When & when not to use students in research

Any time research is conducted by a researcher with his or her own students, researchers should be cognizant of the fact that the relation of authority of the teacher over the students may make it difficult for students to give un-coerced informed consent to participate. For this reason, in general, the IRB recommends that researchers not use their own students as subjects. If the research goals can be accomplished using a different subject pool, the researcher should seek out subjects who are not also the researcher's own students.

At the same time, the IRB recognizes that the important field of the scholarship of teaching and learning often involves teachers systematically examining their own teaching practices.  Sometimes the only feasible way to do this is by using one's own students as subjects. In other words, sometimes there are good research-related reasons for choosing one's own students as research subjects. Much of the lower-risk forms of this research on pedagogical practice is actually exempt from IRB review, under the first two federal categories of exemption. However, there is some research with students that will require IRB review, such as research on students under the age of 18 involving surveys, interviews, or other forms of research that go outside of what a student would normally experience in class, and research on students of any age that has higher risks. The IRB will conduct a full review (a review by all members of the board) as opposed to an expedited review (a review by a single member of the board) of any application in which a researcher proposes to use his or her own students as research participants when that participation involves a significant element of risk. For example, the IRB would conduct a full review of research that proposed to interview students about how experiences of trauma outside the classroom have impacted their ability to study certain topics in a classroom setting.

In reviewing research by teachers involving their own students, the IRB is left with the delicate task of adequately protecting the potential research subjects without unnecessarily impeding this important form of research.  To that end, we have developed the following guidelines for teachers who propose to conduct research involving their own students:

  1. In general, as the sensitivity of the information to be collected from the subjects increases, so do the steps that researchers should take to protect subjects.  
  2. The IRB will only approve research involving a researcher's own students as subjects when there is a good research-based justification for using one's own students rather than another subject pool.  Convenience is not an adequate justification.  Any researcher proposing to do research with his or her own students ought to provide a clear written justification for using this pool of subjects in the IRB application.
  3. Researchers who have good research-related reasons to use their own students as subjects must take additional steps to reduce coercion.  This must include an informed consent process that clearly states participation or non-participation will not impact the students' grades.  For students under the age of 18, parents must also give informed consent.  However, this step alone is not sufficient.  Even if researchers clarify the voluntary nature of participation in the informed consent form (and mean it), students may nevertheless feel pressure to participate in order to remain in good standing with the teacher, simply because of the position of authority occupied by that teacher.  Because of this, researchers should take additional steps to reduce the perception of coercion, such as one or more of the following:
    1. Having a third party obtain the informed consent for the participation;
    2. Having a third party collect the data and strip it of all identifiers before sharing it with the researcher;
    3. Waiting until the term is over and grades are submitted before conducting the research with the students;
    4. Collecting the data in such a way that identifiers are never attached to the data (e.g. an anonymous survey);
    5. Adding additional levels of informed consent, such as allowing participants to review the researcher's written summary of their contributions for accuracy.

In some disciplines, such as Psychology, it is common practice to have college students enrolled in courses participate in research. If this research is being conducted by the teacher of the course, then the recommendations above apply.   If this research is being conducted by someone other than the teacher, then the following recommendations apply:

  1. Recruitment of subjects, solicitation of informed consent, and the collection of data must be done by someone other than the teacher.
  2. If any course credit or extra credit is given for participation as research subjects, then students must be given alternative ways to earn that credit which are roughly equivalent in terms of effort/time taken to accomplish the task.