Because SoTL involves research on student learning, “human subjects”—in the parlance of the social and natural sciences that are accustomed to thinking about ethical implications of their research—are inherently part of the work. Each campus will have is own ethics review committee, commonly called Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in the United States. This step is unfamiliar to researchers and scholars who’ve never done research on living, breathing human beings:
“[Because] SoTL researchers in some disciplines are unaccustomed to needing IRB approval for their disciplinary research (i.e., it does not involve human participants), there has been ambiguity among these SoTL researchers regarding the IRB process, and similar ambiguity among IRB evaluators as to what review category best fits SoTL research.” (Meyers, 2007, p. 1)
However, there are resources to introduce these scholars to the process, and each institution should have specific information about its policies and procedures available to its faculty and staff.
SoTL practitioners should be especially sensitive to the ethical issues of their work with students. One reason is the inherent power difference between instructors and their students (assigning grades, of course, but also helping or hindering movement through a degree program, writing letters of recommendation, etc.). Applying some fundamental ethical practices (guided by IRBs) mitigates this power differential as much as possible. Also, most people involved in SoTL view students and their learning with great respect (in some cases promoting them to collaborators or partners in the project), a view that values protecting students’ privacy and confidentiality, as well as minimizing any risks (most often, risks to grades).
For guidance on this stage of a SoTL project, see
“Doing Ethical Research: SoTL and the IRB.”