Removing barriers from SoTL projects

For busy academics trying to design the best learning experiences possible for their students, the luxury of time to plan a SoTL project is a pipe dream. An ideal project might go something like this:

Ko, A., & Fincher, S. (2019). A Study Design Process. In S. Fincher & A. Robins (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Computing Education Research (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 81-101). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108654555.005

However, one cannot always predict the type of learning methods worthy of formal investigation (such as the sudden switch to online learning during the current pandemic). This is not helped by the ethical application and approval process at the University of Glasgow. As well as ethical approval in the College of Social Sciences taking time (we are told to allow six weeks from the application date until the beginning of our data project), the forms are lengthy, complicated and off-putting – even to experienced scholars. Add to this the unfamiliarity of SoTL to academics steeped in their own disciplinary research practices, and the likelihood of projects not even getting off the ground is pretty high. This is a shame, to put it mildly, because it means that a lot of good practice does not get captured and disseminated. Moreover, this can have serious implications for academics on the Learning, Teaching and Scholarship track, because carrying out SoTL is an important requirement of our employment contract.  As LTS academics we recognise how vital it is to have ethical approval, and we wondered how to resolve all of this. Here is our solution.


In March 2018 I took up a post as Teaching Fellow in the Adam Smith Business School (ASBS) as part of a Teaching Excellence Initiative (TEI) in Business Education Learning and Teaching. Working with Professor Nicol, the TEI aimed to develop evidence-based research-led assessment and feedback practices, to evaluate them and to produce scholarly outputs such as web pages, blog posts, conference presentations and journal articles, and also to build a Learning Community for SoTL. Because I was familiar with the ethics process at our university, and was aware of the challenges I decided to create a common ethics application to secure approval. I thought about the various ways of evaluating the impact of the TEI (by soliciting feedback from staff and students via surveys, focus groups and interviews, for example, or by using Moodle logs where appropriate) and carefully thought through the possible ethical risks involved. I then designed participant information and consent forms and drafted survey and interview questions based on those used by the NSS.

Normally all researchers will be named on an ethics application form. However, I realised that this was going to be problematic in ASBS because of the timing of teaching allocations.  Usually, staff members are only notified about their teaching responsibilities for the following academic year in April, meaning that there is little time to plan for SoTL before teaching begins and often it is only as teaching begins that SoTL projects emerge. So I spoke to the Head of the Business School and obtained his permission to conduct evaluations and publish the results on any course or cohort and with any member of staff in the school as long as the conditions of the ethics application were met – I emphasised that we were only asking for approval for common types of project with low-risk methods, and that higher-risk projects would still need to go through the full ethical approval process. I submitted the application and approval was granted.

Geethanjali Selvaretnam (Geetha)

The common ethics approval secured by Sarah is a significant breakthrough, opening the door to SoTL which otherwise would not have taken place or gone unpublicised.  

For example, a few months into my time at UoG, I carried out a small survey about students’ preference for different methods of group allocation, which gave me useful insights. I decided to do this only in the middle of a course when I realised I would like to know this information for future group work. Since there was no time to obtain ethics approval, I went ahead with the survey. I have myself benefited from the knowledge I gained from the results of this survey. Unfortunately, this important piece of information could not be shared with anyone else through publications/ conferences etc. More recently, my plan to do a survey on learning and teaching in multicultural classrooms  could not be carried out because of delays in ethics approval.

The common ethics approval has removed the deterrent and has allowed me and several colleagues in ASBS to carry out SoTL projects. I have already completed three projects, all of which have been presented at conferences and are now being prepared for journal publication. I continue to pursue several other SoTL projects with other colleagues.

Next Steps

This ethical approval has changed the culture of learning and teaching in ASBS, and we now have ethical approval for low-risk SoTL projects looking at blended and online learning and teaching. We are in the process of formally evaluating the impact of both of these for colleagues in ASBS, and we are also planning a series of seminars and workshops so that colleagues can share the results of their SoTL projects and further embed evidence-based learning and teaching into our school.

If you’d like to find out more about any of this, we’d be very happy to talk to you. Tweet Sarah, or find us via our web pages, linked above.


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