Minimizing bias when assessing across culture and language

Student numbers graph

Posted by John Kleeman

I attended a thought-provoking presentation last week by Dr. Janette Ryan of the Teaching International Students project about the rising numbers of international students at universities and the challenges of teaching and assessing them. This inspired me to do some research about the cultural and linguistic challenges involved with assessing in such contexts.

As you will see in the graph on the right, there is an increasing trend for countries to send students for university education overseas, so they can learn from other cultures as well as their own.There are around 3.5 million international students worldwide. The USA is the world’s most popular destination, with the UK and Australia coming second and third.

The UK Teaching International Students project has a page on assessment and feedback, I also found a paper from Oxford Brookes University on Sitting exams in a second language: minimising bias, maximising potential and an Australian guide to Assessing students unfamiliar with assessment practices in Australian higher education.

Here is some advice from these documents. It’s aimed for a university and higher education context, but much here will also be relevant to corporate training.

1. Consider giving extra time for people who are taking an assessment in a language that is foreign to them. You should consider an accommodation in the same way as you would for others who read more slowly, e.g. dyslexic students.

2. Make your questions and instructions clear and unambiguous; use as few words as you need. For someone not working in their native language, each extra word increases cognitive load.

3. Expectations for how to write essays vary between countries and cultures. In some cultures, presenting a contentious statement and asking the student to discuss it is a normal means of assessment; in others this is novel.

4. In some educational settings, the more closely a student replicates the work or words of an expert, the greater the student’s learning or mastery of the subject is considered to be. Elsewhere, replicating the words of someone else is regarded as plagiarism and cheating! Whichever approach you take, tell your students what is expected.

5. Explain well how you are going to run assessments. Styles of teaching, language for grades and ways of assessing vary in different cultures and countries. Your methods may be expected by students from your own country but novel for students from another country.

6. Many international students have a high level of language proficiency but a low level of cultural knowledge. Ensure your assessments do not presume cultural knowledge; using case study questions that make assumptions about prior knowledge or context is a common mistake. The question below is meaningful to Europeans but not to others.

(from Oxford Brookes paper) "As an anthropologist, how would you study Eurovision?"

7. Give plenty of opportunities for students to practice assessments. With software like Questionmark Perception, it’s easy to set up practice tests. This is especially valuable for international students so they can understand what is expected.

8. If your assessment involves participation or work in a group, remember that different cultures have different conventions in group communication — for example about interrupting others or being seen to criticize another in public.

9. Feedback is really important in all assessment. Ensure that it is meaningful and includes any necessary context and doesn’t assume prior knowledge for people who have come from different backgrounds.

10. Above all, set tasks which give all students a chance to succeed

One Response to “Minimizing bias when assessing across culture and language”

  1. GH Stevens says:

    Thoughts on the post:

    YOUR POST: Consider giving extra time for people who are taking an assessment in a language that is foreign to them.

    Response – This makes perfect sense.

    YOUR POST: Make your questions and instructions clear and unambiguous

    Response – This also makes perfect sense, BUT it applies to ALL learners – not just international learners.

    YOUR POST: In some educational settings, the more closely a student replicates the work or words of an expert, the greater the student’s learning or mastery of the subject is considered to be. Elsewhere, replicating the words of someone else is regarded as plagiarism and cheating! Whichever approach you take, tell your students what is expected

    Response: I have a bias in this regard, and don’t think it culturally sensitive to share, other than when my son disagrees with me, I’ve learned to say “Hmm. why do you think that way?” I’ve learned a lot from a little boy who is exploring life, and does not know what he knows.

    YOUR POST

    Styles of teaching, language for grades and ways of assessing vary in different cultures and countries. Your methods may be expected by students from your own country but novel for students from another country.

    Response: This applies within “cultures” as well. KNOW the students before you try to teach them.

    The most important point made was thia:

    Above all, set tasks which give all students a chance to succeed

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