Office of Research & Sponsored Programs

IRB Manual Research in Schools

Research in K-12 Educational Settings


A significant amount of the research undertaken at UNI is in educational settings, both at the college level and in particular in PreK-12.  Research in the schools present special challenges that must be taken into account when planning and overseeing studies with teachers, administrators, and especially students.  One issue that students in education often encounter is differential expectations for child assent in a teaching environment compared to that when conducting professional research.  In the classroom, teachers are expected to lead and direct the children in various educational activities, including trying out new activities and evaluating how effective they are, and in those circumstances, asking the children if they are willing to do each activity would cause considerable disruption in the educational process.  By contrast, in research, a bedrock principle is that all potential participants, including those of any age with less maturity or functional competency, be informed to the best of their understanding about the study and be allowed to then make their own decisions about whether or not they wish to be involved.  This principle, based on a foundation of respect and dignity for all persons, extends to the parents or guardians of those who are the subjects of the research.  Thus, educational researchers must bridge this gap in culture and expectations by introducing assent and parental permission for research activities than they might not otherwise seek advance permission for in the classroom.  

It is because of this commitment to respecting the dignity and right to decide of children and parents that the IRB is reluctant to waive assent and parental permission in educational studies, even when the risks to participants are minimal.  However, the IRB does recognize the complex circumstances for studies in K-12 and strives to strike an appropriate balance regarding research rights and protections in the educational context. 

Undue Influence

A common issue that arises in educational research is the possibility of undue influence on the decision to participate.  In order for assent, consent, and parental permission to be fully informed and voluntary, potential participants must perceive that they are free to decide either way in regard to participation in the study.  When there is a power differential, such as when teachers are conducting research in their own classrooms, the potential for undue influence exists.  Undue influence can occur even when the teacher does not exert overt pressure and/or imply that lack of consent will lead to negative consequences.  This is because undue influence is based in the perception of the students and parents, not the intentions of the researcher.  If the student or parents worry that they need to please the teacher in order to maintain a good relationship with the person who has the power to assign grades, etc., undue influence has occurred without the teacher intending for that to be the case.

However, there are ways to mitigate the potential for undue influence.  One good strategy is to test new teaching methods in classrooms other than one's own.  A research design that involves more than one classroom with other teachers is a stronger design that produces more valid results in any case.  When that is not possible, however, and the researcher is the teacher of the classroom where the research will take place, another strategy is to have a third party do the recruitment (issue the invitations to participate).  Another teacher, secretary, or any other adult can follow a script to inform the students about the study, and collect the assent and permission forms.  The assent and parental permission forms can be sent home with the children and returned to the third party, with or without a cover letter from the teacher-researcher.  The teacher-researcher could present the study to the children and/or parents at a meeting, and ask that they return permission forms to the third party (e.g., to the school office).  If the form includes both a "yes" and a "no" option, then reminders can be conveyed to the students and parents to return the forms, and rewards can be offered for doing so.  (If the form is only to be returned if the student is planning to participate, then reminders must be limited in order to avoid undue influence, and rewards would be inappropriate.)  Since third parties are not typically as invested in making sure the forms come back as the researcher is (e.g., school secretaries are very busy people), a combined form with both parent and child signatures that has both "yes" and "no" check boxes, including the use of reminders, can often be the most effective procedure for obtaining a sufficient sample of participants. 

When indirect recruitment is necessary to avoid undue influence, additional measures are then typically needed to ensure the teacher-researcher will not know who participates until the end of the semester and grades are in (and the parents and students should be informed of that on the form/s).  A useful procedure in this circumstance is to proceed with the experimental activities with all students in the class (provided they are normal classroom activities for the teacher-researcher), including recording of scores or grades and collection of common artifacts to assess their effectiveness.  Then at the end of the semester, the third party can turn over the assent/permission forms to the teacher-researcher, and s/he can analyze and write up the results, using only the data and information from the students with permission.

When the project has time pressures, such as when the teacher-researcher is conducting the research for a graduate research project, thesis, or dissertation, the faculty advisor may be the person who serves as the third party who receives the permission forms and data from the class.  Assent and/or permission forms are collected in a sealed envelope and transferred to the advisor, as well as data for all of the students.  The advisor then deletes the data for those who do not have permission, and provides the de-identified dataset back to the researcher.  Another option is to have the third party (advisor or otherwise) select a subsample of the students who have permission to study or interview, and the researcher thus remains unaware of which parents/students declined. 

When the project has time pressures and the research design requires that the teacher-researcher know who the participants are, the IRB will work with the researcher to develop the best procedures and/or texts for minimizing undue influence.  The goal is to reduce the likelihood of undue influence as much as possible and then fully inform the students and parents of the procedures to be used.

Exception for Standard K-12 Action Research

The IRB has determined that third party recruitment procedures are not required for what is known as "action research", where the teacher is also the researcher, the study is minimal risk, and the teacher is implementing activities that s/he would normally use in the classroom.  Normal activities are those that are the same or very similar to those already undertaken by that teacher.  If the experimental activities involve unusual or completely new teaching methods or topics, socio-behavioral interventions, or other activities that would not typically occur in the classroom (e.g., interviews), then the above discussion will apply, and students and parents must consent in advance to the activities as usual, and the teacher must not be aware of their decisions until after grades are in and the students are no longer in that teacher's classroom.   

Training Requirements for Third Parties

When individuals in the school or community are helping out with the research procedures, the IRB may require that they obtain training in human subjects participant rights and protections.  Typically training is required for anyone who has a leading role in the research, will have contact with participants, or will be managing or analyzing identifiable datasets.  However, training is not usually required for those who are reading a recruitment or consent script only, or would already have the authority to see the research data through their own professional position.  (See Key Personnel and Training.)


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