SoTL project, most of the data will be collected from students. Therefore, many SoTL projects will involve the use of human subjects. Following is a list of the three most important ethical concerns related to working with student subjects:

  • Informed Consent – Any research participant has the right to be fully informed about the nature of the project, how the results will be used and shared, any potential risks, privacy and confidentiality measures and any other pertinent information. Once the participant has been fully informed, they may voluntarily consent to being part of the project. There are two concerns specific to SoTL research related to informed consent. The first is that steps should be taken to ensure that participation is truly voluntary and students do not feel pressure to participate by the faculty out of the fear of consequences (grading bias, etc.). The second issue that many college freshmen are 17 year old minors and the informed consent process is different for minors. Therefore, researchers must be aware of this when planning. Finally, it is important to realize that some of the SoTL data the researcher collects may be part of the course requirements and it may seem that consent is not required. However, if the researcher plans to publish or present the results, informed consent will be necessary.
  • Right to Privacy - A statement about the right to privacy is often times included in the informed consent. In the case of questionnaires, the data may truly be anonymous and privacy issues are less of a concern. But in many cases, at least one person will have knowledge of the specific data collected from a participant. This may occur in the case of interviews or evaluation of class assignments, just to name a few examples. In these cases, participants must be assured that their data will be kept confidential.
  • Protection from Harm – Researchers have an ethical obligation to protect all participants from any harm, including social, physical and emotional harm. Some examples of a breach in this area include a faculty member who demonstrates grading bias because a student did not participate, a leak in the privacy or confidentiality of the study that results in embarrassing a student, or a student that earns a lower grade in an experimental situation than he or she would have in the traditional classroom.

To address these considerations, most institutions and organizations have developed an Institutional Review Board (IRB). An IRB is a panel of people who help to ensure the safety of human subjects in research and who assist in making sure that human rights are not violated. They review the research methodology in grant proposals to assure that ethical practices are being utilized. The use of an IRB also helps to protect the institution and the researchers against potential legal implications from any behavior that may be deemed unethical. There are commonly three levels of review by the IRB. A project may be deemed exempt, meaning there is no real potential for harm and the researcher may proceed. Or a proposal may be expedited if there is minimal to moderate risk and will not be subject to a full review. The board and the chairperson will review the proposal and will plan to monitor the progress and risks if the research becomes ongoing but the researcher can proceed. Finally, a proposal may undergo a full review when the board feels there may be potential for moderate to high risks for participants. Most SoTL projects are exempt or expedited, and therefore, the need for a full review is uncommon.

SoTL researchers are professionally obligated to take these ethical concerns into serious consideration as they plan their project. The legitimacy of the project depends on it. PaThe following video, Research Ethics, discusses all types of ethical considerations in research including use of human subjects, consent, plagiarism, guiding principles, and so forth.


Suggested Readings

Burgess, R. G. (Ed.). (1989). The ethics of educational research (Vol. 8). Psychology Press.
Burman, M. E., & Kleinsasser, A. M. (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(1), 59-79.
Devlin A. (2006) Research Methods. Thompson Wadsworth.
Grady, C. (2010). Do IRBs protect human research participants?. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 304(10), 1122-1123.
Hoyle, R. H., Harris, M. J., & Judd, C. M. (2002). Research methods in social relations.
Hutchings, P. (2002). Ethics of Inquiry: Issues in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Carnegie Publications, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 555 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025.
May, T. (2011). Social Research: Issues, Methods and Research. McGraw-Hill International.
Munhall, P. L. (1988). Ethical considerations in qualitative research. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 10(2), 150-162.
Mazur, D. J. (2007). Evaluating the science and ethics of research on humans: a guide for IRB members.
Swenson, E. V., & McCarthy, M. A. (2012). Ethically conducting the scholarship of teaching and learning research. American Psychological Association.

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