Ethics and Taught Units, Frequently Asked Questions


When do I need ethics approval for my taught unit?
What is the difference between ethics approval for a taught unit and ethics approval for research?
Can my students undertake research in a taught unit and if so, does each student need ethics approval?
Can my students conduct surveys and/or interviews in a taught unit without ethics approval?
Do students need to have consent forms and information for participant forms which are approved by the ethics committee if they conduct interviews or surveys?
What is the difference between research and professional practice?
Is there anything I should be wary of when designing Taught Units?
What kinds of student activity would you expect to require ethics approval?


When do I need ethics approval for my taught unit?

Taught Units should not normally need formal ethics approval from the University Human Research Ethics Committee, or HREC. This is because Taught Units are not usually about undertaking research. p;Rather, they are concerned with teaching students HOW to employ research methods, such as how to develop and administer a survey, or conduct an interview or focus group. There should be minimal risk or impact on participants or students, and that is why they don’t require formal ethics approval.

In fact, if what you are doing in a Taught Unit will require HREC approval, then it is probably not a suitable activity for students to be undertaking. There are Guidelines for Taught Units on the Ethics Webpage which give more information.

What is the difference between ethics approval for a taught unit and ethics approval for research?

The Ethics Committee only reviews research that fits the following definition outlined in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007), which says:

‘Research’ ...includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts, including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and routine analysis of materials, components and processes such as for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques. It also excludes the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research.

It is unlikely that any research related activity undertaken in a Taught Unit will meet this definition, and therefore probably won’t need review by a full ethics committee.

Can my students undertake research in a taught unit and if so, does each student need ethics approval?

It depends upon the activity that the student is undertaking.  There are many examples of Research that will not require ethics approval, such as use of already published material, or using de-identified and aggregated data sets for analysis.   Other research activities might be extremely low risk, such as conducting a survey amongst classmates on whether people prefer tea or coffee, which is an innocuous topic.  The kinds of participant also affect risk.  For example, we would not recommend that students conduct research with vulnerable populations, such as children or people with dementia, or asylum seekers.

Can my students conduct surveys and/or interviews in a taught unit without ethics approval?

As long as the subject matter is not controversial, and the participants are not vulnerable or at risk, then it should be okay to conduct interviews or surveys.

Do students need to have consent forms and information for participant forms which are approved by the ethics committee if they conduct interviews or surveys?

There are sample consent forms and information sheets attached to the Taught Unit Guidelines that can be adapted for use by classes.  They should include the name and contact details for the responsible academic so that if there are any concerns the participant will know who to contact.

What is the difference between research and professional practice?

In some instances, professional practice can use methods that might also be used in research.  For example, journalists conduct interviews and record data, and publish articles drawing upon that material.  However, journalism students in that instance would be operating under their professional Code of Ethics rather than the National Statement.  In the same way, nursing students might be taking blood samples or blood pressure not to conduct research but because they need to know how to do so.  They are not collecting data systematically to produce new insights and knowledge, and there is no intention to publish the data.  And student teachers reflecting upon their classroom practice would be a normal part of professional practice.

Is there anything I should be wary of when designing Taught Units?

Yes. It’s important to ensure that neither students nor participants are put at risk.  This means taking care that the research activity is not dangerous for the student or participant, either because of the sensitivity of the topic, or the vulnerability of the participants.

As a rule, we would advise that Taught Units should not require formal ethics approval because they don’t involve undue risk.  If the activity is such that it does require formal ethics approval, then it might be a good idea to ask if it is suitable for students, and perhaps to redesign the activity so that it does not require ethics approval.

What kinds of student activity would you expect to require ethics approval?

Normally the Ethics Committee would look at major projects, such as Honours, and Higher Degree Research such as Masters or Doctorates.  Some courses, particularly Masters, might involve a substantial element of research which will require ethics approval.  In such cases, we normally negotiate with the School or Faculty to make sure that the research can be reviewed in a timely manner.  For example, we might have a special sub-committee meeting to look at Psychology Honours Projects.