Talking Points June 2014

On Ethical Dimensions of Doing Research

An Interview with Robert Croker (Nanzan University)

Kay: Hi, Robert. It was nice to see you at Patsy Duff’s seminar on Case Study Research at Temple University Japan. I enjoyed it and learned so much. And thank you for agreeing to chat with me for Talking Points, on the ethical dimensions of research practices which you gave a presentation on at the LD SIG anniversary conference last year.

On the blog, last month, Rachelle and I discussed how we, as busy teachers, manage to make the time to do research, and how we can help each other in conducting it. But when we talk about what we do as researchers, we often neglect to think about how our research affects participants – typically our own students. This was something I had been thinking about, and your presentation led me to think about it even more. So I’m glad we got this opportunity to talk about it.

Before I start asking some questions, for the readers, could you tell us a bit about your presentation and how you came to focus on the topic?

Robert: Hi Kay! The presentation was called “Exploring ethical dimensions of doing research”. It grew out of the realization that it’s very easy to embark on a research project here in Japan without fully thinking through how your study might impact your participants and your relationship with them. Most Japanese high schools and universities do not have any procedure to review research proposals, like an ethics committee or an institutional review board. Such a procedure helps you carefully consider practical ethical issues such as how you’re going to explain your research to your participants, how you’ll get their true and honest consent to participate, and so on. In the absence of such a system, the responsibility to conduct a study in an ethical way falls to the researcher alone. Yet many researchers here in Japan that I work with are not sure how to do that, even though they may want to. So I prepared a presentation on this for the LD SIG anniversary conference last year.

Kay: I think it is now very common to see restrictions on using class time to do research, but procedures to satisfy an ethics review board or research ethics committee may be still rare. It just so happened that two places I worked at in the last nine years started such procedures while I was there. It was a pain to write a proposal in such detail but it helped my coresearcher and me to think through what we were about to do and be more responsible, just as you said. But how strictly it was enforced is another question. For example, I’m not sure how this review process was known throughout the university and among part-time teachers. I also know there are a lot of places that such procedures do not exist yet. In such places, how can we go about making sure our research practices are ethical?

Robert: There are generally accepted practices of ethical research, such as fully informing your students about the study before asking them to consent to participate, ensuring that students give that consent freely and willingly, not harming your students, respecting your students’ desire for privacy and confidentiality, and honestly and fairly analyzing and presenting students’ experiences.

These practices sound straightforward and easy, but they’re often difficult to apply, particularly for teachers researching their own classrooms. For example, how much should you explain your study to your students, if you’re trying to understand why some of them constantly misbehave and disrupt the class? It seems an invitation to misbehave even more! And in many situations, how fully can your students give their consent freely and willingly? No matter what you say or do, students might feel pressure from their peers to participate, even if they don’t really want to. And asking your students to complete a questionnaire in Japanese during class might not be helping their language development, but is it “harming” it? Sharon Rallis and Gretchen Rossman suggest that researchers often face such “ethical dilemmas”, and there may be no simple resolution. What should you do, then? Underlying these practices are two basic principles: the ethic of individual rights, and the ethic of care. That is, that you must respect the rights of your participants – and these rights are more important than your right to do a study – and that you have a moral responsibility to care for your participants. In essence, put your participants first. A study is never worth doing if you’ve disadvantaged or harmed even one participant.

Kay: I also think making research “morally correct” does not necessarily mean that it is meaningful or beneficial to students. For example, using class time to “collect data” might not ethical, but if the activity that generates the data is meaningful and valuable for the students, would that make it acceptable? To that end, what about the ethics of so-called action research?

Robert: You make a distinction between action research and research for publication. Teachers undertake action research to improve their teaching, and particularly to learn how to organize more effective learning experiences for their students.

If this has clear benefits for the students as well, then I think that creating data during class time is legitimate, within limits. On the other hand, the benefits of research for publication often accrue to the researcher and to the readers of the publication – in other words, to people outside the classroom. In that case, is it legitimate to ask students to participate, and particularly to use class time to create data? In a sense, we’re asking “From the students’ perspective, is the cost of participating in this study worth the benefits?” I think this is a question that we don’t often ask ourselves, but we should.

Kay: In that case, what should we do?

Robert: Try to build in ways that students can learn from participating in your study. For example, if you’re asking students to use different strategies to learn vocabulary, give them regular individual feedback about which ways are most effective for them – and even consider building that feedback in as an integral part of the study.
Also, explain to your students what your study is about, why it’s important, and how they will benefit from participating. If the study continues over a few classes, weeks or months, you could also have an ongoing conversation with your students about your study, sharing back with them what they have written or said. If students see the benefits of participating, they buy into the study more, become more reflective and forthcoming about their learning experiences, and coincidentally provide you with better quality data. Students appreciate it when you consider them not just as participants but also as an important audience for your research. Approaches such as exploratory practice (Allwright & Hanks, 2009) go further, advocating researching with students, not on them. That is, ask your students to be co-investigators, cooperatively exploring their language learning experiences with you. This is philosophically consistent with the tenets of language learning autonomy.

