Planning for serendipitous SoTL

Serendipity” flickr photo by paula.eklund shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A common topic of conversation for those of us who engage in SoTL, or who support others who do so, is the problem of obtaining ethical approval for SoTL projects that emerge at short notice.

Having ethical approval in place before starting a SoTL project is obviously vital – we need to have carefully thought through the implications of each data collection method, considered the risks of hurt and harm to students and colleagues and the possible implications of any power imbalance in relationships, we need to have clearly written participant information sheets and a carefully articulated consent process. We all want to act ethically towards our students and colleagues – of course we do.

But the lengthy process of completing institutional ethics applications and the amount of time it can take to get receive ethical approval can make it difficult, even impossible, to capture serendipitous opportunities – how can we ensure that we are able to celebrate our unexpected successes with our wider community and how can we start a conversation about unanticipated failures if we can’t talk about it?

I can’t promise to have all of the answers, but I do have some suggestions about how to ensure that ethical procedures are followed while allowing us to capture those serendipitous happenings. Let me tell you how.

Plan ahead

Although you do not know exactly what will happen over the next year, you will have some idea of what courses you will be teaching, the sorts of things you will want to teach. When you think about it, you will realise that you have many SoTL projects that you could put together beforehand, it just requires a bit of planning.

Decide on a focus

Think about the sorts of things that you know you will be interested in finding out about – does assessment and feedback motivate you, or student engagement, or developing learning communities? Whatever it is, decide on a coherent, focussed approach – now you have a SoTL strategy. Give it a name. Now, rather than having a series of seemingly random projects, you have a joined-up project. This really helps – particularly when you are writing up your ethics application as it helps you (and the ethics reviewers) to understand that it is a well-thought out project.

Plan the SoTL strategy

How will you evaluate your project? What types of data will you want to collect? What methods do you think you will use? Think about whether you will want to develop a survey or use course evaluation data, use interviews, analyse Moodle logs, use student work.

Justify the strategy

Why are you wanting to do this? Answers here don’t need to be too high-faluting or worthy – wanting to evaluate and disseminate are worthy reasons.


Are you planning a solo SoTL project, or do you prefer to collaborate? Talk to likely SoTL colleagues and add their names to your project.

Form Filling

Now, write all of this into an ethics form. Think how long it will take to collect the data, analyse it, write it up. Be realistic about an end date. Draft any forms (PI, privacy, consent) and indicative survey/interview questions. I find things like the NSS data set are really helpful in getting me started – and it’s also useful to say that these are what you are using (if you are) as they are externally validated questions.

Submit it

Check it over, ask a critical friend to look it over if you have someone – but don’t wait too long. Get it submitted and forget about it for a while.

I’ve used this approach several times and it’s helped me. I hope it will help you as well.

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