During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses. For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board). Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board. Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.
The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.
The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach. Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble. Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies. Policy documents focus on the “ends.”
On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed. Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate. Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out. They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system. While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.
I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching. It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success. In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble. Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why. This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking. It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there. By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make. This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.