- Understanding Informed Consent for Research Participants
- Choosing Your Sample
- Building a Database of Alumni
- Maximizing Survey Results
- Writing a Cover Letter
- Conducting Focus Groups
Research with Human Subjects and Informed Consent
Research into the opinions and experiences of former students necessarily brings the researcher into the realm of regulations and practices involved in “human subjects” research. Essentially, this means that you are responsible for insuring that the participants in the study understand their rights as research subjects. You’re also responsible for informing participants that by responding to and returning the survey, they are signaling that they understand their rights. This is called informed consent.
The web of rules and regulations surrounding research into human subjects is complex and detailed, and for good reason. The National Research Act (l974) spells these guidelines out in detail (http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/). Fortunately, the sort of research we are doing—research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings involving normal educational practices, such as research on the effectiveness of or the comparison among instructional techniques, curricula, or classroom management methods—is, once past the initial review, exempted from further review. You should, however, be sure to check with your own institution’s office of research and sponsored programs or human subjects review committee for the specific, local guidelines that have been set in place at your school. The University of Maine requires Harvey, for instance, to include the following information as part of the cover letter sent along with the survey:
- Make it clear that former peer tutors are not required to complete or sign the survey nor do they need answer any questions that make them feel uncomfortable.
- Include an estimate of the time it will take for them to respond to the survey (we estimated thirty minutes).
- Include a risk statement (as far as we can determine, there is no risk).
- Include a description of any potential benefits to the subject or others that may reasonably be expected from the research.
- Include a description of how issues of confidentiality will be addressed (for example, will names be associated with the data or coded and linked to a master list of names? Who can access the information? Where will it be stored and for how long?)
- Be sure tutors understand that by returning the survey they are giving you their consent to use the data as you have described it.
For further information on research with human subjects and implied consent, be sure to consult with the office of research and sponsored programs or human subjects review committee on your campus. You may also want to check the University of Maine Research and Sponsored Programs website at http://www.umaine.edu/research/research-compliance/institutional-review-board-for-the-protection-of-human-subjects-irb/
From there you can link to government guidelines on research into human subjects, if you like. To see how we have incorporated these guidelines into our own cover letters, go to (cover letters) on our website.
Should you send the survey to all of your peer-tutor alumni or a smaller sample? If you have a modest number of alumni (say, 50 or fewer), you may well want to send surveys to all of them, so that you will have a good number of responses to analyze. Even if you have more alumni, you may still choose to survey them all, so that you’re staying in touch with all of your alums, learning from all of them, and getting the broadest possible perspective on the peer-tutoring experience at your school.
From experience, though, we’d urge you not be too ambitious or in too much of a hurry. It’s a lot of work to track down names and current addresses for hundreds of alumni, nudge all of them to respond, thank each respondent individually, and do any meaningful kind of analysis of even 50 narrative survey responses. And unlike many surveys, where a 30% response rate is considered good, this survey has had, at least for us, response rates in the 80% range. And although not all of our alumni are loquacious in their responses, many write detailed responses, which deserve careful analysis. To see how rich these responses can be, see the samples we’ve posted here.
So to spread out both the work and the joy involved in this research and to fit it into your already crowded work life, you might want to use a batch approach and/or select a sample of alumni to survey.
This is exactly the approach we’ve taken, as we’ve piloted the survey and tried to keep this research manageable.
- You could start by gathering names and addresses for as many of your tutor alumni as possible.
- You then send surveys to c. 20 alumni, spread across all the different years of graduation. If you’ve got 20 years worth of alums, you might choose one from each year, perhaps the first alphabetically from each year. We’ve found that 20’s a good number: enough to get some responses fairly quickly, which is enormously motivating; enough to fill the spare bits of time you can devote to this project; and enough to offer some variety of perspectives.
- Then after you’ve solved problems with out-of-date addresses, sent reminders and thank-yous, and savored and shared the responses, you’ll be ready to send another batch of 20. We’ve been sending out a new batch of 20 every six months or so.
A Sampling Approach
If you’ve got a large number of alumni, you might want to select a subset (or sample) of them to survey. For your sample, you’ll want to resist the understandable urge to choose the names you best remember or know you can contact easily, or your favorite former tutors. Instead, you should aim to select a representative sample. As you know, psychologists, pollsters, and other social-scientists have various methods for selecting a representative sample out of the entire population they’re interested in studying—methods that allow researchers to have confidence in the conclusions they draw from analyzing only a subset of the population. With this research, we don’t expect to be reporting specific margins of error for this research the way political pollsters do, but we are convinced that representative is good.
