Questions and answers
As outlined in the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS, 2nd edition), “voluntariness of consent is important because it respects human dignity and means that individuals have chosen to participate in research according to their own values, preferences, and wishes”. Moreover, “the approach to recruitment is an important element in assuring voluntariness” including “how, when, and where participants are approached, and who recruits them are important elements in assuring (or undermining) voluntariness”. As a result, researchers need to be “cognizant of situations where undue influence, coercion, or the offer of incentives may undermine the voluntariness of a participant’s consent to participate in research” (p. 28).
The Office of Research Ethics and the two Research Ethics Committees at the University of Waterloo, the Human Research Ethics Committee and the Clinical Research Ethics Committee, recognize that participating in research can have educational value for students by exposing them to the methods used in their discipline or engaging them in the analysis of their own data. However, there are ethical issues that researchers need to take into consideration when planning a study that involves recruiting students from classes and/or conducting studies with the students in the class(es) they teach.
These guidelines have been created to assist University of Waterloo researchers when planning in-class experimentation or when using students as participants including research that evaluates a teaching method or object. These guidelines outline the ethical considerations involved with ensuring voluntariness, avoiding undue influence or manipulation, preserving/engendering confidentiality and anonymity, and avoiding coercion. These guidelines are meant to be a living document. Changes or revisions may be required as in-class experimentation and using students as participants at the University of Waterloo increases and evolves.
Undue influence and manipulation arises “when prospective participants are recruited by individuals in a position of authority” (TCPS2, p. 28). Influence as a result of a power relationship such as that of a teacher or professor and their students is one that requires careful consideration and scrutiny especially when the professor or teaching assistant is also a researcher wanting their students to become their study participants. “The influence of power relationships on voluntariness of consent should be judged from the perspective of prospective participants, since individuals being recruited may feel constrained to follow the wishes of those who have some form of control over them” (TCPS2, p. 28).
Students can feel that if they do not participate in their professor’s or teaching assistant’s research this will reflect poorly on them and negatively impact their grade in the course, put them in the ‘bad books’ with their instructors or other professors in the program, and/or they will become ineligible for other bonuses or credits. Other students can take the opposite perspective and feel pressure because of a ‘good students participate’ phenomenon and think that if they agree to participate in the research they will receive a better mark in the class or by that professor in future classes. These perspectives can be taken by students especially when their participation in the research is known to the professor or teaching assistant (i.e., they are not anonymous).
Because professors and instructors have a certain status in the academic community within their institution the perspective of the student must be paramount during the recruitment and consent process. Students can feel that they are required to participate in their professor’s research or are expected to act on their instructions regarding another professor’s or another student’s research. The control placed on students as a result of their relationship with their professor or instructor can place undue pressure on the student as a prospective study participant to agree to participate in the research; even if it is not done overtly. This real or perceived influence reduces the ability of students to decline to participate in research meaning there is no voluntariness.
Trust and dependency are also elements of undue influence and manipulation that researchers need to consider when planning studies where their own students are study participants. Students are dependent on their professor or instructor to deliver the course material as outlined in the syllabus and they trust that their professor will grade their assignments and exams fairly and in accordance with the marking scheme outlined in the syllabus. Deviations from the syllabus to incorporate a research study mid-way through the term can breach this trust and negatively impact a student’s ability to depend upon (or receive) the education, skills, and knowledge they had expected to gain from the course.
Most people do not feel their decision to participate in research is voluntary when consent is obtained by a person in a position of power or authority over them. In addition, students are a captive audience and they can often feel a real, or perceived, influence to participate in research especially if the research is conducted during class time, as part of a laboratory or seminar, or if their Faculty Dean or Department Chair sends information about research being conducted by professors in their area. Students must not be unfairly advantaged in any way as a result of taking part in the research, since this implies a penalty for those who choose not to participate. For example, students who agree to participate in research must not receive any special attention or additional help from the professor or his/her TA’s associated with the course. Moreover, alternatives to participating in the research for the same credit or remuneration must be provided that are equal in benefit, time and effort.
Confidentiality of the data collected is a concern researchers need to consider in the design of their studies as students tend to sit close to one another in classes, laboratories, or seminar rooms and are therefore capable of reading another participant’s responses to the study task, survey, or questionnaire. Moreover, anonymity is a concern when collecting data in a group setting such as a classroom, laboratory, or seminar room as everyone present in the room will know who participates in the study, or who is not, especially if those who decline to participate leave the room or are doing another task other than the study task.
