Research vs. Classroom Projects/Assignments

Some faculty design class assignments that involve questionnaires, interviews, or other interactions with individuals, such as those commonly used in research methods courses. In these cases, faculty should consider if such assignments should be reviewed by Institutional Review Boards (IRB) to ensure the protection of human subjects.

Student Class Assignment Definition

For the purposes of this policy student class assignments include activities that are:

Conducted during, or outside of class, with students enrolled in an official course (for credit or not for credit).

Conducted in fulfillment of class assignments involving interactions with individuals other than the members of the class.

Typically initiated and completed within a single term.

Designed to teach research methods through student interaction with individuals or data about individuals, or designed to help students understand concepts covered by the course.

Generally not intended to create new knowledge or to lead to scholarly publication.

Student class assignments, as a general rule, are not systematic data collection efforts intended to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge and, thus, do not meet the federal regulatory definition of research (link is external) (45 CFR 46.102 (l)). Therefore, as a rule, student class assignments do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IRB and do not require IRB application, approval, or oversight.

Most student class assignments pose little or no risk to students or others.  However, instructors should take special care to ensure that students realize the potential for harm and take all possible steps to eliminate the risks to students or individuals outside the class involved in the assignment.  These risks may include: physical harm, or potential psychological, social, economic, or legal harm, especially when data is collected about sexual activity, use of alcohol or illegal drugs, or involvement in illegal activities.  Such risks can be exacerbated when the individuals outside the classroom are minors, prisoners, or people who are otherwise vulnerable, such as cognitively impaired persons.

Instructor Obligation

Even when a class assignment is "non-research" and, thus, not under the jurisdiction of the IRB, faculty members have an affirmative obligation to ensure that students understand their ethical obligations in carrying out their assignments. Instructors should provide guidance to students collecting information so as to minimize any unwitting or unintentional harms to other students or to individuals, especially if students will interact with or collect private information about vulnerable individuals.

Faculty members may use a number of ways to educate students and encourage responsible interactions with others, including:

Reviewing students' plans for classroom or group projects and suggesting improvements in design and protections for confidentiality.

Requesting that students take appropriate student-centric CITI training on human subject protection before collecting information from others.

Explaining ways in which students should be attentive to the welfare of individuals in cases in which:

Vulnerable populations, such as young children, prisoners, or the cognitively impaired are involved.

Any possibility of physical harm to the student or other individuals.

Students will pose sensitive questions including topics related to sexual activity, victimization, use of alcohol or illegal drugs, or involvement in illegal activity.

Requiring printed instructions/information on questionnaires that explain the use of the data for coursework and include the name and contact number of the instructor.

Requiring, whenever possible, anonymous data collection so that the data are not linked to individuals.

Requiring that information identifying individuals be kept separately from the information collected from those individuals.

Requiring destruction of non-research data at the end of the course or within a short time afterward.

Instructing students about the privacy and security vulnerabilities associated with networked computers.

Adopted from the University of Michigan guidance information addressing student research: