The SoTL Advocate

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

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

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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Facilitating the IRB Process for SoTL Research Projects

Written by: Jennifer Friberg, SoTL Scholar-Mentor at Illinois State University

One of the most common questions I am asked at various SoTL workshops and trainings that I facilitate center on the IRB process for securing approval for research with human subjects, particularly when the subjects of a study are the students of the investigator conducting the research in question. Specifically, faculty want to know how to streamline the process of completing, submitting, and revising an IRB. In an effort to help with these issues, this blog has highlighted the IRB process in SoTL research in the past, including topics such as common errors/weaknesses in SoTL IRB protocols, which suggested that faculty consider aspects of research such as inadequate risk identification and/or explanation of benefits in the construction of IRBs. Additionally, the Cross Chair in SoTL at Illinois State University also houses a tremendous number of resources to help facilitate the process of constructing a high-quality IRB for SoTL research.

All the resources described above, however, are in place to aid in the construction of IRB proposals for SoTL projects which mirror IRBs created to support disciplinary (non-SoTL) research. Recently, the University of Michigan described an “abbreviated ethical guidelines” process for faculty engaged in their SoTL grant program, essentially a streamlined process for creating an IRB for research funded by internal campus grants for to support SoTL. This abbreviated IRB process was negotiated between representatives from the university’s teaching and learning center, the university’s IRB, and the university’s legal council. Together, this group determined that so long as certain criteria were met by faculty and the teaching and learning center, all future SoTL research emerging from internally grant-funded projects would be exempt from further review. The process looks as follows:

  1. Faculty submit SoTL grant applications. All applications are peer-reviewed, with the most meritorious project being funded by the teaching and learning center.
  2. Those engaged in funded research projects meet at least twice with staff from the teaching and learning center to specifically discuss issues of research ethics when interacting with human subjects.
  3. Student notification and consent for SoTL research can be obtained as follows: “Students will be notified (e.g., via a syllabus paragraph) when research is done in the course of ‘normal work expectations’ — that is using exercises instructors would typically ask them to complete for their courses (regardless of their participation in the grant program). Consent will be obtained for research that goes beyond normal work expectations, such as focus groups or surveys (Wright, Finelli, MEizlish & Bergom, 2011, p. 52).”
  4. Students’ grades cannot be influenced by participation/non-participation in the SoTL research in question.
  5. All identifying information must be removed prior to public dissemination of research to protect student anonymity.

We are curious if other colleges/universities are engaged in the design or implementation of streamlined IRB processes such as those described above. What has been the impact of these programs? How might they help or hinder the SoTL research process? We would love your input and feedback!

Blog References:

  • Wright, M. C., Finelli, C. J., Meizlish, D. & Bergom, I. (2011, March/April). Facilitating the scholarship of teaching and learning at a research university. Change: The Magazine for Higher Learning. Available from:


SoTL and Institutional Review Boards (IRB), Human Subjects Approval

Written by: Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in SoTL at ISU

Both on my home campus and at external SoTL conferences or workshops, issues around obtaining institutional approval for SoTL as human subjects research are often raised. Given differences in what is meant by SoTL as well as in IRB (or similar groups) process and policy by institutional type and country, it is difficult to be too specific or to generalize in offering advice. Each SoTL scholar/researcher should learn the IRB/human subjects’ culture, policies, and process at their own institution. Below, however, I offer a few key points that may be of interest.

If you are planning a SoTL project involving faculty/staff or students as participants and you plan to generalize from that work or to share it with others, you likely need to complete and submit an IRB protocol for approval. Some of the key issues you must address in your IRB protocol include:

  • Possible risks to participants
  • Possible benefits to participants
  • Protection of confidentiality and/or anonymity
  • Avoiding coercion or perceived coercion in participation
  • Accurate and detailed informed consent statement/procedures

According to the current Chair and Compliance Officer of our IRB at ISU, there are two sets of common errors or weaknesses in SoTL IRB protocols they review.

  • Lack of Clarity: Your SoTL IRB protocols should clearly describe all aspects of the research project being proposed. Don’t assume the IRB members share your understandings of SoTL or your discipline. This information may need to be included in more than one place in the protocol and appendices.
  • Inadequate Risk Identification and/or Benefit Explanation: In human subjects research, including SoTL research, there is rarely a case where there are no potential risks to participants. All risks must be clearly identified and explained. You should consider both current and future threats for participants. You should also make clear all actual and probable benefits (clearly distinguishing the two) to the student participant and others who may benefit. Discussion of risks and benefits must be included in response to relevant questions on the protocol AND in the actual informed consent statement and procedures.

Researchers often wonder whether there are circumstances that would preclude the need for an IRB Protocol for a SoTL research project. It is generally best for you to write an IRB protocol for all SoTL research and let your Department IRB representative or the IRB members decide what level of review (exempt, expedited, full) is appropriate. There may be a few situations where a protocol is not needed. These decision flow charts are to help IRB members and researchers make such decisions.

For additional and more detailed information, resources, examples, check out the resources below.