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Research Ethics:
Educational Settings

Tips for avoiding delays and problems in the research approval process

This guide is designed to help students consider the ethical issues relevant to doctoral research occurring in educational settings. These tips will be most helpful to students early in the research planning process when they are considering potential research designs, sites, and samples.

What is Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval?

All doctoral students are required to obtain ethical approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) before recruiting research participants or collecting data. The IRB’s ethical approval can only be given when the researcher demonstrates that potential benefits of the study are likely to outweigh the risks and burdens placed on participants, in accordance with the university's ethical standards as well as U.S. federal regulations.


When does IRB approval happen?

Students may complete Form A to obtain preliminary feedback once they have submitted their proposal to the URR. However, final IRB approval cannot be provided until after the defended proposal has been approved by the full committee.  Research ethics questions may be posed to the IRB at any time by emailing

What kinds of data may I analyze from my own students?

Teachers may analyze data from their own students only when the data is generated as a byproduct of normal educational practices and no student names are recorded in the research documents.

Approvable categories include:

  • student work products (journals, projects)
  • student standardized test scores
  • other types of student assessments
  • student discussions that are directly related to the curriculum
  • school records
  • any other data that is generated as a result of regular learning activities or initiatives of the school that may be considered “normal educational practices” (this can include surveys if the school leadership is overseeing the data collection for its own purposes, aside from the doctoral project)


What kinds of data may not be collected from my own students?

  • interviews
  • focus groups
  • surveys or tests that are for research purposes only and serve no direct purpose for the student’s benefit

What if I want to interview or survey students?

Data collection from former students or other teachers’ students could be ethically acceptable, but teachers may not collect interview or survey data from their own (current) students. Not only would the validity of the data be suspect, but such a research invitation is likely to strain the teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships in a manner that is not ethically acceptable. Despite any assurances that the teacher may make on a consent form, a student (and parent) will feel pressured to agree to the teacher’s study even if they do not believe it is in their own best interest. For a teacher (or any other trusted authority figure such as a principal or school counselor) to leverage or strain that relationship for personal gain (earning a doctoral degree and a higher salary) would go against fundamental research ethics principles.

Under what conditions may I provide the instruction (or educational program) that is the focus of the study?

An evaluation is generally stronger when the evaluator is not the instructor. With that said, it is not always an option to completely separate the instructor and evaluator roles.

A doctoral student may only provide the instruction that is the focus of the doctoral project when all of the following conditions are met:

  • A partner site is sponsoring and overseeing the instruction/educational program (hereafter referred to simply as “instruction”).
  • The Walden doctoral student would need to be formally documented as either an employee, volunteer, or currently enrolled practicum student at the site.
  • It must be transparent to all parties (the university, the learners, the site leadership) that the doctoral student is providing the instruction in the scope of his or her employee/volunteer/practicum role.
  • Interviews and focus groups of one’s own learners (or subordinates/clients) is not possible. A doctoral student who is instructor may only analyze data from his own students when the data is generated as a byproduct of normal educational practices (i.e., test scores, work products, surveys collected by the school for its own purposes, etc.) or collect via completely anonymous methods.
  • If the instruction is a special program that is not typically offered, the doctoral student may not recruit learners (this would create an inappropriate conflict of interest). The site must recruit the learners.
  • The consent form must describe data collection activities in a manner that makes them very distinct from the educational program. The consent form should only describe the optional research elements (i.e. being surveyed) and not contain information about participation in the educational elements

Can a non-psychology student conduct a study on anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or other psychological issues?

At Walden, doctoral education researchers must stay within the domain of education (i.e., topics that the program coursework covers) and not cross over into psychology or other fields UNLESS the researcher’s coursework, training, and committee configuration support an interdisciplinary approach.

Can I collect data at a school during the school day?

If at all possible, researchers must use non-academic time for data collection such as homeroom, lunch, or before/after school. In order for data collection to be approved during academic periods, the researcher would need to assure the IRB of the following:

  • that parents are aware of any learning time that would be missed (via the consent form)
  • that students will be supported in making up lost learning time
  • that the students’ teachers have some say in choosing data collection dates/times
  • that teachers’ support will be documented
  • that (if possible) the research experience will be linked to some aspect of the curriculum so that participation provides a direct benefit to students
  • that the researcher will share the study results with the students
  • that the recruitment/data collection plan includes every possible measure to help minimize disruption to learning time

Can I focus my research on one ethnic group only?