Kay: I agree that the level of engagement directly affects the quality of your research. Making the research meaningful for students can make your research not only ethical but also more valid or trustworthy. Actually, are you familiar with Critically Participatory Looping (CPL) developed by Tim Murphey and Joe Falout (2010, 2012)? It is a multi-layered procedure to involve student-participants to analyze data and check the researcher’s interpretations. In accordance with ethnographic research traditions, they adopted the member-checking practice in which individual participants check and validate the interpretation by researchers. They applied this to classroom research by making the data part of the class content. With CPL, they are also advocating the change in the power relationship between teacher-researchers and student-participants to make it more mutual and reciprocal. I’ve also noticed that there are more teacher-researchers giving presentations with their students these days at conferences, too. It is nice to see people starting to involve students more in their research in ways that can enhance their learning and help them become aware of their own learning processes. Being mindful and reflective about the ethics of our own research, then, should help us become better teachers, shouldn’t it?

Well, thank you Robert for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing your views. Your presentation and this interview certainly inspired me to think further about the ethical dimensions of doing research with students.

Robert: Thanks, Kay, for suggesting that we explore the ethics of research.

Note: For those readers interested in Robert’s presentation, you can read about it in Tanja McCandie’s reflection on the anniversary conference in the latest issue our online journal, Learning Learning, too.

References

Allwright, D., & Hanks, J. (2009). The developing language learner: An introduction to exploratory practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Murphey, T., & Falout, J. (2012). “Critical participatory looping: An agencing process for mass customization in language education.” Linguisik Online, 54 (4). Accessible at http://www.linguistik-online.de/54_12/murpheyFalout.html

Murphey, T., & Falout, J. (2010). “Critical participatory looping: Dialogic member checking with whole classes.” TESOL Quarterly, 44, 811-821.

Rossman, G. B., & Rallis, S. F. (2003). Learning in the field: An introduction to qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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3 Responses

  1. Andy says:

    Kay and Robert, Thank you for this conversation (and Kay and Rachelle, thank you for the preceding ones too). I read it very quickly at the start of the week when I was wondering whether to formalise some very informal explorations I had already been doing with students this semester about their vocabulary histories and development. Your conversation nudged me towards thinking through the process a little more and starting to make a nascent research project take further shape. Today I explained to students in a couple of classes that I would like to explore with them different ways of learning and using vocabulary and to develop the exploration with them each week – and that I wanted to ask for their agreement ton take part or not.

    I then gave out a consent form in English (see further below; headings not included – perhaps it should be bilingual?) and asked them to read it through. In the first class one of the students summarized some points in Japanese, which I then confirmed with the class in English. In the second class (higher in proficiency) the students had some questions about how much time this would take in class; whether it would require them to do extra work or not; whether they could get a better grade by taking part or not. We discussed these, and I explained further how the research was intended to benefit them directly as we would be exploring some vocabulary-related issues together. I felt their interest was clarified and heightened by this consent process. It helped me at the same time clarify my responsibilities to them.

    I’ve put the consent form I used below – as far as I know, I don’t think my institution formally requires such consent, and I am not sure whether this kind of consent form is what teachers in other contexts use. It may be a bit rough at the edges, although I felt today it fulfilled a very important purpose. Any comments or feedback you or others have would be very welcome. Many thanks again, Cheers, Andy

    This is a consent form for taking part in research with me. It explains basic information about the project. It also explains what you can expect if you agree to take part.

    Explanation: I’m interested in exploring with you your history of learning and using English vocabulary, and what you consider to be successful or unsuccessful ways of learning and using English vocabulary. I want to understand how to help students move from memorization and translation of individual words to learning and using vocabulary as phrases (or combinations of more than a word).

    The project would involve discussions in the class each week for about 10-15 minutes and some note-taking by you. Later I would like to photocopy some of your vocabulary notes and reflections about vocabulary learning.

    Risks and benefits of this project: There is no known risk for you in taking part in this project. There are several known benefits if you take part in this project: (i) you develop your understanding of different ways of learning and using English vocabulary; (ii) you become more informed about different types of English vocabulary; (iii) you become able to make better decisions about how to learn and use English vocabulary.

    Sharing of information: As the researcher, I will share with you what I discover and I will present this information to you so that you may directly benefit from taking part in this project.

    Confidentiality: Unless you give me written permission, your real name will not be made public (for example, if I were to give a presentation or publish a report about this research project).

    Participant rights:
    1. If you take part in this study, your decision will not affect your grade for this course.
    2. You may refuse to participate in this study without any negative effect. Your decision will not affect your grade for this course.
    3. If you choose to participate in the study, you may stop your participation at any time without any negative effect. Your decision will not affect your grade for this course.

    (Please circle one) I AGREE / DON’T AGREE to take part in this research project.

    Your first and family name ______________________________

  2. Kay says:

    Thanks Andy for your post and sharing your practice with us. I think it is great that you used the consent form like that – which is very similar to the one I had to create to pass the ethics review board. I haven’t done any classroom research for a while but I find it important but at the same time difficult to share the results with students. If it is about the particular class, I feel obliged to deliver the results by the end of the semester. Of course I can always share it online or by email after the course is finished but I feel the benefit is not as great as sharing it in the class. I am curious to know how you are sharing or planning to share the results for your research with the students and when.

  3. Andy says:

    Kay hi Thanks for your question. I just wrote quite a long response and then pressed the wrong key and it disappeared (argh!), so this reply will be a little shorter!

    I’m trying to feedback to the class each week some observations from the previous class about their vocabulary recording practices, so that they have some basic question or puzzle to think about for developing their practices. I’m planning to look in greater detail at their practices at the end of the semester when I collect in their notebooks, and then feedback insights from that to them at the start of the autumn semester. Things are going OK with this kind of approach so far as it involves small steps.

    How will you share results with your students by the end of the semester – that must be quite a challenge, time-wise?

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