Research vs Eval Week: Dana Gonzales and Lonnie Wederski on IRB Review of STEM Learning Evaluations

Hello! We are Dana Gonzales and Lonnie Wederski, institutional review board (IRB) members at Solutions IRB, specialists in the review of evaluation research.

Why talk about IRB review for evaluations of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education projects? Most simply, federally funded projects may require it. You may also ask, “Why aren’t all of these evaluations exempt?” IRB reviewers apply the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in their decisions. Many STEM evaluations include children. Under CFR rules, only a narrow range of research is exempt from review when it involves children, like research applying educational tests or observations of public behavior where the investigator does not participate. Interviews and focus groups with minors won’t likely qualify for exempt review, as they are seldom part of the normal educational curriculum. Randomization to a control group would not meet exempt category requirements for the same reason. Both would, however, qualify for expedited review, if there is no more than minimal risk for participants.

So, do you need to use an IRB? Ask these questions:

  • Is IRB required by the grant or foundation funding the project?
  • Does the school district require IRB review?
  • Do you intend to disseminate findings in a publication requiring IRB review?

If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” you need an IRB—at which point uncertainty strikes! Maybe this is the first time you’ll use an IRB (you are not alone) or you remember unpleasant experiences with an academic IRB. Fear not, evaluators! Many IRB reviewers understand the differences between clinical studies and evaluations. Some specialize in evaluations, employing reviewers with expertise in the methods evaluators use, who recognize that phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, and autoethnography are valid study approaches. Who wants to educate an IRB when you are paying them? 

Rad Resources:

Hot Tips:

  • Have questions regarding the ethics of recruitment or consent? Some independent IRBs will brainstorm with you and answer “what if” questions. Ask for a complementary consultation with a reviewer.
  • Ready to submit your evaluation for review? Ask the IRB if free pre-review of study documents is provided, to save time prior to formal review. Ask for a list of the documents required by the IRB.
  • Most important, know the review timeframe in advance! If the IRB requires two weeks for review, you need to plan accordingly. Some IRBs routinely review exempt and expedited studies in 24-48 hours, so timeframes can vary widely.

We hope you found the information provided helpful.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Research vs Evaluation week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from members whose work requires them to reconcile distinctions between research and evaluation, situated in the context of STEM teaching and learning innovations.. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “Research vs Eval Week: Dana Gonzales and Lonnie Wederski on IRB Review of STEM Learning Evaluations”

  1. In Alberta, Canada, we are fortunate to have an ethical review process specifically for non-research projects. ARECCI provides decision support tools to help project leads decide if their project is “research” or falls under evaluation or QI. Their tools also help project leads review their projects for ethical risks, and give an assessment of risk level. For projects that have more than minimal risk, there is a Second Opinion Review process where a reviewer can go over a project and make suggestions for strengthening. It’s not a formal approval process, but it is a great way to have another perspective on your project.

    ARECCI also offers training — there’s an in-person component, so probably only really useful for people close to Alberta. There is no cost to using ARECCI, and the tools and review process are open to project leads working outside of our province, too.

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