A researcher must consider the following dimensions of this issue:

  • Any researcher proposing to focus on one ethnic group must provide a clear ethical rationale for excluding the other ethnic groups (which is sometimes justifiable but not often, since many research problems impact all ethnicities).
  • Even when ethically justifiable, it is still a pragmatic challenge to identify and invite those who qualify for study inclusion based on ethnicity. Ethnicity is a private matter (despite the fact that it is sometimes visible) and the recruitment process would need to be discreet, respectful of variability in ethnic/racial definitions, and not involve potentially stigmatizing labels, stereotypes, or experiences. Coordinating ethnically-targeted research invitations can be difficult because ethnicity data in school records are specifically protected by FERPA regulations (i.e., cannot be released for research purposes without a parent’s prior consent) and additional state laws. However, in some cases, a school can release records containing test scores or other data that are linked to ethnicity data, when student names have been removed. Note: one way to ethically obtain a single-ethnicity sample would be to recruit participants outside the school setting. For example, one could post fliers in the community (e.g., a church or library) that would permit interested individuals (or their parents) to read the researcher’s inclusion criteria and then identify themselves to the researcher as possible participants.
  • Recruitment materials (flyers, consent form) should present the inclusion criteria as plainly and neutrally as possible so that, as much as possible, people can self-select themselves into or out of the study.
  • Sometimes researchers anticipate that most of their participants will be one ethnicity but that presumption should not prematurely determine that the study will be framed around that particular ethnic group. Example: let’s say hypothetically that a researcher is going to be collecting data from a school that is 90% Hispanic and she is tempted during the proposal development phase to title and frame her study as an “examining of the relationship between X predictor and Y outcome in Hispanic students” and maybe she is even tempted to recruit Hispanic students only. However, in this case, it would not be ethically justifiable to focus the entire study on just Hispanic students, since non-Hispanic students are an important (though smaller) part of the population of the school. If the variables X and Y are also relevant to non-Hispanic students, then they ought to be included in the sample as well (rather than being excluded).

With that said, it might make sense for the researcher to empirically explore whether the Hispanic students do, in fact, show different patterns from the non-Hispanic students. In other words, it would be ethically appropriate for the researcher to conduct analyses that focus on only the Hispanic student, if she wishes (once she has collected data from students of all ethnic backgrounds). She can determine with her committee whether it might make sense to run the analyses both with and without the minority (non-Hispanic) students (in order to make an empirically-supported decision about the patterns are different or similar for the non-Hispanic students who are in the minority at this school).

Depending on the results of the analyses, the researcher would then be able to make a well-informed decision about whether it is best to frame the dissertation as a “study of Hispanic students” or as a “study of students who attend a predominantly Hispanic school” or as a “study of Hispanic students who attend a predominantly Hispanic school.” Any of those framings would be fine, but we try to help researchers avoid premature elimination of particular demographic groups to be consistent with the ethical ideal/principle that all can be helped if all have equal opportunity to be included in the research.

Is it more ethical to conduct my study where I work or at another site?

While it is natural and commendable to want to support positive developments in one’s own workplace, conducting research in one’s own workplace is ethically complicated and will limit the research design possibilities. Conducting research at one’s own workplace creates a conflict of interest that can easily result in biases toward selecting participants and/or collecting data that are likely to reflect favorably on the workplace (or the researcher, or the researcher’s colleagues, or the researcher’s viewpoints).

More importantly, risks to participants are greater when the researcher personally knows them. Breaches of confidentiality are more likely and can result in serious damage to professional reputations, employability, relationships with particular students/colleagues, and even student learning outcomes. Further, the university is committed to the basic principle that research participants should volunteer with the motive of helping to generate new knowledge (i.e., not because they want to give a favor to a colleague or a teacher).

If you decide to conduct “in-house” research for your doctoral study, you are obligated to select a research design that provides maximum protections to the research participants:

  • Focusing the research on your own classroom will limit the research design to analysis of data that is generated from “normal educational practices” (e.g., test scores, work products, school records—this is sometimes called “archival data analysis” or “secondary data analysis”) or anonymous surveys.
  • If you decide to want to collect data from your subordinates, you will need to limit your design to either analysis of archival data or anonymous surveys. Interviews of colleagues are sometimes ethically acceptable but cannot be approved if you are a supervisor or if the topic is sensitive (i.e., if their responses could damage their professional reputations and employability).

During the IRB’s ethics review, you will be asked why you chose your proposed site. It would not be an adequate rationale to simply respond that your own workplace seems like a convenient research site or that you knew the site leader would agree to it. You need to be prepared to justify why your proposed site is the most appropriate site to address the research question, in consideration of all ethical issues.

