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  • If you are in the faculty of Health Sciences or affiliated with Hamilton Health Sciences, you need Hamilton Integrated Research Ethics Board (HIREB) ethics approval. HiREB also covers applications for research involving applicants’ patients, faculty, students, or resources from affiliated hospitals. Otherwise, proposals should go through MREB.
  • MREB does not review research involving administering drugs, blood draws, DNA, invasive physical procedures, or clinical trials.
  • The two ethics boards use different application systems and have different requirements and considerations.
  • If the applicant is a McMaster university faculty member, regardless of which system the applicant submits their research to, appeals are processed through the Standing Appeal Board established by McMaster.
  • Both ethics boards require annual renewal and amendments to be submitted through the online application portal using the Amendment form.

When is research ethics necessary (research or quality assurance/program evaluation)?

  • Ethics review is required for research with living human participants or their data (TCPS 2, Chapter 2, Article 2.1)
  • TCPS2 defines research as ‘an undertaking intended to extend knowledge through a disciplined inquiry and/or systematic investigation. The term “disciplined inquiry” refers to an inquiry that is conducted with the expectation that the method, results, and conclusions will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the relevant research community.’
  • QA/QI, program evaluation, and performance reviews are not considered “research” for the purposes of the TCPS2 and do not fall within the scope of REB review (Chapter 2, Article 2.5).
  • There are some course or project evaluation activities you may take up on your own without requiring REB review.
  • This Interactive Decision Tree may help you determine where or not REB review is required for your particular project. (Click to see full size)

Interactive Decision Tree_final

Key Ethical Issues in Pedagogical Research

In pedagogical research, and all research involving human participants, care should be taken to minimize risk.

Recruitment of students for research

In pedagogical research, recruitment of students poses risks around consent and coercion. For example, a common concern is when researchers try to recruit from a course they are currently teaching. This dual role makes it difficult to ensure students participation is not influenced by the teaching role. Concerns could be about marks, unfair treatment in class, or social repercussions in response to their choice to participate or not participate.  TCPS 2 Article 3.1 discusses concerns about undue influence (when participants are recruited by individuals in a position of authority. “Consent shall be given voluntarily and can be withdrawn at any time.”

Email Recruitment Policy

Currently, student emails cannot be used in research recruitment according to McMaster’s Privacy Office and under FIPPA regulations. However, emails may be used at a course level. Using the database of an entire department or faculty is not permitted without administrator permission.


For pedagogical research in the classroom, incentives are sometimes used to encourage participation in a study. These could be bonus marks, gift cards, or a draw for a larger prize. If bonus marks are used, there must be an alternative activity for students that do not wish to participate in the study to also get the mark. The alternative must be equal in workload and time commitment. If a student withdraws during the study, they should still receive an incentive, unless there is little significant risk (i.e. an anonymous survey).


It is important to ensure confidentiality in all research. There are certain unique considerations in pedagogical research. Some things to keep in mind include:

    • If bonus marks are being given, how will participant identities be kept confidential?
    • The instructor should only be able to access de-identified data after the marks have been designed to mitigate undue influence or other risks
    • Consider using a third-party during the data collection phase to mitigate risk
    • How will you communicate confidentiality clearly to the student participants?

For additional information, refer to Chapter 5, section B in the TCPS 2.

Secondary Use of Data

In SoTL research, this most often refers to using grades, assignments, or other student materials (from previous courses) not intended for research. Is ethics review required for this data? It depends on the level and whether or not the data is identifiable. For example, using class averages for research does not hold as much risk as using an individual student’s assignment. It is best to consult with the ethics board about the requirements for using secondary data, but you can take steps to minimize risk such as anonymizing the data, using class level data, and getting consent. Review the Secondary Use of Data section on the MREB application and TCPS2 Chapter 5, Section D.

Steps to Minimize Risk

There are many ethical considerations necessary in research. While we have highlighted some of the main concerns for pedagogical research, there may be more that are applicable to your study. Early in the planning stages, review the Tri-Council Policy and its interpretations.

Areas of Concern Key Principles for Ethical Practice Questions to Consider
Conflicts of Interest and Power Relationships Mitigate undue influence, coercion, or power imbalance by..

  1. basing decisions on an instructor’s goals (which may sometimes be at odds with research goals), and
  2. being sensitive to the inherent power differential between instructor and student
  1. “Could any part of the research design interfere with the effectiveness and/or credibility of an instructor, or with students’ ability to learn?”
  2. “Are there ways in which participating in this research – or not – might be something that students feel like they had to do? If so, why?”
Consent Process Ensure that students’ decisions to participate in the research (or not) is informed and voluntary by..

  1. telling them about the purpose, benefits, risks, and consequences of the research before asking for their consent, and
  2. making sure they have the autonomy to freely and privately choose to participate, refuse to participate, or withdraw from participation at any time during the research
  1. “What else would you want to know before making a decision about participating in this research?”
  2. “In what ways might students feel compelled to participate or compromised in their ability to withdraw from the study without consequence?”
Fairness and Equity Within the goals of the research project, be inclusive, fair, and equitable when selecting participants by..

  1. recognizing and respecting the vulnerability of individuals or groups
  2. making the results available, accessible, and understandable to all participants upon completing of the study
  1. “Are there any individuals or groups that this research might directly or indirectly exclude?”
  2. “How can I be sure that the results of this study can be accessible to all participants?”
Privacy and Confidentiality Protect the participants’ information and the integrity of the research project by..

  1. meeting confidentiality obligations in the research
  2. implementing appropriate institutional safeguards and security measures to protect participant information, and
  3. if the research involves identifiable secondary use of data, seeking informed consent.
  1. “Are there ways in which this research design might compromise participants’ confidentiality?”
  2. “Are there adequate safeguards to protect participants’ information?”
  3. “Have I obtained informed consent from all students whose data I am using in this study?”

Involving Students in Research

“Working with [faculty partner] for the last three years has been an incredible opportunity. She truly values the opinions and ideas of the students she works with and encourages us to pursue our own ideas for the project and gave us the opportunity to explore and learn new skills.” (Student, 2018 Case Studies)

“I felt in our meetings there was a sense of mutual learning and inquiry amongst all those involved – as a student, I felt my insights and perspectives were strongly valued and that decisions were made collectively, rather than a top-down delegation of tasks from professor to student” (Student, 2018 Case Studies)

Students will have a variety of motivations for getting involved in SoTL research. Sometimes students are looking for research experience, to gain knowledge, a CV booster, interest in the topic, and beyond. MacPherson promotes involving students not just as assistants or in subordinate roles, but rather as partners. Involving students as partners allows staff/faculty and student partnership on projects to establish meaningful cooperation and enhance the quality of teaching and learning at McMaster and to contribute to the SoTL field. Involving students as partners in SoTL projects can bring in new perspectives while also putting into practice concepts in the field throughout the entire research project.

To ensure the student’s partnership experience is meaningful, consider the following:

  • How can the partnership be one of true collaboration?
  • What are your expectations of the student? What are the student’s expectations of you?
  • Is there mutual learning? Is there space for perspectives outside of your point of view?
  • Is there room for student autonomy?
  • Is the project co-owned? What tangible outcomes is the student getting?
  • How are you creating a space where the student feels comfortable providing feedback and new ideas?

For more information consult:

Working With Students Graphic