To have confidence that samples are representative, they are supposed to be random. In this case, “random” doesn’t mean haphazard; rather it means that each possible alumna/us has an equal chance of being selected.
Some options you might consider for choosing your sample:
- If you’re not especially concerned about achieving balance in the years since graduation, you can do what’s called “systematic sampling.” If your list of alumni is in a spreadsheet, simply sort your list alphabetically by last name, number each sequentially, and then choose every nth name—if, for example, you have 100 alumni and want to have a total sample of 20, you’d simply choose every 5th name. (This method assumes that an alphabetical arrangement doesn’t lead to some kind of hidden bias in the sample.)
- If you want to achieve some proportional balance by certain criteria—by gender, for example, or by year of graduation, by major, by number of years of tutoring experience, by geography—you can do what’s called a “stratified sample.” If, for example, 60% of your tutor alumni were female, you might want to use a method to ensure that you have a stratified sample in which c. 60% of the alumni you send surveys to are female. Within those groups, you’ll want to choose individuals randomly.
- If you have some other specific goals for your research, you might select a sample to achieve those goals. If, for example, you want to compare different eras in your tutoring program, you might want to stratify your sample to make sure that you have a good sample from each distinct era. Or if you have a small number of tutors of one gender or race, and you’re especially interested in hearing diverse perspectives on the peer-tutoring experience, you might oversample particular groups of alumni. Again, within those groups, you’ll want to choose individuals randomly.
To help you choose a representative sample of your tutor alumni, you might want to seek advice from someone in your institutional research office, experts in social-science research who gather and analyze data about students for your school, college, or university. Or we’d urge you to consult a faculty colleague who specializes in survey research in sociology, psychology, business, or other social-science fields. As we’ve piloted this research project, we’ve enjoyed that kind of collaboration on our campuses; not only have we gotten some good advice, but we’ve also discovered colleagues who are very interested in our research projects and are eager to help.
The Web also offers convenient ways to learn more about the basics of sampling techniques:
A brief and easy-to-understand introduction to sampling and to common sampling method, by Neville Hunt and Sidney Tyrrell from Coventry University.
StatPac, a statistical software and online survey company, offers a clear one-page introduction to sampling methods.
The goal of any database is to provide current and sufficient information. Easy to say, but not necessarily easy to accomplish. Building a database of former peer tutors, some of whom may well have graduated a decade or more ago, changed their name, moved to Kentucky or California or Wales, moved again (and reclaimed their previous name), calls for some determined measures. Addresses, particularly email addresses, change often. Some former tutors may still be in the campus community but most have moved on. Where and how to start to find them?
One step at a time
First and most obviously, you need a list of all the former peer writing tutors. You probably already have that list or can put it together from your own tutor training course and writing center files–or maybe not. In either case, there are likely to be allies on your campus who can and will help you build your database.
• The Registrar’s Office or the Office of Student Records. If you have a credit bearing tutor training course in place, the folks in this office can most likely print up a record of every student who ever enrolled in that course. You can use their list to check your own.
• The Alumni Office. Almost every post-secondary school has an office of people in charge of keeping track of graduates. Explain to them briefly what the Peer Tutor Alumni Research Project is about, give them your most recent list, and ask for their help. Keeping track of graduates is what they do. With any luck at all, they not only will give you a new list complete with addresses, emails and phone numbers, but they can make it available to you in a suitable software format, such as Excel.
Now you have a first daft of your peer tutor alumni database. The database won’t truly be completed until the project is over: in other words, your database is a work in progress. Because the addresses, email, and phone number that you get from your campus experts will in many cases be out of date, you have a first draft. This initial draft, however, is a great place to start fast in contacting your former tutors.
If you are already familiar with Excel or similar software, you only need to label the cells to suit your record keeping necessities. Here are some useful headings: Name, graduation date, address, email, phone number, date survey sent, form of survey (snail mail, email, website), date returned, thank-you note sent, comments. If you don’t have knowledge of a spreadsheet program, scotch tape a couple of sheets of blank paper together, write the student names down the left-hand margin in alphabetical order, the headings along the top, make a grid with a ruler, and you’re good to go. You can add a software form as you go along, if you so choose. The important thing is to use the database in order to revise it into a reliable source of information.
Start sending out surveys. If you have numerous alumni, you may want to send out surveys in small batches. Twenty seems to be a very workable number: sufficient to give interesting results but not overwhelming in time on task. If you have dozens and dozens of former peer tutors, you might find that trying to survey them all at once is problematic in keeping track of everyone. Unless you have the help of others, such as current tutors, working in small batches is worth considering.
