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Questions of ethics

Geoff Howarth on attempts to ensure students don't overstep the mark in psychology.

It is six years since John Gammon, then a chief examiner for the A-level, drew our attention to the fact that a small minority of psychology candidates at this level were conducting coursework which was, to say the least, ethically dubious. His article "Ethics - do they matter" (Psychology Teaching 1988) set in motion a debate that is still continuing, and has been the catalyst for a series of initiatives directed at this thorny problem. Since then the numbers at A-level and GCSE have mushroomed, and with them the number of pieces of coursework undertaken at pre-degree level.

In an article in Psychology Review last September Graham Davies (a principal moderator and examiner at A-level) speculated that many thousands of ordinary people could be coming into direct contact with psychology through participation in students' practical work, and this has important implications for the reputation of psychology itself, as well as for the schools and colleges where it is being taught.

So, what dreadful things have students been getting up to in the name of psychology? There is an occasional horror story - a study into the effects of alcohol on task performance, the use of four-letter words to investigate reaction times or emotional responses - but the majority of concerns relate to situations which are less clear cut and where it is not easy to say whether an investigation is ethical or not.

Students pick up popular textbooks and read, with great interest, the work of various psychological researchers - Milgram on obedience, Felipe and Sommer on personal space, or Postman et al on perception of taboo words - and with that particular view in mind as to what psychology is all about, want to conduct their own coursework along similar lines. Most have no doubts that a replication of the Milgram experiments is ethically unacceptable, but what about sitting very close to someone to see how near you have to get before they become so uncomfortable they move away, or using sexually explicit or offensive words to investigate perceptual defence? Is this kind of thing OK?

Furthermore, there are the problems faced by tutors over the supervision of students' work. How can we ensure that what our students do in their psychology coursework is ethically sound? How can we be responsible for the students we rarely see but who are working away on their own investigations without our knowledge or agreement?

Certainly, some considerable headway has been made over the past few years to help address these sorts of problems. The Association for the Teaching of Psychology (ATP) has produced a set of guidelines on ethical issues in student research at pre-degree levels. This booklet is written for a student audience and details the ethical considerations to be taken into account when carrying out coursework.

Students are made aware of the need to work within their own levels of competence and to discuss their proposals with someone in a position to offer guidance. The booklet also outlines the importance of obtaining informed consent, avoiding the use of deception in the coursework, the need for confidentiality, as well as other issues reflecting a general concern for the welfare and well-being of those taking part in psychological studies.

In addition to these guidelines, the British Psychological Society has recently revised its Ethical Principles for Conducting Research with Human Participants - which set out the principles by which all psychologists engaged in such research are required to abide.

In 1992 a special edition of the ATP's journal, Psychology Teaching, was devoted entirely to papers discussing ethical considerations in psychological research. Teachers' workshops, which have focused the debate on the practical issues of conducting ethical research "in the classroom", have become a regular part of the ATP annual conference.

Added to this, several examination boards have taken a more public stance on the ethical aspects of the coursework that students are required to do as part of their syllabuses. They have given more direct guidance to teachers as to what is expected in terms of supervision of candidates' coursework, and some have even printed the BPS and ATP guidelines in their syllabus documentation. Some syllabuses now require candidates to be aware of the ethical arguments surrounding research in psychology, and to be able to apply that knowledge in a critical way.

Currently, the ATP is trying to set up a panel that can deal with referrals from exam boards and teachers worried about ethical issues in students' coursework. The panel will offer recommendations, based upon established ethical guidelines, as to whether the work is acceptable. This initiative will be another step towards ensuring that pupils and students do not engage in practices that professional psychologists would consider unethical, on the excuse that they are doing coursework for their A-level or GCSE.

Despite the high profile given to ethical issues over the past few years, every examination period sees the submission of a small number of pieces of work that continues to raise concern. But the lead taken by the professional association, together with the clearer guidance from examination boards, has resulted in heightened awareness of these issues among both teachers and students and a steady decline in the number of such cases. Hopefully, the general public's first brush with psychology will not now be as participants in students' unethical coursework.

Geoff Haworth is chair of the Association for the Teaching of Psychology.

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