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Faculty Research Using Students as Participants

Research with Students in General [1]

When students are considered for participation in research studies conducted on campus, it is important that investigators be mindful of the potential risks of coercion and undue influence, especially for studies within classrooms. The Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) provides the following guidance.

The regulations require that the investigator seek consent only under circumstances that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence (45 CFR 46.116)

The Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) recommends that institutions have policies in place that clarify for students and faculty that any participation of students in research must be voluntary. Reasonable levels of extra credit or rewards may be offered for participating in research. If extra credit or rewards are offered for participation, students must be provided with and informed of non-research alternatives involving comparable time and effort to obtain the extra credit in order for the possibility of undue influence to be minimized. However, if participation in research is a course requirement, students must be informed of non-research alternatives involving comparable time and effort to fulfill those requirements in order for the possibility of undue influence to be minimized. Moreover, students must not be penalized for refusing to participate in research (45 CFR 46.116(a)(8).

In addition, some colleges use a so-called “student subject pool” to identify students who might be willing to participate in research, even when the exact nature of the research to be conducted has not yet been determined. Extra credits or other rewards are often offered as an incentive to encourage participation. Students who sign up for such pools have not legally consented to participate in a research study since they have not been provided with sufficient information concerning the exact study in which they would participate. Thus, signing up to be in a subject pool is only a first and preliminary step by which individuals can indicate their willingness to be considered for research participation. The student must also provide informed consent, unless the consent requirement is waived by an IRB once he or she is being considered for a specific study (45 CFR 46.116).

Furthermore, individuals in the pool must be free to decline participation in any available research projects without penalty (45 CFR 46.116(a)(8).

It is important to consider the following:

  • For studies and/or recruitment proposed within classrooms, permission must be granted by the course instructor. Likewise, for studies which will recruit from specific student programs or services, a signed letter of agreement must be obtained from the appropriate administrative head or faculty adviser and uploaded to the IRB proposal.

  • Faculty and student research must minimize feelings and risks of coercion or undue influence to potential student participants during the recruitment and consent processes. Many research activities can be similar to or overlap with normal coursework or class projects. It is the instructor’s responsibility to ensure that students can truly understand what participation involves and can distinguish voluntary research activities from required course activities.

Research with Your own Students [2]

When faculty propose to conduct research with students in their own classrooms or students that they directly oversee, the potential for coercion and undue influence increases. Faculty must consider the unique power differential that exists between student and instructor. Even when faculty take the utmost care to introduce their study and provide options not to participate, students may feel obligated and agree to take part in the study in order to not impact their relationship with the professor, their grade in the course, or future courses within the department. Likewise, a student may feel that they must remain in a study in which they initially consented even if their circumstances have changed.

Therefore, in order to reduce feelings or risks of coercion or undue influence, additional protections are required. For example, the involvement of a co-investigator or neutral third party may be an effective way to address perceived coercion or undue influence during the recruitment and consent process as it removes the faculty principal investigator from their students. Likewise, faculty may propose to collect data or use course materials only after grades are submitted for the course.

The Endicott College IRB recommends the following methods in support of the potential recruitment of students or others with potential status relationships to principal investigators:

  • The research presents no more than minimal risk to participants.
  • The research represents a potential educational opportunity for participants.
  • The recruitment and consent language contain clear statements to address and minimize coercion and undue influence including a statement that participation or non-participation will have no impact on a student’s grade or outcomes.
  • The recruitment and consent processes will be conducted by someone who does not have a status relationship with the potential participants such as a co-investigator or neutral third party.
  • If the research is conducted within a classroom setting, the instructor is blinded to the identity of participants at least until grades are posted.

[1] Adopted from Metropolitan State University of Denver guidance on Students as Research Subjects

[2] Adopted from MSU Denver