For snail mail surveys, enclose a stamped envelope addressed to you or your writing center or wherever you want the completed surveys to go. The minimum postage for a first class letter will do the job. On the envelope write in large letters RETURN SERVICE REQUESTED. (You can photocopy multiple copies of these words and scotch tape them to the envelope.) This will insure that the post office will return the letter to you if they cannot deliver it; if a forwarding address is available to them, they will include it. You are now building your database and researching your former tutors simultaneously.
Some percentage of your former students’ current contact information will remain mysterious. Now is the time to unleash your formidable powers of detection. You can, of course, always “Google” them. This actually works. You can also send the names of those missing in action to those who have already responded to the survey with your request for help: do you know how one might reach them? You will be surprised and gratified to learn that so and so is now living in Cleveland, Ohio, and here is her latest address (email address, phone number). Still, some addresses and other pertinent information will remain unknown. Send this list of names back to the Alumni Office and ask them to check again. More recent information my well turn up.
Your database of former peer tutors will continue to expand and develop over time, but even a partial if current list will give you access to the thoughts, memories, stories, and insights of students who have taken their peer tutor training and experience into their professional and personal lives and made good use of both. Your research results will quickly repay the efforts to build the database. Plus, if you ever needed to call on former peer tutors for help convincing your administration of the value of your program, you know you can now reach them quickly and efficiently.
Once you’ve gone to the considerable trouble of finding names and addresses of former tutors, you’ll want to be sure to get the highest return rate possible. There are a number of easy steps to help make sure that once the survey has been received, it is returned:
- Be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your snail mailings. Be sure that your electronic mail mailings include clear instructions on how to return a digital version.
- Be sure that your cover letter gives former tutors a reasonable deadline by which to respond. Two weeks seems about right–long enough to respect how busy alumni are, but soon enough so that it encourages a prompt response.
- Soon after that deadline has passed, if you have not received a responses from all those with verified addresses, send a follow-up of some sort to those not yet heard from. Post cards, perhaps with a picture of your campus on them, work well. You can perhaps print your message directly on a postcard. If not, you can print out your message in a small font and then photocopy onto postcards:
I hope you got a copy of the survey I sent out a few weeks ago as part of the Peer Tutor Alumni Research Project. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. If you didn’t receive the survey or if you have any questions, please contact me at ________________.
- Give it another week or ten days. If you still haven’t heard, phone the tutor. Most likely you will need to leave a message, but sometimes you actually reach former tutors. They will be delighted to hear from you. Tell them that you really want to hear about their experience in regards to peer tutoring.
- We’d urge you to keep extending the deadline and periodically reminding people. People have a tendency to think that if they missed the deadline, their response will no longer be valuable (or that they’re off the hook!).
Now you’ve probably done about all you can. Based on our experience to date, you can expect something in the vicinity of 70-90 percent return rate! Be sure to send participating tutors a thank you note and/or a copy of your analysis of the data, a copy of the report you prepared for your chair, dean or director based on the survey, a copy of the paper on peer tutor alumni that you give at regional or national conferences, any publications that have resulted, etc. Tutors will appreciate your taking them and their experience seriously, and you will be building a formidable constituency of former tutor alumni from your writing center.
We know that we hardly need to offer a group of expert writing-center directors advice about writing a letter, but we’re convinced that the letter that introduces the survey to alumni is important enough for the success of this research to merit some commentary and suggestions. Think for a minute about this communication situation. You’ve got a lot going for you given how positively alumni feel about their experience as peer tutors and given the warm relationship you had with your former tutors. Your letter is likely to be received with lots of good will. But once former tutors open the email or letter, they’ll recognize immediately that you’re asking them to do something that wasn’t on their already overcrowded schedule and might take up to an hour of their time. The cover letter needs both to inform and to invite former tutors to take the time and care necessary to contribute to your research.
As you plan and draft your letter, it might help to think about goals. Here are some we’ve had for our cover letters:
- To convey the warmth and enthusiasm we feel toward our tutor alumni and our genuine interest in their lives since graduation
- To explain the purpose for the research and to interest alumni in participating
- To persuade recipients that their responses will be important, so they’ll make the time to complete the survey
- To urge recipients to respond soon, while conveying flexibility about the deadline
- To explain how the results will be used and to satisfy legal and ethical requirements for informed consent
- To invite / open up a dialogue if they have questions
It’s tricky to establish the ethos you want and to use the voice that your tutor alumni will remember, while communicating information efficiently and satisfying legal research requirements for informed consent. And of course it’s tricky to accomplish these goals in a letter short enough to get read.
