The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

IRB Brown Bag Recap: A Focus on Risks/Benefits and Clarity of Proposals

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Written by Jennifer Friberg, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL and Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Illinois State University

Last Friday, 2/24/17, the Office of the Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University hosted a 90-minute brown bag session to address questions about IRB construction for SoTL research. This session was co-hosed by Jen Friberg, Cross Endowed Chair and Alycia Hund (IRB Chair and Professor of Psychology) and was intended to address common issues and questions of faculty in a conversational and facilitative manner. While the Cross Chair’s office has posted guidance for Frequently Asked IRB Questions and has provided sample documents for IRB proposals, and Reseach and Sponsored Programs has provided enhanced guidance for using IRBNet and for proposal preparation and submission, this brown bag offered an opportunity for faculty to engage in dialogue that was helpful to all in attendance in clarifying a variety of facts. Most guidance was provided in the areas of risk/benefit and clarity of IRB proposals.

The following is a list of considerations discussed at this brown bag. While these are most applicable to ISU faculty and students as they align with IRB processes specific to our university, many will be important to individuals drafting an IRB for SoTL research at any institution:

  1. Risks and benefits are important to identify and acknowledge:
  • Make sure to acknowledge all real risks to all participants in your study. Most commonly, these will include coercion and threats to anonymity/confidentiality, employability, and/or reputation. Less frequently, threats to participants can include psychological distress or discomforts. Completely acknowledging any of these threats that can apply up front will ensure a stronger submission to the IRB.
  • Likewise, benefits to all participants can and should be addressed in a manner that balances any inherent risks that are a part of your study. It is acceptable if there are no direct benefits to the students in your SoTL study if there are minimal risks. Accordingly, if there are greater than minimal risks to students, then there should be some sort of benefit. Remember, compensation is NOT a benefit for participating in a study. Benefits identified can (and arguably should) include any impacts to future students as well as the program/department/discipline.
  • Another consideration related to risks and benefits: while many faculty seek to evaluate outcomes of an assignment/project in a course, the risks/benefits discussed in the IRB to study these outcomes relate to the research, not the assignment/project. It is the involvement in the SoTL study, rather than participation in the assignment/project. Thus, these risks/benefits should be the focus in any IRB.
  • There is some uncertainty as to whether anonymity is even truly possible. If you report that your data will be anonymous, detail CLEARLY how this will be the case. Any threats to anonymity or confidentiality need to be disclosed in informed consent documents.
  1. Clarity of IRB proposals is often a concern:
  • Often times, when SoTL IRBs are sent to full review, it is because there is a lack of clarity in the description of the research. Make sure that you clearly define your research in terms of your overview, aims, methods, recruitment, data to be collected, etc. Spell out a clear plan that explains how your data will be used, how it will be shared, and who will be at risk/benefit.
  • Often, IRB reviewers have a difficult time following the “players” in a SoTL project. Keep your labels consistent. For instance, don’t refer to students as “students,” “participants,” “subjects,” “consentees,” etc. all at the same time. Pick one label and stick with it for consistency. Don’t be afraid to use names for clarity, particularly for the PI, any co-PIs, consenters, and/or instructors of record (if different than PI/co-PI).
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