Four areas of ethical consideration in scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) research

By Rachel Braun, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Program Specialist, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

In the third installment of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) Series, Kiara Mikita (SoTL Postdoctoral Scholar) guided participants through locating ethics resources to inform future SoTL projects, identifying ethical considerations to consider when doing SoTL inquiry and describing strategies to ensure ethical practice by SoTL researchers throughout the life of a project. John Ellard (Chair, University of Calgary Conjoint Faculties Research Ethics Board [CFREB]) was available at the session to answer participants’ questions. Kiara began by defining an ethics application as peer-reviewed process governed by the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS2), and documented in a Research Ethics Board (REB) Review. Kiara encouraged participants to think of an REB Review as a meeting point between experienced researchers and knowledgeable reviewers. Here, both parties meet to manage the complexities of SoTL research by seeking to identify potential blind spots, to avoid unintended consequences, and to prevent harm. To prepare for this meeting point, Kiara illustrated four areas of ethical considerations in SoTL research, why they are important, and some strategies to consider. For a more expansive exploration of Canadian standards of ethical practice in SoTL, including examples of highest level best practices at Canadian post-secondary institutions, I invite you to peruse the Taylor Institute Guide, Ethics in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Key Principles and Strategies for Ethical Practice (2017).

Area #1: Conflict of Interest and Power Relationships

In SoTL, researchers’ dual role of principle investigator and teacher can potentially create dilemmas of conflicts of interest and power relationships (see TCPS2: Article 7.4 on dual roles of researchers broadly). Such dilemmas could affect the researcher’s relationship with students, and students’ decision to participate in the study. Being mindful of this area of ethical consideration keeps the researcher from making students feel unduly influenced, coerced, or compelled to participate because of power imbalances. Some strategies to consider include:

  • Identify blind spots
  • Use a third party
  • Collect data after grades are finalized
  • Analyze de-identified work

Area #2: Consent Process

As with participant recruitment in other fields, the method of recruitment is essential in ensuring voluntariness (TCPS2: Article 3). Being mindful of this area of ethical consideration ensures that students are fully informed, participating voluntarily, and know their rights when deciding whether to participate in research. Some strategies to consider include:

  • Describe and discuss research before seeking consent
  • Make clear there are no repercussions for refusal
  • Keep consent process confidential
  • Keep incentives to a minimum


Area #3: Fairness and Equity in Research Participation

Within the goals of the SoTL research project, researchers should be inclusive in selecting study participants (TCPS2: Article 4). Being mindful of this area of ethical consideration ensures inclusivity, fairness, and equity, by respecting the vulnerability of individuals/groups, and ensuring accessible research results upon completion of the study. Some strategies to consider are:

  • Consider your assumptions about participants
  • Have clear inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Involve competent intermediaries
  • Ensure an equitable distribution of research benefits

Area #4: Privacy and Confidentiality

Just as in research in other fields, maintaining promises and obligations of confidentiality are essential to the integrity of the researcher and the project (TCPS2: Article 5). Being mindful of this area of ethical consideration protects participants’ information and the integrity of the research project by ensuring confidentiality, protecting participant identities, and safeguarding data before, during, and after the research is complete. Some strategies to consider include:

  • Teams discuss/agree upon confidentiality issues
  • Conceal/protect identifying information
  • Use/present aggregate/combined data when few participants
  • Physically and digitally protect consent forms and data

Icons were created by Kiara Mikita, and are shared with her permission.

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