Can I compare two instructional approaches?

Comparison of two instructional approaches via pre-post testing of both groups is possible but is generally not the best choice for a doctoral study. Why? Because quantitative comparison studies are only meaningful when confounding/demographic/situational variables are controlled for, which requires implementation on a large scale (many classrooms at multiple schools) over a long period of time. Such a vast project is simply not feasible for most doctoral students’ program timeline. Comparison on a small scale (say, just 2 classes) provides such weak data that sacrificing instructional time to do pre-post testing would not be ethically justifiable.

However, note that it would be ethically acceptable to compare classes that received different types of instruction by analyzing data from normal tests or student projects, using either an ex post facto (causal comparative) design or descriptive longitudinal design.

Doctoral students wishing to compare instructional approaches are advised that this research design is much more ethically and pragmatically complex than it may appear on the surface and these complexities can create delays in the completion of the doctoral study.

Should I collect data from a control group?

While experimental designs (comparing intervention/control groups) are the “gold standard” for understanding cause-effect relationships, such experimental designs are not typical for a doctoral study (due to the many months/years and classrooms required to collect meaningful data). Further, experimental designs can be ethically problematic in schools because they ask the control group to volunteer their time and energies for data collection without getting any direct benefits.

Therefore, data collection from control groups can only be approved when:

  • the research design offers very strong prospects of generating valuable, new knowledge that will offset the ethical costs/burdens of data collection
  • any interventions found to be effective will be offered to the control group after the completion of the study (if the intervention is found to be beneficial).

When is parent consent necessary?

Certain types of data collection are clearly conducted for research purposes only and therefore always require parent consent (e.g., interviewing students) but analyzing other types of data that are created as part of “normal educational practices” (such as student projects, test scores) might not require parental consent.

Parent consent must be obtained if the researcher answers “no” to any of the following questions.

  • Aside from your study, would the data be directly used by the teacher/school in some way that will directly benefit the students? (for example: as part of the assessment, learning activities, staff development, funding requests, etc.?)
  • Is it standard at this school to collect information of this nature without special parent consent?
  • Is it possible for you to conduct your study without recording any names or other identifiers of individual students in your research documents?
  • Is the principal comfortable signing a Data Use Agreement releasing the de-identified data to you for research purposes? (There are several templates for these agreements, depending on the scenario, and the IRB staff will direct you to the one that is best for your situation.)
  • (if applicable): Has the principal explicitly approved any assessment adjustments you propose that would cause a departure from previous assessment practices (e.g., adjusting the assessment instruments or schedule)? Note that this explicit approval must be indicated in the school's letter of cooperation
  • (if applicable) This final question only applies to those studies examining teaching or intervention outcomes: Is the school agreeing to fully sponsor and supervise the target intervention or teaching activities within the scope of their standard delivery of services/curriculum? Note that this explicit approval must be indicated in the school's letter of cooperation.

If the researcher answers yes to all of the questions above, then parental consent and child assent may not be necessary (which must be confirmed by the IRB). If the researcher answers no to any of the questions above, then parental consent and student assent do need to be obtained and those steps must be addressed within the IRB application.


General tips for avoiding ethical problems in doctoral research

 Below are the solutions to the most frequently occurring ethical challenges in doctoral research:

  1. Use anonymous methods if possible.

This is the simplest way to avoid pressuring subordinates, students, or other vulnerable individuals to participate in your doctoral research.

  1. Pay very close attention to alignment among the research question(s), planned analyses, and components of the proposed data collection.

The IRB can only approve those specific components of data collection that show promise of effectively addressing the research question(s). Misalignment will cause approval delays.

  1. Use existing data whenever possible.

Secondary data analysis (aka archival data analysis) is the most ethical way to study your own subordinates, students, clients, or any other vulnerable group because it does not ask them to do anything out of the ordinary for research purposes. Risks to these vulnerable individuals are managed by removing all identifiers from the dataset.

  1. Use existing measures whenever possible.

Unless the specific purpose of the doctoral research is the validation of a new measure, creating a new instrument is typically beyond the scope of a doctoral study.

  1. Check and double-check that all IRB materials reflect the final set of research questions and procedures.

The IRB does not review the entire proposal and can only approve the procedures that are listed in the IRB application itself. Thus, all participant recruitment and data collection procedures MUST be described in the IRB application. If an audit reveals that a student deviated from that specific list of IRB-approved procedures, then the data can be invalidated and the final doctoral study rejected.

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