Research Ethics Board (REB) application guide: ISTLD-specific resource

This is a guiding document for obtaining research ethics approval for ISTLD projects at SFU that involve human participants. Although it has been reviewed and revised by multiple stakeholders, please note that research ethics – especially those pertaining to ISTLD – are quickly evolving. Above all else, please consult SFU’s Office of Research Ethics (ORE), as your most authoritative and up-to-date source of expertise pertaining to your research ethics application.

This guide has been developed by the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines (ISTLD). It has been reviewed and modified by representatives from ORE, and particular contributions have been made by Dr. Nathan Roberson. If you have questions, suggestions, or updates to include in this guide, please contact istld@sfu.ca.

First things first, all PIs, co-PIs and anyone who will interact with participants need to do the online TCPS 2 tutorial, which takes approximately two hours. Select your preferred language, and then click on the purple tab that says “Login to CORE/ Create Account”.” Follow the instructions and complete the tutorial. This step must be completed before a REB application or exemption can be submitted. You may also complete the CITI Tutorial on either clinical or behavioural ethics to meet the requirement (the CITI is common for those who have worked at US institutions).

Section 1: Before You Start an Ethics Application

a. Terms

  • REB:  Research Ethics Board
  • PI: Principal Investigator. This is the SFU faculty member who takes responsibility for the research project.
  • QA/QI: Quality improvement/assurance. Projects that are defined by Canada’s Tri‐council Policy Statement (TCPS2) as  “... exclusively for assessment, evaluation, management or improvement purposes” or the on‐going quality improvement of teaching practices, courses and programs. QA/QI teaching and learning inquiries typically do not require REB review.
  • Research: Defined by Canada’s Tri‐council Policy Statement (TCPS2) as “an undertaking intended to extend knowledge through a disciplined inquiry or systematic investigation”. Teaching and learning inquiries deemed as research require formal institutional ethics review.

b. Do I need ethics approval for my project?

All ISTLD projects need to apply for ethics exemptions or complete a REB application.

Most ISTLD projects will be eligible for exemption.

Before you begin your research ethics application process, determine if it is required, or if you should apply for exemption. One key criterion is your primary intent for conducting the project in question. Research ethics approval is required if the project’s primary intent is research and involves human participants. To help you discern whether your project needs REB review, see the table below:

       REB review not required REB review required (Research)
Primary Intent To improve teaching and learning practices within a limited context (e.g.  one’s own classroom or a specific program of studies). To add to an existing body of knowledge (i.e., uncover or create new knowledge); and to be able to generalize results beyond one’s own context.

Theory

Only involved insofar as it improves practice. Heavily integrated in write-up and analysis; seeks to produce generalizable knowledge.
Expectations of students Regular student activities plus minimal student involvement that goes beyond regular expectations (e.g., survey or interview participation). Student activities and expectations are impacted by, for instance, experimental designs, control groups or other types of differential treatments.
Dissemination Outputs tend to be more reflective and context-specific in nature. The narrative of the dissemination piece avoids terms such as research questions, participants, principal investigator. And instead is presented with terms such as guiding questions, students, and instructor. Dissemination occurs to advance a theory or body of knowledge. The goal is to share results which are rigorous enough to generalize findings across multiple contexts. The work is presented with research terminology.


Other points to keep in mind:

  • Don’t present your project as research if you did not get institutional ethics approval. 
  • There may be no research intent to begin with, but as soon as a research intent develops, you must obtain REB approval. 
  • Research Ethics approval cannot be given retrospectively, meaning that researchers cannot apply for research ethics approval after conducting their research activities. The only thing you can apply for is the use of secondary data after it has already been collected. It can be challenging to obtain consent from students to use their data once the semester is over.

Section 2: Next steps for ISTLD ethics exemption

Now that you’re sure you can apply for ethics exemption there are a few steps you still need to take.

1. Submit your ethics exemption from the Research Ethics Application System

https://www.sfu.ca/research/resources/research-ethics/ethics-application-system

The ethics application system is your main portal. All Principal Investigators (PIs) and co-investigators (co-PIs) will need SFU CAS login IDs.

2. Write your ethics exemption application
To complete the REB application you will need to have a clear understanding of your project plan, including: research questions, process and methods, risk level, recruitment of participants, and tools you'll use to collect data (e.g., interview protocols, survey questions, etc.). For more detailed information related to each application question/section the ORE and ISTLD have put together a process map. Most of these fields can be filled in by copying and pasting information from your project proposal. If you encounter challenges, ask ISTLD for assistance.

3. After submitting your application
Once the ORE has processed your ethics exemption, you will receive a letter confirming exemption. This letter can be used to submit to publications or conferences if needed to justify the ethics status of the project.

Section 3: Next steps for ISTLD research projects

Now that you’re sure you need REB approval for your project there are a few steps before you can begin your research ethics application.

1. Create your application from the Research Ethics Application System

https://www.sfu.ca/research/resources/research-ethics/ethics-application-system

The ethics application system is your main portal for the entire REB process. All Principal Investigators (PIs) and co-investigators (co-PIs) will need SFU CAS login IDs.

2. Write your ethics application
To complete the REB application you will need to have a clear understanding of your project plan, including: research questions, process and methods, risk level, recruitment of participants, and tools you'll use to collect data (e.g., interview protocols, survey questions, etc.). For more detailed information related to each application question/section the ORE has put together numerous resources. If you encounter challenges, ISTLD for assistance.

