Research Ethics Office

Students as Research Participants

Many University researchers recruit students for their studies. Participating in research can have educational value in, for example, exposing students to the methods used in a discipline or engaging them in the analysis of their own data. However, students in classrooms represent a captive audience if they are recruited to participate in their instructor’s research project. Thus, in-class research raises a number of ethical issues:

  • Undue influence, or pressure to participate, is a major concern if an instructor plans to use his or her own students as participants, particularly during class time. Students may feel that their grades will be affected by their participation. Experimentation in a classroom setting may raise the issue of confidentiality, as students may be able to read or hear one another’s responses.
  • In-class research raises concerns about the anonymity of participants because it is relatively easy to tell if someone is participating or not. E.g.,  they fill out a questionnaire, or do something else or leave the room.
  • For research to take up any teaching time, it should have educational value.

In these cases, when the instructor applies for REB approval for research involving his/her students or classes, s/he will need to address mechanisms of free and informed and the risks associated with issues of confidentiality and anonymity. 

Other Considerations

If any materials (e.g. papers, tests, etc.) produced by the students are to be prospectively collected and analyzed, consent from the students is needed. Fully informed consent on how the materials will be used, with guarantees of confidentiality are essential. The consent form should explicitly state that no penalties will result by not agreeing to participate. If possible, instructors should wait until the final date to contest one’s marks has passed so that a real or appearance of potential for evaluative effect on student/participants no longer exists.

If the instructor intends to involve some students as participants, and not others, a third party should be involved in recruitment and selection to provide some distance between teacher/researcher and student/participant. The teacher/researcher should not know who has agreed to participate while the teacher-student relationship still exists. It is normally advisable that identifiable data be analyzed only after grades have been submitted so that a real, or appearance of potential, evaluative effect on student/participants no longer exists.

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