You may, of course, have other local goals for your letter–to introduce yourself, for example, if you’re writing to alumni who worked with a different director in your writing center’s past. And if you’re using email, you’ll want to come up with a subject line that won’t make your message look like spam.
Sample Cover Letters
We don’t pretend that our letters are Platonic ideals; in fact, we’re sure that you can do better. If you’d like, you’re welcome to use any of the language in our samples without requesting permission; we’ll be delighted to think that you find any of it useful!
Brad’s Sample Cover Letter
September 30, 2003
Greetings from Madison ! I hope you’re doing well.
Thank you so much for agreeing to help me with this research project. My interest in former tutors has led me to engage in a formal research project about the short- and long-term effects of having been a writing tutor in college. Paula Gillespie, the writing center director at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Harvey Kail, the writing center director at the University of Maine, and I are working together to design a national study on the influence of peer tutoring for former peer writing tutors. One of our first steps is to pilot questions for this survey with a selected group of alumni from our undergraduate tutoring programs.
I will be describing this study and presenting preliminary results at a writing center conference in Pennsylvania in late October and at a composition conference in Texas next March. I will report responses anonymously, identifying particular tutors only by their major, how long it’s been since they graduated, how long they were a writing fellow, what they’ve done since graduation, etc. By responding to this survey, you will be giving your permission for me to use your responses in this way. If you have any questions about the purpose of this research or about how your responses will be used, please be sure to ask me.
The questions themselves begin below. The length of time it will take to answer will vary with your answers and your experience. I hope that answering these will provide a good opportunity to reflect on your time as a Writing Fellow. If you feel you want to add anything I haven’t asked about, please do so. If you have suggestions for making this study more valuable or for improving or clarifying the questions, please share those ideas with me. And please be honest—there are no particular answers I’m looking for; what I’m looking for are honest, thoughtful, candid, and detailed reflections on your experience.
If you could respond by October 10th, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks!
All the best,
Director, Writing Center
Director, Writing Across the Curriculum
Department of English
University of Wisconsin-Madison
600 North Park Street
Madison, WI 53706
Paula’s Sample Cover Letter
Greetings from the Ott Writing Center. I hope that you remember the times you spent training and working as a writing tutor at Marquette. I often think of you and wonder how you are and what you are doing.
Recently my interest in former tutors has led me to engage in a research project that will look at the long and short-term effects of being a peer-writing tutor in college. The goal of the study is to assess the value of peer tutoring on the tutors themselves. I am very interested to learn more about the ways you may have put your training and experience to work on the job and in your life. I also believe that the enclosed survey will provide a useful opportunity for you to reflect on your time as a tutor and as a student. Except for your time and trouble, there are no foreseeable risks in participating in the research.
I hope you will take some time out of your busy schedule to respond to the survey. The amount of time it will take will vary with your answers and experience. In any case I trust that you will find it worth your while. I know your response will be of significance to the Writing Center. I expect that the responses I receive will also become part of an archive at the Writing Center Research Project at the University of Louisville, so that your response can be a part of a larger national study that I expect to take place over the next year or so. I plan to report on this research next month myself at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Let me know if you’d like a copy of the paper. By responding to the survey and returning it to me, you are, in effect, giving me your consent to use your response as outlined above. You are not required to complete or to sign the survey or to answer anything that might make you feel uncomfortable. The responses will be coded to the master list of former peer writing tutors, and should I quote you in any form, I will not use your name and will seek your permission first.
I’ve pasted the survey below and have attached it as a Word document you can fill out and attach to a return e-mail. If you could respond by March 1, 2004, that would insure that your response will be part of the original study. If you have any questions about the Peer Tutor Alumni Project, you can reach me by phone at 414-288-3590.
Aside from the survey, I am very much looking forward to hearing from you, and I would love to see you and show you our new location in the Raynor Library. To see a before-and-after comparison, see http://www.mu.edu/writingcenter/newdigs. It’s so exciting to be in the center of campus.
Thank you so much.