*It is important that you do not begin to collect data or recruit participants until REB has approved your study.

Data considerations

  • Anonymous data: no identifying information is collected. For example, students complete a survey where no name, ID or identifying information is collected. If the researcher knows who has participated (e.g., with focus group participants), their data can never be anonymous, but their participation can be kept confidential.
  • Anonymized data: information is stripped of direct identifiers, and no code is kept to allow future re-linkage. For example, you collect student names with a survey but remove the names from the data set after collection and do not store the name information. Note that this method does not allow you to re-identify participants after the study, so there is no way to remove data if a participant would later like to withdraw - you must make this clear to participants in advance.
  • De-identified data: identifiers are replaced with anonymous IDs (e.g., "1" or "Participant A") and identifiers are kept in a separate document to allow for future re-linkage. This can be important in cases where participants want to withdraw from the study after data is collected, and allows the research team to pull out their data at any given point during the life of a project.
  • Co-PIs, RAs, or GTAs (or anyone without a connection to the students involved) should usually be the only one with access to student identities. Data must be anonymized, de-identified and/or aggregated before a course instructor has access.
  • Any identifying data pertaining to research participants must be stored in secure locations (e.g., on a password-protected computer or One Drive, and not Google Drive).

After submitting your application
Once the ORE has completed the initial review of your application, they will issue any Action Items needed to address issues with your application. This will be done online in the Kuali application system. This may include wording that is not precise enough, inconsistencies in details between the application and the supporting documents, omissions (e.g., missing recruitment or consent documents) and things of this nature. Action Items are done through the Kuali ethics application system. For each item listed, update the application (changes can be seen by ORE staff) and provide a statement acknowledging the change made. If changes are made to the supporting documents, remember to make the changes using tracked changes or highlighting and update the version number and document date in the footer of the document.

After your study is approved, you can make amendments to your project (for example, changing some survey items or extending the project to an additional course). Any modifications to the study design or tool modification will require an amendment: see the ORE site.

Section 4: FAQ about ISTLD research

What kind of work is exempt from research ethics review?
Quality assurance & improvement studies, program evaluation & performance reviews, or testing within normal educational requirements when used exclusively for assessment, management or improvement purposes (TCPS2, 2.5).

Do I need REB approval to publish in a journal?
Many journals ask for details of ethical approval or a statement that it was not required. If you wish to publish the results of a genuine QA/QI study, you would simply explain that under Article 2.5 of the Tri Council Policy Statement, QA/QI activities are not subject to institutional ethical review.

Article 2.5
Quality assurance and quality improvement studies, program evaluation activities, and performance reviews, or testing within normal educational requirements when used exclusively for assessment, management or improvement purposes, do not constitute research for the purposes of this Policy, and do not fall within the scope of REB review.

Article 2.5 refers to assessments of the performance of an organization or its employees or students, within the mandate of the organization, or according to the terms and conditions of employment or training. Those activities are normally administered in the ordinary course of the operation of an organization where participation is required, for example, as a condition of employment in the case of staff performance reviews, or an evaluation in the course of academic or professional training. Other examples include student course evaluations, or data collection for internal or external organizational reports. Such activities do not normally follow the consent procedures outlined in this Policy. If data are collected for the purposes of such activities but later proposed for research purposes, it would be considered secondary use of information not originally intended for research, and at that time may require REB review in accordance with this Policy. Refer to Section D of Chapter 5 for guidance concerning secondary use of identifiable or non-identifiable information for research purposes.

I want to present some results to my department. Can I use student quotes or do I need REB approval? 
Sharing results of an inquiry does not require REB approval, so long as the project outcomes of a QA/QI project are not being presented as research. Regardless of whether you have REB approval or not, ensure that responses shared will not identify any student based on their comments and that students provide consent to have their responses made public. You are always welcome to present on general themes and topics without using the direct quotes from students.

My classroom inquiry is informed heavily by theory, does this make it “research”? If so, should I apply for REB?
Generally, questions that are firstly informed by theory and then “tested” some way in the classroom would be considered research, and so REB approval would be required. If on the other hand, your inquiry emerged out of something happening in your classroom (students falling asleep partway, very little engagement during lectures, etc.), you might still use some theory to support your inquiry, but the initial question came out of your classroom practice. In this way, your work would be considered more “QA/QI”, and not “research”, because you are focused on changes within your own practice and not generalizing beyond your specific context.

What rules apply to research during COVID-19?
COVID-19 expectations have been frequently changing. Applicants should consult the ORE page on COVID management.

Who do I contact if I have further questions?
If you have questions specifically about the ethics application process or would like to consult with the Office of Research Ethics (ORE), please email them at dore@sfu.ca. If you have specific questions about the ethics application relating to a ISTLD inquiry, please connect with us via email: istld@sfu.ca

Section 5: Supporting Documents

Several templates are provided directly by the ORE office. ISTLD has sample documents (e.g. invitations, etc.) available that can be adapted to suit your own study.

A few things to note:

  • This does not mean that OER will approve them in the future, as guidelines and best practices are continually changing.
  • You will need to add your department or faculty letterhead to all consent forms.
  • Footers of documents must include the ethics application number, version number, a full document date (day/month/year) and page numbers (where applicable).
  • Participant facing documents should also include the SFU logo.
  • These forms are only examples. You are welcome to copy/paste the wording as much as you like, although you will need to adjust details according to your own study.