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Resources :: Guide :: Research in an educational setting :: Collecting data in an educational setting :: Anonymous survey data

Anonymous Survey Data

Conducting an anonymous survey of adults students qualifies for exemption in most cases (surveys for minors can only qualify for exemption if they are considered normal educational practice, otherwise they require parental consent).  The important element is that the survey is truly anonymous, which alleviates concerns about confidentiality and coercion. The Board will need to know how participants are approached about the survey and how the survey is conducted so that it is anonymous. They will need to how the data are collected (i.e. paper survey, internet survey), and how the information will be reported and stored.

When the researcher is the instructor

Recruitment methods
For surveys, it is usually acceptable for the researcher to recruit their own students for an anonymous survey as long as they will have no knowledge of who decided to participate.  In some cases, the Board may ask that you use a third party to announce the survey to your class.  For example, if you have a research assistant or another researcher on the project, it may be more appropriate for that individual to invite the class to participate in the study.  If the board has concerns and using a third party is not an option, you may want to consider handing out a flyer in the classroom or sending out an email informing students about the survey.  The purpose of these measures is to remove the teacher as much as possible from the participants without compromising the data collection.

If you are going to offer your students extra credit to participate in a survey, please provide an alternative extra credit option that is comparable to the one offered in the study.  The students should submit their extra credit in a way that does not identify them to the researcher. If you have a third party who is grading the course but is not a part of the research team (such as a teaching assistant), this individual could collect information about the extra credit assignments.

Administering the Survey
If your survey is a paper survey, it is important that the survey is distributed and collected in a way that protects the anonymity of the participant and also allows them to participate voluntarily.  For example, giving a student a survey, watching her complete it, and then collecting it from her could comprise anonymity and make the student feel like she has to participate in the study.  A more appropriate method would be to distribute the survey, allow the students to complete it during class (in which case you would leave the room) or on their own time, and then provide a drop box where they can return the survey on their own.  If you are worried about response rates, consider providing a self-addressed envelope that the student can use to send the survey through the campus mail system. 

For information on using the internet to conduct an anonymous survey, please see Internet.

You may want to link multiple survey instruments together, or collect data over a period of time.  Your participant may need to use a password and codename to access an internet survey.  It is possible to link data and still collect it anonymously by having the participants create their own code (such as the first three letters of their mother’s name and the last four numbers of their cell phone number).  Make sure that you are asking for information that is random and only recognizable to the participant.  Do not ask for any part of their social security number, student id and/or login, birth date, etc.  This information can identify a participant and would make the data not anonymous. 

Consent Issues
Because this type of survey study is usually exempt, you are not required to document consent via a signature.  However, the Board does ask that you provide information to the participants about the purpose of the study, what they will do, and how much time is required to participate.  You need to state that their identity will not be collected or linked to their survey, you will not know who participated in the study, and participation will not affect grades.  Provide information about how to complete and submit the survey and any information about extra credit and alternative assignments.

Please note that some students are minors and the federal regulations do not allow for minors to be surveyed without parental permission.  In order to include a minor in a survey, you would need signed parental consent. Make sure that all of your students are eligible to consent for themselves and either seek parental permission for any minor students or do not include them in the study.  The Board may determine that it is appropriate to waive parental consent in some cases.

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