This first principle encompasses the need to treat people with the respect they are due and insure their autonomy. Students invited as participants in their professor’s research are captive populations, i.e., individuals disadvantaged by a power differential between themselves and an authority figure. This relationship can infringe on their freedom to make decisions based on real or perceived influence or coercion; therefore extra care must be taken to preserve their autonomy. For this reason, any research involving human participants must commit to seeking free, informed, and ongoing consent. This includes understanding the purpose of the research, its risks and benefits, and the right to assent, dissent or discontinue participation. This principle can be summarized as having the freedom to participate or not in a research study without interference or fear of negative repercussions.
In as nutshell, human participants should be clearly, fairly, and fully informed of the research objectives, procedures, foreseeable risks, and potential benefits. Their decision to participate should be fully voluntary.
SoTL ethical standards and strategies derived from this principle
Free informed consent is a complex issue when our students are involved in our research. By engaging in research in teaching and learning in our classes, we add new stresses to the power dynamics of the teacher-student relationships by creating a situation in which the professor's research benefits from these relationships. It is therefore crucial to put mechanisms in place safeguarding against perceived or actual abuse of that power differential.
The following strategies can help alleviate these concerns:
- Inform students frankly about the potentials benefits, burden of participation, potential costs, and measures taken to protect their privacy;
- Take steps to minimize your own biases. For example, you can arrange for a colleague to collect key documents such as the consent form and make them available to you only once the final grades have been posted;
- Minimize social penalties when a student opts out by reducing the public nature of the decision not to participate. For example, students can be asked to seal their consent form in an envelope whether or not they choose to provide consent.
A note of secondary use of data
Normally student data is collected for the purpose of learning and assessment. Unless they are informed that their data may be used for research purposes, these data cannot be used as such at any point, including after your relationship with these students has ceased. In cases where you may wish to use already collected data for the secondary purpose of research, you may do so only if permission from the participants to do so is explicitly granted retroactively.