Students as Subjects

Two issues arise frequently when researchers seek to use students in research projects: (1) Under what circumstances can class credit be given to student participants? and (2) Can a researcher use his/her own students as subjects? The SB-IRB has developed policies with regard to both issues.


The IRB has approved the giving of course credit or extra credit to students who participate in research as part of a course requirement only when alternative means of obtaining credit is made available to students who do not wish to volunteer as research subjects. The IRB carefully reviews these alternatives to make sure that students are not being coerced into becoming subjects. For example, the IRB is likely to view the choice of either volunteering for a 30 minute experiment involving filling out a questionnaire or writing a 5-page paper as coercive, since writing a 5-page paper involves considerably more time, effort, and stress.

The informed consent statement should make clear the consequences of withdrawing from a project prior to completion (e.g., will credit be given despite withdrawal?). As a general matter, the IRB favors giving credit even if the subject withdraws, unless the student withdraws immediately or there is evidence of bad faith on the part of the student.



These guidelines are designed to assist researchers who wish to use their own current students as subjects in research protocols. An underlying principle of the regulations governing use of human subjects in research is that the subject’s participation is voluntary, based upon full and accurate information. The relationship of teacher and student is inherently one that raises the issue of “voluntariness.” 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. For this reason, the IRB has taken the position that teachers should not use their own students as subjects in their research if it can be avoided. This general policy is in accord with that of other institutional review boards.

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. The following are two models of research design that have been approved by the IRB in the past for such circumstances which we believe strike a balance between the two interests.

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 or may not choose 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.

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, and administration of the tests conducted, by a colleague at times when the instructor was not present.  [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 as described above.]  (See Exhibit A for a model consent form).

Collection of Data by Instructor/Researcher

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 of his or her own data, e.g., 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 capable of being structured so that students could opt out.  Typically, we ask the instructor/researcher to 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, we do not place the student in the position of having to either choose to participate or find an alternative course. Moreover, at the primary and secondary levels of education, election of alternative classes is not likely to be possible. (See  Exhibit B-1 for model information sheet and  Exhibit B-2 for model consent form).

Problem Practices

  1. Use of Extra Credit for Participation. Sometimes participation in the teacher’s research is structured as an available extra credit assignment. Even when other means of obtaining extra credit are available, the IRB does not find this is sufficient to overcome the power disparity and the perception of students that participation in the instructor’s research is advisable, even if not required.
  2. Group activities. Group activities that are required as part of the course instruction pose a particularly difficult situation because the practicality of a student opting out is very limited. If the data is a group project or perhaps a videotape of the group interaction, each student’s consent is necessary for the use of that data in the instructor’s research. If one student does not consent, the data may be used only if the non-consenting student’s data can be effectively excluded. In many cases this will not be possible. Thus, none of the data can be used.
  3. Use of student grades and other assessments. In research where the instructor wants access to identifiable student academic records, signed consent forms are required even if the research activities conducted in the classroom are conducted by a third party and otherwise fall under an exempt category of research. For example, administration of a pre- and post-test by a third party will normally qualify as exempt research under either category 1 or 2 (see Exempt Research Checklist), requiring the provision of an information sheet, but not signed consent. If, however, part of the research also includes access to the individual, identifiable student’s other grades etc., signed consent from each student is necessary.
  4. Minors. Research involving minors (under 18 years of age) as subjects, (even 17 year old college students) in most instances requires a signed parental consent, as well as that of the student.
  5. Graduate Teaching Assistants. Research conducted by graduate students in a class in which the researcher teaches, assists in the class or does any grading are subject to the same restraints described above.