Harvey’s Sample Cover Letter
Greetings from Orono! I hope that you remember me and the times you spent training and working as a tutor in the University of Maine writing center. I often think of you and wonder how and what you are doing at Farmington. Recently my interest in former tutors has led me to engage in a formal research project that is going to look at the long and short-term effects of being a peer writing tutor in college. Paula Gillespie, the writing center director at Marquette University, Brad Hughes, writing center director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I are working together to design a national study on the value of peer tutoring on former peer writing tutors. I am hoping that you will participate in this important study.
I’ve pasted into this e-mail some open-ended questions that I am asking you to take the time to reflect on and respond to. If you hit reply with quote, you can simply respond directly to me. I’ve also attached the questions as a Word document if you’d prefer to work offline and then email or snail mail them back to me.
The length of time it will take to complete the questions will vary with your answers and your experience. I hope they will provide a good reflection for you on your time as a tutor, but if you feel you want to add anything I don’t ask about, please do so. If you have suggestions for making the study more valuable, please don’t hesitate to share those ideas with me.
I’m pleased to say that I have been asked to report on this project at the International Writing Centers Association Conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania at the end of October, and I would very much like to include your response. Could you get it back to me by October 1?
Aside from the survey, I’m very much looking forward to hearing from you! Thank you so much.
Writing Center Director
Orono, ME. 04469
Focus groups can help you uncover research topics and questions you might not have considered; they give tutor alumni a chance to put their own stamp on your research by touching on those areas that are most important to them. This was the advice we were given early in the survey’s history by our universities’ statisticians. A focus group can all also tell you whether or not you want to proceed with a fuller, survey-driven study of your former tutors. You may find that the focus group fulfills your need for information all by itself. A focus group that asks tutor alumni about long- and short-term effects of their tutoring might be one of the most gratifying professional events you ever have. And one of the most fun. We didn’t realize this when we set out to hold ours.
One focus group was held at the University of Maine and another at Marquette. The Maine group, a random selection of alumni from different classes, ranging from 1982 to 1999, met at the writing center for two hours and had a homemade chili dinner that Harvey made. Marquette tutors, ranging from a 1991 grad to two very recent grads, also randomly selected, met at Paula’s house and had chicken. Each group talked for two one-hour sessions, following an agenda we had worked out in advance.
Harvey and Paula both videotaped their focus groups, analyzed the videos and sent a copy to one another for an outsider’s analysis. We looked for areas of the study in one another’s videos that we hadn’t considered. We strongly recommend working with a colleague in this way, to get an objective look at your results.
The focus groups gave us an opportunity to preview some of the responses we would get to the survey and the tutors in conversation with one another sparked lines of response a questionnaire alone wouldn’t have produced. For the tutors, aside from a good dinner, there was the benefit of some good alumni networking and a chance to contribute to a program that they helped build.
Agenda for Focus Groups
Peer Tutor Focus Group, October 16, 2002
The purpose of this study is twofold: 1) to assess the short and long term value of tutor training and writing center experience on former peer writing tutors and 2) to inform current tutor training and writing center practice from the perspective of former tutors.
The purpose of the focus group: to explore questions, prompts, tasks, etc. that will serve to shape the larger study, which will be conducted through a survey to all former tutors for whom addresses can be located and follow-up phone interviews to some of the respondents.
Agenda for the Focus Groups:
(Both focus groups will be held on October 16 in Milwaukee and Orono; both will be videotaped for analysis)
Hour One (focus on student years)
1. Welcome/Background for the Study
2. Introductions: Does any experience in the writing center or the tutor training course stay in your memory?
3. What influence did being a peer tutor have on your sense of yourself as an undergraduate at U. Maine or Marquette?
6. Being expected to help other students improve their writing is a big responsibility. How did you deal with that responsibility?
7. Did being a tutor shape or influence your sense of teaching and learning as a UM or MU student? Did your attitude towards your fellow students change in any way? Your attitude towards professors?
8. What impact, if any, did the tutor training course have on you as a writer?
9. What impact, if any, did tutoring in the writing center have on you as a writer?
Hour Two (focus on post-college years)
1. What are the most significant or meaningful skills or values or qualities you developed that you took away with you from your work as a writing tutor?
2. Did those abilities you developed seem to be a factor in your choice of job or further education? Please elaborate.
3. Did these abilities seem to play a role in your interviewing or hiring process? How do you come to that conclusion?
4. How have you used these abilities, values, skills in our work life? Would you give an example?
5. Do these abilities play a role in your social or family relationships? Can you give an example?
6. In what ways have these qualities or values helped to develop your sense of self?
7. Based on your experiences, how might we best develop the peer tutoring program at UM or MU? What changes might we make? What should we emphasize? How might we do what we do more effectively?