Research with human subjects or their data is regulated by the federal government and reviewed by Teachers College (TC) Institutional Review Board (IRB). Educational research that involves students, teachers, administrative staff, student-level (e.g., test scores) administrative data, or classroom curriculum, activities, or assignments, may be subject to federal regulations and IRB review. This guide provides defining questions to ask about your research, considerations when developing consent procedures, and identifies several topics when conducting human subjects research in kindergarten through 12th-grade education settings.
While preparing to submit your research protocol to the IRB, it is important to consider these key questions:
Identify whether your participants will be school administrators, teachers, students, your current or previous students. If you plan to recruit students that are under your supervision or jurisdiction (whether as a teacher, assistant teacher, or principal), your study may be subject to additional research compliance requirements. Please review the Working with Your Own Students guide for more information.
Researchers working with students under the age of 18 will be required to obtain both parent permission and assent, except in rare cases as outlined by the federal regulations.
In some cases, students may be involved in the research indirectly. For example, a researcher videotaping teachers during class time may inadvertently capture students in their recordings. Researchers should always have a plan for these types of situations, describing in the IRB application how they will prevent non-participants from being recorded. Once your population of interest is defined, the IRB will better understand what protections are needed.
Exempt Category 1 indicates that protocols may be exempt from IRB review if the research is “conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, that specifically involves normal educational practices that are not likely to adversely impact students’ opportunity to learn or the assessment of educators.” It is important to note that Exempt Category 1 is not a catch-all for education research. Observations of classroom activities may qualify for this category, but only if the activities observed are part of a typical schedule. However, if the researcher engages with the students, classroom materials, or teachers during the observations and/or intervenes in the course of the natural classroom activities, the research may not qualify for Exempt Category 1.
Exempt Category 1 is not a catch-all for education research.
Other types of education research activities may include program or curriculum evaluations, surveys, interviews, or experimental interventions of new teaching strategies. Consider whether you will be collecting new data, accessing existing data, or a combination of the two.
Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are considered interventions, even in educational settings. Researchers will need to demonstrate how their randomized control trial has a fair selection of subjects and provides equitable access to education opportunities, especially if the trial occurs in the classroom.
Site Permission forms and School Permission forms are required for research on external premises. Permission forms should always be signed by the head of the school or district, rather than a teacher or aide.
It is important to determine the exact time of day the research will be conducted, whether during school breaks, during class time, or before and after school. The proposed research activities should be conducted in the least intrusive way possible, ideally outside of class time if the study activities are not part of typical education. Evaluate whether the research will detract from normal learning time or if it is possible to do outside of class time.
Consent in education settings may require additional steps to ensure vulnerable populations are protected. Typically, both parent permission forms and child assent forms are required in order for a student to participate in a research study. In addition, if a study is being conducted at the school or district level, teachers, parents, and students should have the option to opt-into the study. Two key considerations for navigating this consent process are: