Institutional Review Board (IRB) & Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

January 14, 2009

This resource kit provides a set of flexible tools and resources that may be adapted for local use in faculty discussions about the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) and institutional review boards for human subject research. Please note: Institutional Review Board protocols vary between institutions. Information and forms are provided only for reference. View Sample Informed Consent Forms

Patricia E. O’Connor, Georgetown University

Working with human subjects requires we do them no harm. This seems an obvious caveat for us in the Visible Knowledge Project. We all imagine that what we want to discover about teaching and learning would only benefit us all– teachers, students, and community alike. Recent abuses of human subject research which resulted in unreported dangers in health research and subsequent deaths, however, have called to attention the ways that a zeal to succeed (or desire for profits) can cloud judgments.

Historical experiments on easily abused populations in prisons, in the military and among the poor and/or minority groups have seemingly not made a clear enough precedent. Universities are understandably anxious to comply to national standards for appropriate research. Threats to withdraw federal funding if all research involving human subjects is not properly reviewed within insitutions has given the warnings teeth. And thus we find ourselves filling out forms which ask questions that mystify us. “Will you be taking fingernail clippings for the research?” is my own personal favorite on Georgetown University’s social sciences and humanities IRB pages!!

We have collected some sample voices on doing IRB, many of which speak to the annoyance factors which include: doing copious forms for semester-length projects and having to resubmit them each time one teaches the same class; answering questions which seem to have no relevance to the projects; requiring “disclosure statements” which intimidate students and thus reduce participation.

We also address the actual discussions which ensue when we engage students in a discussion of human subject research, explaining past abuses and talking about how any research has to weigh benefits and costs– emotional, physical, as well as financial. We realize that as faculty in non-science research many of us are rank amateurs at doing paper work for accountability beyond our own classrooms and departments. However, as we have begun to ask students to assemble portfolios for assessment and we have begun to assemble such compendia for our own teaching reviews we are beginning to see the uses (and a few abuses) of such detailed analyses. making these assessments “public” by scrutinizing the way we learn requires that we show we are protecting the privacy and persons of our human subjects.

Sherry Linkon
IRB and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: The Youngstown Experience

It’s ironic but true that as humanists relatively few of us study actual humans, or at least not in ways that require us to engage with the Institutional Review Boards at our schools. One of the scariest challenges of getting involved with scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) can be writing the first IRB application. When I started my first project, I consulted with a colleague in the School of Education, who does ethnographic research in elementary education. He sent me copies of his IRB statements, which mostly confused me and certainly intimidated me, but a phone call to the director of grants and sponsored programs reassured me. At Youngstown most SoTL falls under the “exempt” category, because we’re doing educational research with adults. So filing for approval is relatively easy: write up a description of the project, including how you will gather evidence and how you will protect students from being adversely affected, and include copies of a consent letter and any surveys, interview prompts, or think-aloud protocols you plan to use.

View Sample Informed Consent Forms

Betsi Stephen
Applying for IRB Approval: The Georgetown Experience

I had applied for IRB approval for a research project in the past, so I expected the IRB application for my VKP plan to be as straight-forward as had been the earlier application. My first stumbling block was trying to understand the forms. Was my research really exempt? What forms did I need to fill out? I spent quite a bit of time filling out an Application for Social and Behavioral IRB Review, only to find out I didn’t need to fill it out. As it turned out, the form I needed to complete was quite simple and the Georgetown VKP staff sent over a cover letter with my proposal that stated that VKP projects as a whole should be in the exempt category. This blanket cover letter may have confused the IRB office because my proposal was the only one that was sent over at that time.

In the meantime, I explained VKP and my project to my class, stressing that it was voluntary. This was a freshman seminar so I also made sure that only persons over the age of 18 signed up for the project, given that in the District of Columbia persons under the age of 18 are considered minors and would have to have their parent’s signature. I also gave the students handouts on VKP and gave them each release forms to be handed in after they read the material and felt comfortable volunteering.

I did get a notice in about a week that my request was received, but the chair requested a one-page summary of my project. I e-mailed him the summary, then silence. I was anxious to get started on the project, so a week later I e-mailed the Chair of the IRB to see if I had been granted the exemption. More silence. I e-mailed again two weeks later; the IRB Chair was in Chicago on a fundraising trip, but he thought everything was taken care of. He’d get back to me on Monday. More silence. I hated to keep bothering him, but it was now the week of interviewing the students, so a desperate e-mail brought a positive response. About another 10 days later I received my exemption from the IRB. (Whew.)

All told, the process took about 6 hours of my time to prepare the proposal and follow-up summary (4 hours of which were spent filling out the wrong form), an hour of the VKP staff time preparing the cover letter and delivering the package to the IRB office, perhaps a half an hour for the IRB Chair to read the proposal and make a decision, 10 minutes for the IRB staff person to prepare the exemption letter, and 7 weeks to get from start to finish. It has to be easier next time!

Ah, but what about those? This won’t be a popular sentiment, but I’ve found that the IRB process helps me be more methodical in my research, because it asks me to plan more comprehensively in advance. I have to map out what I plan to do fairly carefully, yet I have never felt that I had to clear every in-class assessment or revision of a survey with the IRB. My sense is that what they are most concerned with is protecting students, and as long as my overall plan and my consent letter ensures that students’ grades won’t be affected by the project and that their identities will be protected, the IRB folks have been content.

At the same time, having to present this work to the IRB has made me much more thoughtful about the ethics of SoTL. Unlike my disciplinary research, which uses public documents, much of them created and used by people who are long dead, SoTL draws on the ideas and experiences of real people with whom I interact regularly, for whom I am responsible, and whose welfare concerns me. That’s actually part of what I like about this work.

View Sample Informed Consent Forms

Melinda de Jesús
Applying for IRB Approval: the Arizona State University Experience

In Fall 2001 I wrote up my VKP project and sent it to the ASU IRB (See de Jesús’ IRB Form). In short, they took a very long time in responding, and their initial response was negative. There were concerns regarding subject anonymity as well as “coercion” as I was interviewing current students about their experiences in my web-based class. Time was of the essence as I was expecting the VKP film crew here in a month and really needed to get my end of the project off the ground. I turned to my Associate Dean, for help. He has been very supportive of all my work with VKP. With his intervention, the IRB quickly revised its decision and merely requested that I add three specific items to my consent form (See memo outlining changes). The project went off without a hitch, and it was extremely interesting and rewarding.

What I’m finding is that ASU in general is at a loss to evaluate scholarship on teaching and learning, particularly if it is coming from people in the Humanities. My Dean requested that I revise and resubmit my summer research grant (my VKP project) to incorporate social science methodology even though I do Asian American literature and culture. I revised this proposal and did receive summer funding, but the process underscores that while there indeed is institutional interest in SoTL, it does not translate well to RTP/grant committees. SoTL is perceived to be something that happens in our Center for Learning and Teaching–not something that I engage in as part of my research agenda. Furthermore, the weight given to quantitative vs qualitative research in the College of Public Programs (where my department is housed) places me in a weird bind. I feel as if I’m breaking new ground in terms of incorporating SoTL and my humanities training with Asian American Studies and new media pedagogies, but I am having problems translating this work into the more social science-based methodologies reified by my College.

Nevertheless, I am really pleased with the data I was able to collect, and am looking forward to creating an interactive on-line essay that incorporates my student interviews about the ways they learn in the Asian American studies classroom.

View Sample Informed Consent Forms

-Originally Published January 2002

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