Care must be taken to de-identify the data collected and ensure it is truly anonymous since professors or teaching assistant’s may know or have been exposed to personal information about students and therefore be able to identify students from their data set and/or identify who said what in an interview or survey.
Researchers are expected to seek prior permission from the professor of the course (or instructor if the teacher is a lecturer or sessional) to speak with their students regarding participation in a study. However, most professors or course instructors will not provide class time for researchers to recruit students for studies as they do not have the time to give up. Researchers should never assume or expect other professors or instructors to give up class time or that this is an endorsed or supported recruitment method within their Department.
If recruitment is to take place in the classroom minimal teaching time must be used (e.g., less than 10 minutes). A better practice would be for researchers to advise students to stay a few minutes after class or come early to the next class to learn more about the study or to distribute a contact card that students can complete if they are interested in hearing more about the research. The researchers can then email or telephone the students with more information. A sample in-class recruitment script will provide some guidance in creating your own. The course number and name of the professor/instructor where recruitment will take place is to be listed in the research ethics application (Form 101).
Yes, but a third party, who is not connected with the research, nor has any power or authority over the students, must be part of the consent process. Researchers need to remove the undue influence that students can feel to be real or perceived to ensure that participation is truly voluntary. For example, the Chair of the Department or Dean of the Faculty should not be part of the recruitment or consent process as students may feel influenced to participate in the research. A department assistant or faculty administrator who has no influence or authority over the students marks could send a recruitment email to students and indicate that he/she is sending the email on behalf of the researchers. In addition, the information-consent letter must explain and provide assurances to the students that no penalties will result by not agreeing to participate in the research (or experience no penalties by not allowing materials/course work or grades to be used for research purposes).
As the instructor and researcher you must wait until the end of the professor-student relationship before accessing the consent forms collected by the third party (i.e., after all marks have been submitted to the Registrar’s Office). This will mitigate any real, or perceived, influence that you may have toward the student’s grades. Identifiable data must be analyzed only after grades have been submitted to the Registrar’s Office so that any real, or perceived, influence on the student’s grades no longer exists.
Students under the supervision of any member of the research team (e.g., for an internship, co-op job, etc.), even though they may not be connected the research, should not act as the third party as a power relationship also exists between the researcher and the student. It is conceivable that a student may pressure other students to participate, perhaps inadvertently, to ensure the success of their supervisor’s research. A sample information and consent letter has been provided to give you guidance in creating your own.
If you, the course instructor and researcher, intend to involve some students as participants, and not others, a third party must be involved in recruitment and selection to provide distance between the course instructor/researcher and the student/participant (i.e., it should be an arm’s length relationship). You, the course instructor/researcher, should not be aware of who has agreed to participate while the instructor-student relationship still exists.
Deception studies should only be used in conjunction with in-class experimentation when no other method is suitable. A clear and strong justification must be provided in the research ethics application form (Form 101) for why deception is necessary.
Permission must be sought from students if any of their course materials (e.g., papers, assignments, tests, exams, marks, etc.) are to be used for research purposes as use of a student’s course materials would be secondary use of identifiable information for research purposes. Secondary use refers to the “use in research of information originally collected for a purpose other than the current research purpose” (TCPS2, p. 62). This includes school records originally created or collected for educational purposes but are now being sought for use in research.
As outlined in the TCPS2 some “reasons to conduct secondary analyses of data include: avoidance of duplication in primary collection and the associated reduction of burdens on participants” (TCPS2, p. 62). However, “privacy concerns and questions about the need to seek consent arise” especially when “information provided for secondary use in research can be linked to individuals, and when the possibility exists that individuals can be identified in published reports or through data linkage” (TCPS2, p. 62). In certain situations confidentiality becomes a concern because of the small number of participants or cases being investigated and the fact that indirect identifiers, including writing style, word usage, etc., will identify a particular individual.
