Research in an educational setting can be challenging – for the researcher, IRB members and professional research administrator.  But, research in schools is also among the most important types of research. Still, specific guidelines related to research in this setting are only mentioned in the federal guidelines a few times. For instance, 45 CFR 56, (aka “The Common Rule” )section 46.101 mentions “educational settings” only a few ways:

(1) Research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices, such as (i) research on regular and special education instructional strategies, or (ii) research on the effectiveness of or the comparison among instructional techniques, curricula, or classroom management methods.

(2) Research involving the use of educational tests (cognitive, diagnostic, aptitude, achievement), survey procedures, interview procedures or observation of public behavior, unless:

(3) Research involving the use of educational tests (cognitive, diagnostic, aptitude, achievement), survey procedures, interview procedures, or observation of public behavior that is not exempt under paragraph (b)(2) of this section, if 

This type of research can get even stickier when children are involved. Yes, we do review studies that are looking at the effectiveness of currently-utilized curriculum or using educational tests once in while, but mostly, we see studies that take place in a school.

Specific risks can arise in a school setting that are rarely found in any other type of research study. In my experience with this type of research, five specific areas warrant the most attention. These are what I call the Critical Five:

  1. Coercion – Yes, it IS possible that, despite all of the language in your consent form saying the opposite, a student’s decision to participate can affect the relationship with the relationship she has with her instructor. Most IRBs don’t allow the instructor of a class to recruit participants for their own studies, but some do. Coercion is best avoided if someone other than the instructor recruits participants. It is also helpful if the participant’s consent form is signed out-of-sight of the professor. Absent these protections, the student may not feel comfortable saying no, and will most likely agree to be in the proposed research.
  1. Grades – Hand-in-hand with the feeling of being coerced into participation in a classroom study is the potential for a participant to feel that his grades may be affected during the course of the study. Despite IRB best practices, consent forms, protocol procedures, and proper recruitment techniques there is the potential for a participant to feel exposed to grading pressure. The best way to avoid this situation is to hold the study after grades are given, or at least make the study independent of a testing period.
  1. Stigma – A study should not publicly isolate students from her peers. For instance, if a study is involves students with certain disabilities (or children who are functioning ahead of the norm), the selected student’s participation could lead to social stigma. Pulling out or sectioning off a group of children within a classroom or school setting might cause there to be “talk” among other students as to why these students are participating a study. In order to avoid this kind of behavior, which can be toxic in a school environment, a principal investigator must plan well. The study should be held in a private setting before or after school or during a period where there may not be other students present.
  1. Consent process with parents and children – One would think this could go without saying but…making sure both the parent and child are aware of the study’s actual existence is a critical first step. Explaining research to a parent and a child is a great learning experience for any research professional. Parents naturally and appropriately want to know what their child is doing when they are away from the house. For a researcher, it is critical that both the child and the parent know exactly what will happen after enrollment in a research study within a school setting. For the researcher this will involve learning the art of simplifying a consent form, gathering consent and providing clarity with regards to the research being conducted. A quality IRB software platform can be a tremendous asset in obtaining and tracking consent. 
  1. School/ Institutional Reputation – Schools have critical interests in protecting their students, teachers, working/learning environment and reputation. Agreement to conduct research should come from the school itself as-well-the system level (where appropriate). Research compliance tracking software can help the school, investigator and the IRB in maintain clear communication throughout the study.

While there are different elements of risk in any IRB protocol, the above are the most critical in educational research. I began my IRB career in educational research; it was a great learning experience and believe me, I learned quickly.