Navigating the IRB while Conducting Research in Your Teaching Practice

Education Research & the IRB

What is the IRB?

The purpose of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) is to ensure that research involving human subjects is carried out ethically and to standard of federal regulations. The IRB:

  • Independently evaluates the risks and benefits of proposed research and makes sure the risk is minimal
  • Ensures ethical procedures for recruiting and consenting human subjects during the research process
  • Ensures confidentiality of data and other information obtained from research

At Northeastern, the Office of Human Subject Research Protection (HSRP) is the primary point of contact for all IRB-related inquiries.

What does this have to do with education research?

In the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning or other education research, you may analyze artifacts produced by students (e.g., a reflection they write up as part of an assignment). Additionally, you might ask students to do something beyond what is required of them as part of the course, such as completing surveys or participating in focus groups. You may also look at other data sources in your course, such as the analytics from a learning management system. If you plan to do activities such as these in order to collect data from students or other individuals, these activities may be considered human subjects research. According to Northeastern University policy, no research involving human subjects can be undertaken until reviewed and approved by the IRB.  Consequently, it is important to consult the HSRP website to see what type of approvals might be required for your project.

The IRB review process varies slightly based on the project, from submitting a request for exempt status to a full IRB application review. Many educational research tasks, such as asking students to fill out a survey or analyzing pieces of student work, may be eligible for an exemption (see more information about exempt research here). However, this still requires that you fill out an exempt self-determination form for review by HSRP (see more information here).  Some considerations to determine involvement with the IRB include:

  1. What is the purpose of this project?
  2. What am I asking human subjects to do?
  3. How will data and other information collected be used?

Below, we outline some considerations when determining whether IRB approval is necessary. Please note that projects vary greatly and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Even if it seems like a project is exempt, please allow enough time to follow the procedures as outlined by HSRP.

IRB might not be needed (fill out an exempt self-determination form and consult with HSRP)Application to IRB is likely needed 
What is the purpose?Who is the intended audience?Data will be collected for internal purposes (e.g., to improve my teaching practices as I teach this course and other courses).Data is used for research purposes (e.g., I aim to submit findings to a journal for publication).
What are participants doing?What will students be asked to do? Assignments & activities that are already planned for the class.

Small, brief questionnaires that ask about their experience as students:

  • Written reflections
  • A short survey
Long surveys or interviews

Focus groups

Questionnaires of any length that ask about topics unrelated to their experience as a student (e.g., how they pick their favorite restaurant).

What are the potential risks or harms to students who participate? There is no risk or minimal risk to the students (e.g., students may find the survey is boring).Participation or responses to activities beyond work required for the course could affect a student’s grade(s) in the course.

Participation or responses could impact students’ relationship with others in the classroom or at the university.

The project relates to a sensitive topic where students could feel embarrassment, trauma, or shame.

How will data and other information be used?What type of data am I collecting?Written or forced choice responses to surveys, questionnaires, or assigned coursework.Videos, photos, or audio recordings.

Data collected from places where students may assume they have privacy (e.g., the chat text file from a Zoom call).

How is data or other information from this project being shared?It is only being shared internally (e.g., co-instructors, TAs).

If it is being shared externally, data is presented as aggregated summaries of the class as a whole or as anonymous quotes of student responses.

Data shared indicates anything about a student as an individual.

Data contains information that could identify a specific individual (e.g., there is only one female enrolled in the class).

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