In Class Research: the Ethical Considerations

1. Overview

In undertaking research on teaching and classroom practices, there may be different or additional considerations. In this article, what these considerations are and the constraints when conducting research on classroom techniques will be discussed. First, we should make a few distinctions regarding different types of research conducted on classroom practice and pedagogy. There is a distinction between research directly involving your students and reflective review of practise within the classroom. The latter is based on analysis of your practice and the results that you have perceived over time. The former is based on more direct interaction as a researcher with your students as subjects. The two different methods have different demands in relation to the ethics of research and reporting.

Among the various categories of pedagogical research, there can be research done on how one conducts classes, for example, the way that material is delivered and how assessments are determined and evaluated. One could also conduct research on how students receive these materials and its effects on their education. One can also directly do research with your students within a classroom environment. So, let us look at a few areas of concern regarding how research can and cannot be conducted in the classroom.


2. Research based on in-class action

If we look at conducting research directly with our students, there are important issues to keep in mind. In this category, one either changes the course content to fit one’s research or interrupts normal teaching to have one’s students participate in the research. This is very problematic and so the first question should be: Is it necessary to have one’s own students as research subjects? We do not use our students as subjects just because it is easier; there has to be a compelling reason. One of the principles of ethical research is that the subjects should be free to choose to be part of the research or not. There can be no coercion involved in the acquiring of subjects. As a teacher, you are awarding grades to your students. Therefore, they can feel coerced into being part of the research if they think that in not participating, they will be judged negatively. It is your obligation therefore to make sure that this issue is addressed. Merely stating that no one will be judged negatively for not participating will not be good enough. This needs to be done by creating systems of data collection that are anonymous. To achieve this, some people have done research through online surveys out of class, or they have created a situation where the data is collected anonymously while the teacher is out of the room.


3. Research based on course work

If one is using data that already exists, such as tests or classroom materials, then the main issues are confidentiality and ownership of the data. The latter is covered in the next section. Confidentiality of research subjects must be maintained at all costs


4. Who owns the data?

An important question is who owns the work that you are using? This will depend on the institution and their policies. In most schools, classroom work belongs to the school. The use of it can be obtained through permission from the department head or Dean. This would entail the use of tests or submitted classroom work. Your supervisor should be requiring that any material used for research should be acquired after the course has been completed. Also, all materials should be anonymized. For example, if one is using completed tests as research material, the names of the students should be taken out before the work is reviewed. If the material obtained is identifiable, then one will need to go through the entire permissions process below.


5. Research based on observation

If the research paper is based on one’s own observations and reflections of classroom work and methodologies, then there are no ethics issues. The one exception here is naming students which cannot be done without their permission


6. Who gives permissions?

If one is conducting research on underaged students, there is a very clear process for obtaining permission to do that research. In Malaysia, for research on primary and secondary school students, one will have to get permission from the Ministry of Education (MoE) first. The relevant forms can be found on the MoE website. The entire process can be done online. Once the MoE's approval has been obtained, a signed approval from the school principal or appointed administrator would be needed. Once they have agreed to allow you to conduct research in their school, then parents can be contacted for their agreement. Only then can you go into the classroom, but again the students have to agree to be part of the research. They have to have the right to not participate or withdraw at any time.

If one’s research is on University level students (over the age of 18), then only permission form the school and the students are required. It is important to note that permissions from the school, parents and students have to be in writing. However, if a student is underage, they give assent instead of consent and that can be in writing or acknowledged in a recording.


7. The role of Institutional Review Board

Any research conducted by the researcher will have to be reviewed by the university of Institutional Review Board. The role of the boardis to assure that the research is being conducted in a legal and ethical manner. Research materials, and how one has acquired them will be reviewed together with what the plan is to protect the rights of the concerned subjects. Sunway University has a basic application form that needs to be submitted along with any other relevant paperwork. This could include MoE and school approvals and copies of any surveys used. If one is conducting research directly with individuals, one will have to present one’s subjects with a participant information sheet. This will give them enough information to give informed consent. If the research is confidential, a signed consent form may also be needed. Once the application has been submitted to the of Institutional Review Board, they will review it to make sure that it meets research standards. If there are any issues, additional clarifications will be required. Questions can be asked directly to the committee who are there to ensure sound and ethical research can be accomplished and are partners in one’s research journey. "


Associate Professor Dr Kenneth Alan Feinstein
School of Arts