Going Beyond the Stats: Analyzing Research Ethically

In Professor Kristin Harvey’ statistics and data analysis courses, discussing ethics goes hand in hand with understanding probability distributions, t-charts, and regressions. In her introductory statistical methods courses (SDS 301 and SDS 302) she wants students’ critical analysis to go beyond reading a t-table or regression plot. She wants the students to understand the complexity of conducting research and the ethical implications of the process. Understanding this complexity challenges the students to carefully evaluate and critically analyze the information they consume on a daily basis.

Harvey, who has won multiple awards for innovative teaching, has worked closely with the Center for Skills and Experience Flags (CSEF) to add an Ethics Flag in her courses. Over two semesters, Harvey worked with Dr. Brooke Rich, the coordinator for the Ethics Flag, to integrate the Flag into her courses. Over the course of the first semester with the Ethics Flag, students in Harvey’s courses gave feedback on the ethics component through surveys to help Rich and Harvey identify ways to strengthen the students’ ethical reasoning skills.

A common trend they noticed in the survey was that students tended to have more confidence in their ethical reasoning skills when they discussed ethical dilemmas and worked through research cases in class. Harvey decided to directly apply this feedback and became more intentional about discussing ethical dilemmas and incorporating case studies in her lectures. In these lectures, Harvey models for the students how to identify ethical dilemmas and different stakeholders in each case.

Harvey reinforces the concepts they discuss in lectures with labs that challenge the students to apply their ethical reasoning and data analysis skills independently. The first time she taught the courses with an Ethics Flag, the lab work involved having students answer ethics-related questions that were given to them. In survey feedback from these pilot courses, however, the students said that many of the ethics questions felt disconnected from the class content. As a result, the next time she taught the courses, Harvey gave students a data set in each lab and asked them develop their own ethical questions from the data. Students choose what types of statistical analyses to conduct based on the questions they develop. After they have answered their questions, the students also write about the ethical implications of their findings and how their research could be interpreted differently in the future. Through these lab exercises, the students learn to develop their own research questions as well as the ethical consequences of misinterpreting results. To teach them about the history of research ethics and prepare them for future research, Harvey also has students go through the university’s IRB training.

In class lectures, Harvey discusses topics with which students have a personal connection, such as norm vs. criteria reference grading, or the anti-vaccination movement. These discussions tend to become lively and sometimes emotional. Instead of discouraging students’ emotional responses, Harvey wants students to “get as angry as I do when they read [bad research] in the news.” In ten years, Harvey wants her students to see a news headline and have the tools to go into the article, find the research behind the claims, and interpret it for themselves.

Harvey helps students hone these skills through their final project, a poster that presents a research project of their design. The students choose a field of research to discuss and use data analysis to answer their question. Alongside their research, the students must use their ethical reasoning skills to discuss the ethical dilemmas they found, how they could improve their research, and what the limitations where. Rather than ask the students to take a stand on an ethical viewpoint, Harvey is more concerned with the students’ understanding of the complexity of the research and its ethical implications.

As her students sift through the deluge of information they consume through social media and in the news, Harvey wants them to have the analytical skills to be educated consumers of information. To do this, Harvey teaches her students to conduct and analyze research both statistically and ethically. Through analyzing data sets and case studies, students learn how to use statistical methods to understand research and its ethical implications. These lessons apply to assignments throughout the course and are designed to be integrated into the students’ everyday life and future careers.

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