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Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SoTL)

The Red Deer College Research Ethics Board (REB) provides the following guidance concerning the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research that faculty may be considering in the classroom. The REB actively encourages and supports SoTL research as an important part of scholarly work. All research activities involving human subjects or participants, including SoTL research where information of any type is gathered from students in your classes for research purposes, must undergo REB review using the usual processes and forms.

When in doubt about whether or not a potential research activity requires REB review, please ethics [at] rdc [dot] ab [dot] ca (consult with the REB).

SoTL often starts with the identification of a particular issue in the classroom, often when completing year-end reports or self-reflection (e.g. dealing with a problem or difficulty). It may also come when one is faced with a new aspect to a teaching circumstance (e.g., teaching a class for the first time). A SoTL project may arise while attending a professional development session or workshop (e.g. deciding to introduce a new teaching strategy).  Finally, a SoTL project may just start with an unexpected epiphany (e.g. a new assignment was surprisingly successful or a ‘thinking-in-your-feet’ moment lead to a great idea for redesign of an assessment instrument). 

Please refer to the following resources for more information about Ethics and SoTL research:

User Guide on the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning Research. Dalhousie University REB.
The user guide is designed to help instructors interested in conducting SoTL research. By adopting an interactive approach, the user guide helps instructors navigate complex ethical issues by addressing key questions they may encounter while designing their research project.

SOTL: Key Principles and Strategies for Ethical Practice (Taylor Institute) 2017.
Lisa Fedoruk, BEd, Med, PhD(c) | Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Assistant, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary


Research typically involves:

  1. More systematic documentation and data gathering – adequate preparation – utilizing accepted methods for data collection
  2. More self-reflection in writing – clear goals – reflective critique
  3. More audience – analysis becomes public – work is critically reviewed and evaluated by one’s peers  - one’s community begins to use, build upon and develop the scholarship.

SoTL Research means applying to teaching the same professional standards of conduct that are used in research.

When planning an activity that will assess some aspect of teaching and learning, and you need to determine if this activity would fit the definition of research, it is helpful to ask the question: “What is the purpose of the activity?”

* if the purpose is to use the results for personal use, the activity would be more Quality Assurance – for example: instructor surveys their students about their opinions of the course materials for the purpose of improving the course  

*If the project addresses a research question, the activity would be Research, and an ethics review is required – for example, instructor surveys students about their opinions of the course materials because they want to know if students’ opinions vary as a function of teaching approach

The TCPS2 (2014) does not rule out secondary use of research data (e.g. using student work from past terms), but the general requirement is that informed consent of participants be secured; the TCPS2 (2014), however,  acknowledges that “it may be impossible, difficult, or economically unfeasible to contact all participants to obtain informed consent.”

Recommended Action: researcher should propose an appropriate strategy for informing the relevant parties OR for consulting with representative members of the affected group (e.g. a student advisory group, current students who could be proxies to identify what makes students feel more or less vulnerable).

Data that is secondary data that has been collected legitimately through the normal educational process (e.g end of term course evaluations), does not necessarily require Informed Consent.  Researchers should, however, demonstrate to the REB that analysis of such data will not make the data individually identifiable.

The above discussion pertains more to anonymous or anonymized data from students. The situation changes when the researcher proposes using old tests and papers as their data source. The use of tests, assignments or other work produced by students involves risks to the privacy and confidentiality of the students associated with these materials, and as such, will require an REB review. Researchers will need to demonstrate to the REB that they are aware of the risks associated with this type of data (see risks below), and how they will mitigate these concerns.  

Recommended Action: instructors who plan on conducting research using their students’ work as data could create a General Permission Statement, which would in effect be the Informed Consent.

Recommended Action: instructors could involve students more actively in the research process (from design to dissemination or any component thereof).


Types of Coercion in SoTL

  1. through a direct benefit to participating (e.g. bonus mark, assignment grade, participation marks, given for participant in a SoTL project)
  2. to gain instructor’s approval (e.g. student feels that declining to participate might negatively affect their grade in the class).

Recommended Actions To Minimize Coercion and The Perception Of Coercion:

  • when offering course credit, offer an equivalent alternative to participation in research project. To be equivalent, the option should take approximately the same amount of time and offer the same potential learning value to the student. 
  • develop a system by which you do not know who chooses to participate and who does not – e.g. have a colleague do the data collection and keep data & consent forms until term over or use online software.  
  • especially in the case of learning activities where there is a possible benefit for all students participating, allow students to give their consent for their results/work/etc to be included in the research or not.
  • third-party management of consent and data collection
  • conducting interviews only after final grades submitted
  • code numbers on student work
  • use a stratified random sample
  • typically no more than 5 minutes of class time should be devoted to recruitment or aspects of the study which are not a normal part of the course work
  • consent forms (and data) placed in envelopes, opened when grades submitted

ethics [at] rdc [dot] ab [dot] ca

Research Ethics Board, Chair:
Krista Robson: 403-314-2499

krista [dot] robson [at] rdc [dot] ab [dot] ca

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Email: inquire [at] rdc [dot] ab [dot] ca

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