I recently got a call from a student researcher. He was confused. Was his IRB protocol expedited or full board? How could he tell the difference? He also worried his protocol would be rejected if he selected the “wrong” IRB review level when filling out his application. I explained to him the differences between the review categories by using a pyramid as a visual metaphor.

I explained the three review levels to the student. For education research in particular, a large proportion of studies fall into the exempt category. Exempt protocols involve research that is less than minimal risk. For example, “do video games featuring abstract algebra evoke students’ interest in classroom math?” Expeditedprotocols are less common, but still make up a significant part of educational research and involve only minimal risk. For example, “how do history teachers use technology to resolve office conflict?” Lastly, full board protocols are rare because they may involve vulnerable populations or risky procedures. For example, “the effects of a dance program on emotional and physical health in cancer patients.”

I assured the student that no matter what review level he selected in his application, IRB administrators and reviewers would examine his materials and ultimately determine if it is more or less risky to a participant. His job as a researcher was to think through his research plan and determine what level best fits his work. After talking through these review levels he felt more comfortable selecting a level that fit the parameters of his research.