The TCPS2 does not “require that researchers seek consent from individuals for the secondary use of non-identifiable information” (i.e., anonymous data). Anonymous means the information or data “never had identifiers associated with it and risk of identification of individuals is low or very low” (TCPS2, Chapter 5, p. 57). This is different than anonymized which means the information or materials have been “irrevocably stripped of direct identifiers, a code is not kept to allow future re-linkage” (TCPS2, Chapter 5, p. 57). In cases of secondary use of identifiable information (i.e., direct or indirect identifiers) researchers must obtain consent from study participants (TCPS2, p. 63). An explanation as to how the materials will be used and guarantees of confidentiality must be outlined in the information-consent letter.
If the researcher, who is not the course instructor, wishes to access a student’s grades for research purposes, permission must also be sought from the student to allow the Registrar’s Office to release this information. Researchers must contact the Registrar’s Office in the early stages of planning their study as it is not always possible or feasible for the Registrar’s Office to provide access to student grades. Refer to Policy 19.
If you are looking for aggregate or average grades for a course the researcher can contact the course instructor directly for this information. A student’s consent is not needed to report on the aggregate or average grade for an entire class.
For researchers to use teaching time the research must be: a) of educational value, and b) directly related to the course objectives as outlined in the course syllabus. Moreover, the research activity or exercise to be examined must be integrated into regular classroom activities and involve the entire class.
A professor/instructor wishing to provide in-class time to research (either for their own research or that of other investigators) must insert the details of the study, as other pedagogical content, in the course syllabus. In addition, it is recommended that professors/instructors seek an arm’s length independent assessment of the educational merit of the research from someone not involved in their research or from their Department Chair or Dean. This should be done prior to the beginning of term and a copy of the course syllabus is to be submitted with the research ethics application (Form 101).
Three options have been presented that will ensure free, informed consent of participants, and guarantee anonymity of research participants and confidentiality of data. In such cases, the educational value of the research conducted may not be relevant to the specific course. Other alternatives may also be acceptable. A few examples include:
- Ask the professor teaching the course for a few minutes at the beginning or end of class to distribute questionnaires and ask the students to return the questionnaire, completed or not, in a sealed envelope at the next class, or have students drop the questionnaires off at a specified location.
- Briefly explain the research project to students in class and invite them to fill out questionnaires outside of class time at a specified location and time.
- Distribute a letter to students in the class that includes a URL to an online survey they can complete outside of class time
Course credit may be provided however students who do not wish to participate in the research must be offered a comparable alternative task to receive these same credits. Credits can be over and above the normal course credits (i.e., bonus marks) or included as part of the overall course mark. Students, as study participants, cannot be disadvantaged in any way as a result of taking part in research. There cannot be a penalty for non-involvement or poor performance. It is recommended that for every 30 minutes of research time a participation credit of .5 be given (e.g., for 60 minutes of time 1 credit may be allotted).
The course syllabus must be included with the research ethics application and must describe the research and credits that can be obtained and outline the alternative task to obtain the same credits. The course syllabus must also outline how the research relates to the course objectives along with the specific learning objectives for the students. Note: Psychology researchers using the SONA system for participation recruitment are not required to submit a syllabus with their application.
The items to include in the course syllabus are as follows:
- a description of the research being conducted (i.e., purpose, objectives, aims)
- an outline of how the research relates to the course objectives along with the specific learning objectives for the students
- a description of the activities/tasks/questionnaires that students will complete for the research
- a statement that participation is voluntary
- the estimated time commitment outside of regular classroom hours
- if relevant, outline the course credits that can be obtained by participating in the research and the alternative task to obtain the same credits
- if students are being asked to give permission for a course assignments or grades to be used for the research, a specific statement as to how the students will be asked to provide their permission to use these in the research
- the ethics statement: “This study has been reviewed by, and received ethics clearance through a University of Waterloo Research Ethics Committee.”
University classes are not normally considered to be public places by professors and students. A small seminar group, for example, would not be viewed as being public (i.e., where anyone can attend) as there is likely to be a great deal of interaction or involvement among the professor and students. However, a large lecture hall may be considered to be more like a public space by those in attendance.
Researchers conducting qualitative studies where they wish to observe students in a class setting may do so considered that:
- the observation is “non-participant” such that the researcher observes, but is not a participant in, the action (also known as naturalistic observation) as outlined in the TCPS2, Chapter 10;
- the professor whose students are to be observed, approves of the research and the dates and times for observation;
- the researcher sits in a location that is deemed acceptable and not intrusive to the professor or students;
- the professor uses minimal teaching time to introduce the researcher and explain the reasons for their attendance in the class;
- no identifying information is collected or recorded about the students or the professor;
- students are provided with an opportunity to receive feedback about the study results upon completion of the research; and
- the study complies with the principles, articles, and applications outlined in the TCPS2 and has received prior research ethics clearance through the University of Waterloo’s Office of Research Ethics.
The TCPS2 states that “observational research that does not allow for the identification of the participants in the dissemination of results, that is not staged by the researcher, and is non-intrusive should normally be regarded as being of minimal risk” (p. 142). Thus, researchers need to outline in their research ethics application form (Form 101) how they will use any video or audio recordings made and if anyone other than the research team will listen to or view the recordings.
If no personal information is being collected and no one other than the researchers will listen to or view the recordings, consent may not be required by individual participants. However, if personal information is being collected (e.g., names) or the recordings will be shown to individuals beyond those directly involved in the research (e.g., in a publication or on a website) the researchers must seek permission from individual study participants to be able to identify them in their dissemination of study results or to attribute the recordings to them by name.
Researchers need to be aware that, as outlined in the TCPS2, “in some jurisdictions, publication of identifying information – for example, a photograph taken in a public place, but focused on a private individual who was not expecting this action – may be interpreted in a civil suit as an invasion of privacy” (p. 143). Researchers should also become familiar with the ORE guidelines on Security of Research Participants’ Data and the University of Waterloo policy on information security (policy 8) and know what information is considered restricted information and may need to be protected through encryption.
Reflective teaching and instructor development are part of the teaching enterprise. These practices allow instructors to learn through their own experiences and to ultimately achieve better outcomes for themselves as teachers or for the students they are educating. Therefore, if the research is self-reflection on one’s practice there is no need to seek student’s consent. However, if the research moves beyond what would be considered standard reflective practice measures need to be introduced to minimize the impact of a conflict of interest (e.g., use of a third party to be part of the consent process).
Researchers need to declare their dual role as both an instructor/professor and researcher in the information-consent letter to the students even if the classroom activity or exercise to be examined is integrated into the regular class activities, is of value to study, and involves the entire class.
When planning a research study that will involve students, researchers need to carefully consider the potential negative impacts of the research on a student, their marks, or their education. You need to ask yourself the following questions and design the study such that these questions will be addressed:
- Should I be concerned with research fatigue if students are constantly being asked to participate in my research or that of my colleagues?
- How generalizable will my results be if I only recruit students or the students that I teach?
- How will I ensure students/study participants who decline to participate will not be penalized or perceive they are being penalized?
- By what means will I ensure that participation is voluntary?
- Should I consider using another group of students, for example, those who I do not currently teach? Are there better alternatives?
- How will I ensure that students/study participants are truly free to participate or to decline to participate?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a population with whom I have a prior, and ongoing, relationship, especially when that relationship is one where I may have authority over the population?
There are sample information-consent letters such as Research Involving Teaching/Course Tools or Objects. The information consent letter must clearly explain:
- the educational value of the research and how the research relates to the course objectives;
- declining to participate is a definite option and students will not receive any penalty by doing so (e.g., not receiving course credits);
- students can choose to not be involved in any aspect of the study such as declining to complete a study task or leaving a survey question blank;
- anonymity of participation such that the questionnaire or study task will be distributed to everyone and those who wish to not participate can either spoil the materials or leave them blank before returning them;
- participants will not be unfairly advantaged in any way as a result of taking part in the research;
- the alternative option for course credit for those who do not wish to participate in the research study;
- the course instructor/professor will not be told who participated in the study or not until after the final marks have been submitted; and
- participants’ responses will be summarized and no individual results to the study task or questionnaire will be shared with the course instructor/professor.
Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 2010. Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. Retrieved on February 15, 2013.
Concordia University. (2012). Guidelines for classroom recruiting and testing of participants for psychology research. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
Laurentian University. (no date). Guidelines for in-class experimentation. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
University of Alberta. (2012). Guidelines on conducting research in class (students as participants). Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
University of Manitoba. (no date). Practitioner-Research: Guidelines for Researchers and Research Ethics Boards at the University of Manitoba. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
University of Ottawa. (2010). In-class Experimentation. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.
University of Toronto. (2003). Teacher-Researcher Conflicts of Interest. Retrieved on November 14, 2012.