APR Update: Ensuring Students Appreciate the Ethical Aspects of Carrying Out an Interview for a Course Assignment

by Deborah Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network
Content Area
Professional Ethics and Practice

Engaging students in meaningful learning activities enhances their interest level and, in turn, the value and relevance they perceive the course content has to their personal life and the professional life they hope to have in the future. Assignments that involve observing and/or interviewing family members, friends, acquaintances, working professionals, and strangers have the potential to be very engaging. When reviewing materials submitted for consideration for first-time approval or renewal, members of the Academic Program Review (APR) Committee and I have come across numerous courses that call upon students to undertake observations and/or interviews. For example, in one course, students are to interview their own parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. In another course, students are to observe as well as interview teenagers with whom they may or may not already be acquainted. In yet different courses, students are to interview a policy-maker or a parent/marriage educator.

If descriptions or directions for such assignments are not fully provided for APR Committee reviewers and me, we typically ask for them in hopes this information will reassure us that students are being satisfactorily prepared to engage with their observees and/or interviewees in an ethical manner. Optimally, students pursuing the CFLE designation will be exposed to the CFLE Code of Ethics and other information about ethical treatment of humans of all ages. Increasingly, academic programs are including a research methods (e.g., program evaluation methods) course as a means of attending to Content Area 10 – Family Life Methodology. Attention to the CFLE Code of Ethics often occurs in the context of a capstone course. However, these occasions for teaching students about the ethical best practices of observing and interviewing humans often occur later in a student's program of study, perhaps well after the student has taken a course featuring an observation and/or interview assignment.

Although observation and/or interview assignments do not meet the federal definition of human subjects inquiry and research (as they are strictly for educational purposes), they do present a "teachable moment" for helping students to realize their ethical and moral obligations exist even in this context. Students should be reminded they represent their academic program, as well as their institution, when they interact with the public while carrying out such assignments. When asked about how students are prepared for undertaking these kinds of assignments, some academic program faculty report that they orally provide students with guidance about expected ethical behavior and practices. Others go a step farther to provide written guidance as well.

Among the faculty of an academic program, there may be a person who represents the department and serves on the campus Institutional Review Board. That person could serve as a resource when designing ethnographic kinds of assignments. Consider how to address the following practices when devising assignment directions and guidelines.

  • Seeking permission to observe and/or interview, even when person(s) are known to the student. This is especially important when the subjects are minors. Permission from parents or guardians should be sought.
  • Being able to articulate the context of the assignment. For example, basic information about the course and instructor.
  • Demonstrating understanding and respect when subjects decline to participate or answer one or more specific questions.
  • Formulating and asking interview questions that are unbiased, not leading, and sensitive to culture and context. Consider the worthiness of having the instructor either provide the questions or review questions developed by students.
  • Realizing that some questions may delve into topics and experiences that could prompt some unexpected emotional or psychological distress. This is an educational assignment, not formal research. Subjects should not have to suffer discomfort for the benefit of a student's assignment.
  • Being sensitive to the location for an observation and/or interview and the level of privacy it does or doesn't afford.
  • Being respectful of the time devoted by the subject(s) for purposes of this assignment.
  • Devising and using strategies that will provide subjects with suitable anonymity. This is especially important if observation and/or interview findings are going to be shared with fellow classmates. Teach students how to use pseudonyms or code numbers for their written notes and final papers.
  • Weighing the necessity of audio recording or video recording as decisions about storing and/or destroying recordings must be made.
  • Understanding and abiding by principles of privacy and confidentiality. Information revealed by subjects must not be shared outside of the confines of the course.
  • Expecting students to become familiar with information about professional ethical guidelines. For example:

Readers of this column: I am eager to hear from you. If you and/or your colleagues have developed documents that provide instruction and guidance to students enrolled in your program related to ethical behaviors and practices when carrying out assignments that involve observation and/or interviews, please email me. If you are willing to share them with others, I will devise a means to distribute. The CFLE listserv could be one means, while a blog supported by the Advancing Family Science Section could be another means. Another repository could be the NCFR Professional Resource Library.

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