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Use of Student Participant Pools in Research

Student research participant pools are an integral part of the research process at many universities, and the University of Toronto has student participant pools in both the Department of Psychology and the Faculty of Management, at each of the downtown and suburban campuses. Collectively these account for many thousands of research participant hours each year. There is, therefore, no doubting the benefit of student participant pools for the research enterprise, which in turn provide indirect benefits for knowledge and society more generally.

Participation in research can also have pedagogical value for students enrolled in psychology and behavioural-stream courses in management. That is, it contributes to undergraduates’ first-hand understanding of the scientific method and evidence base for these disciplines; it may also help to instill a participant-centred perspective in future researchers.

It should be clear, however, that student participant pools must be set up and administrated according to good practices, so that standard research ethics issues such as conflict of interest, consent, and confidentiality are appropriately managed. The purpose of this guideline is to bring out the relevant research ethics issues and provide good practice guidance for the management of student participant pools.

Design and management of student participant pools

Student participant pools should be designed in a way that manages the potential conflict between instruction and research, so that faculty does not have undue influence over students, and students do not have a diminished ability to give free and informed consent.

To ensure that students do not feel undue pressure to participate in any particular study, participation in research should not be required. Students should be offered an alternative to participation in a study that is comparable both in terms of amount of time and effort required and providing a similar learning outcome. The best alternative to meet these criteria is providing a “walk-through” option.

Student pool participants should also be provided with an appropriate level of compensation in keeping with the time, effort, and pedagogical value of the activity. A reasonable standard of compensation is to grant a 1% bonus mark per hour of participation in research. This rate of compensation should be awarded consistently. Students should be informed up front if there is a maximum number of studies they may participate in for bonus marks and what the maximum is.

To help ensure that each participation in a student pool results in a relevant learning outcome, participation should be followed by a complete debriefing which includes a pedagogical component that explains the design of the study. In writing such debriefings, researchers should try to strike the right balance between providing a clear, plain-language explanation of the study, and introducing the technical terms in a manner that actually teaches them.

To help students make the connection between the study they participated in and the abstract concepts they are supposed to learn, it is a good practice for a debriefing to be followed by questions about the design, e.g., regarding the null or alternate hypotheses, or the independent or dependent variables. These questions should be approached as a learning opportunity rather than as a test. If students have trouble answering the questions correctly, the researcher should continue to go over the points until the student understands.

Students in a participant pool, and researchers using a participant pool, should each be respectful of the other by keeping their appointments, or by rescheduling as far in advance as possible. It is reasonable that “no shows” might be associated with certain consequences, both for students and for researchers—but these should be in keeping with the underlying pedagogical rationale for the pool, and should not suggest undue influence. Penalties for no-shows by members of the student participant pool should not take the form of subtractions from actual grades. Rather, students should be made aware that a pattern of failing to honour scheduled appointments can lead to their losing their pool privileges. Researchers, moreover, should be held to a similar standard, so that those who show a pattern of failing to honour scheduled appointments also stand to lose pool privileges. Such sanctions should be understood as flowing from the authority of the departmental chair, in keeping with procedures for the specific pool in question.

The above guidelines are consistent with the Panel on Research Ethics’ (PRE) interpretation document on student participant pools, which emphasizes:

Research ethics review of protocols involving student participant pools

Each study using a student participant pool must have its own protocol that receives ethics review and approval.

Each study protocol should, moreover, be self-contained, so that all relevant sections and appendices clearly explain how the protocol will use the student participant pool. For instance:

Researchers should not assume that just because certain screening or baseline measures have been approved within the context of a particular protocol that they would somehow be appropriate “pulled out of context”, for use outside the procedures actually described in the protocol. That is, issues relating to consent, confidentiality, debriefing, or provision of referral information would still be relevant, but might play out quite differently for data collection procedures different from those actually described in the protocol. The next section addresses this issue in connection with PSY100 “mass testing”.

Research ethics review of “mass testing”

Some student participant pools include “mass testing”, which involves administration of a single battery of instruments pulled from individual studies, for the purposes of establishing screening criteria or baselines measures prior to participation in the individual studies themselves.

From the student participants’ perspective, mass testing constitutes participation in a study in much the same way as participation in any of the parent studies that the individual measures are drawn from. Another way to put this is that mass testing raises the same ethical issues (e.g. conflict of interest, free and informed consent, and privacy and confidentiality) as any other study. It is therefore necessary for individual study protocols to flag screening or baselines measures that are to be used in mass testing; beyond this, mass testing procedures should be covered by their own protocol that explains how research ethics issues such as consent and confidentiality are to be managed. The departmental administrator in charge of the student participant pool should therefore ensure that mass testing procedures are described in their own protocol that is subject to research ethics review and approval, and to continuing review procedures such as annual renewals and amendments, as appropriate.

The mass testing “shell” protocol should include the following parameters:

Rationale: The basic rationale for including the types of screening or baseline measures that will be collected in a mass testing battery. This should include a discussion of risk parameters, i.e. that screening or baseline measures to be used in mass testing should be selected judiciously, and should not be particularly sensitive. The manner of administration of these measures (e.g., online, hard copy) should also be described.

Informed consent: The protocol should address how mass testing participation will be clearly separated from the class-based instructional component of the course. If deciding to participate or not participate in mass testing may dramatically alter the number of studies a student might be eligible to participate in, then this should also be clearly explained. The protocol and consent process should clearly explain how participation in mass testing relates to the system of pedagogical debriefing and the awarding of bonus marks, and the options available to students in terms of “walk through” or “opt out”. Information/consent letters and any debriefing materials for mass testing should be appended.

Privacy and confidentiality: The mass testing protocol should also address issues relating to confidentiality and data management. These may include the physical setting for testing, to ensure that privacy is maintained throughout data collection and how mass testing data will
be managed once they are collected, i.e. who will have access, for what purposes, over what period of time. The mass testing protocol should clarify how specific components of the mass testing battery are disseminated to the relevant individual research teams. At no point should students be put in a position to make their personal information public (e.g., on sign up sheets that might effectively “out” individuals on the basis of inclusion/exclusion criteria or interest in specific study topics).

In general, student participant pools administrators, and instructors of relevant courses as appropriate, should provide students with information, in the form of course announcements or handouts or web-based material, regarding procedures for the relevant pool, and these materials should be consistent with, and include reference to, these over-arching guidelines. All parties involved with the creation, management and use of student participant pools are responsible for ensuring that they are designed and managed according to good practices, with appropriate over-sight mechanisms as mandated by the TCPS.

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