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Students as Subjects
Recruiting students as subjects
- Guidance Contact:
IU Human Research Protection Program (HRPP)
The IRB reviews a number of protocols from faculty proposing to recruit students from their classes to serve as research participants. While this practice is not prohibited, whenever possible, faculty should avoid using their own students if another population of subjects is equally suited to the research question, such as another class section not taught by the researcher, recruitment by another instructor, or blinded/coded data collected by an associate so that subjects are not identifiable to the instructor. When it is determined to be appropriate to recruit students, several key issues should be considered.
An underlying principle of the regulations governing use of human subjects in research is that the subject's participation be voluntary and based upon full and accurate information. No matter how well intentioned the teacher is, students may feel compelled to participate, believing that failure to do so will negatively affect their grades and the attitude of the teacher (and perhaps other students) toward them. Therefore, recruitment of students into a study by their instructor can be viewed as coercive.
For this reason, the IRB has long taken the position that teachers should not use their own students as subjects in their research if it can be avoided. The IRB recognizes, however, that in some research situations, use of one’s own students is integral to the research. This is particularly true of research into teaching methods, curricula and other areas related to the scholarship of teaching and learning.
These guidelines are designed to assist researchers who wish to use their own current students as subjects in research protocols.
Two issues arise frequently when researchers seek to use their students in research projects:
- Can a researcher use his/her own students as subjects? and
- Under what circumstances can class credit be given to student subjects?
The HRPP has developed policies with regard to both issues.
Using the researcher's students
The IRB reviews a number of protocols from faculty proposing to recruit students from their classes to serve as research participants. While this practice is not prohibited, whenever possible, faculty should avoid using their own students if another population of subjects is equally suited to the research question (e.g. another class section not taught by the researcher, recruitment by another instructor, or blinded/coded data collected by a research assistant so that subjects are not identifiable to the instructor).
The following are two models of research design that have been approved by the IRB in the past for such circumstances when the use of one's own students is integral to the research.
Collection of data by third party
In situations where the activities to be undertaken by the students are not part of required class activities, and thus students may choose not to participate, the instructor/researcher should arrange to have the data collected by an independent third party, so that the instructor does not know who participated, and does not have access to the identifiable data or identity of participants for any purpose until grades have been assigned and entered. A graduate teaching assistant in the class in which the students/subjects are enrolled does not qualify as a third party for collecting data on behalf of the instructor.
For example, if the instructor wants to administer pre- and post- tests to determine the efficacy of a particular curriculum, the necessary consent forms could be obtained (if required) and administration of the tests conducted by a colleague at times when the instructor was not present.
Collection of data by instructor
In situations where the collection of data by a third party is not feasible, the IRB requires that the student's written consent to use his/her own data, such as test results, papers written, homework, etc., be obtained after grades are entered.
For example, use of a particular teaching method throughout the class might not be practicably structured so that students could opt out. Typically, the IRB requests that the instructor/researcher provide written information at the beginning of the course concerning the study, which makes clear that the students will have an opportunity, after the course is finished and grades entered, to agree or not to agree to the inclusion of their data in the instructor’s study. By fashioning the student's participation in this manner, students are not placed in the position of having to either choose to participate or find an alternative course.
If course or extra credit is offered in exchange for participation, an alternate means of earning equivalent credit for an equivalent commitment of time and effort should be made available to all potential student subjects. These alternatives are carefully reviewed to make sure that students are not being coerced into becoming subjects. For example, the IRB is likely to view the choice between volunteering to fill out a short questionnaire or writing a five-page paper as coercive, since writing a five-page paper involves considerably more time, effort, and stress.
The consequences of withdrawing from a project prior to completion should be communicated to the student. Generally, giving credit even if the subject withdraws is preferred, unless the student withdraws immediately or there is evidence of bad faith on the part of the student.
If a researcher wishes to gain access to identifiable student academic records, signed consent may be required. Please contact the HRPP for additional guidance.