Do not lower academic standards

An international student with a college degree should be prepared to enter the workforce with the same knowledge and comprehension of the tools of his/her trade at the same level as his/her domestic counterparts.  While we know that we aren’t doing any favors by lowering academic standards for any individual student, it is important to assess whether the standards are appropriate to the learning content.  For example, in order to understand a concept in biology, is it important that a student always use a verb and noun in the correct U.S. English order? Assessing a student’s knowledge of the subject matter, while allowing for some leniency in his/her language ability may be acceptable.  Whatever a professor decides on this issue, it is important to clearly communicate expectations to all students.   

Use simple, direct questions on exams
  • It is difficult to write exam questions that effectively assess a student’s knowledge of the subject matter.  It is even more difficult to create exams year after year for the same course.  It is therefore understandable that the need to be creative with exam questions can sometimes result in confusing questions.  But for an international student, complicated multiple choice questions, or questions including double negatives, can be more confusing than they are for domestic students.

  • Note on double negatives: In Spanish, if a person wants to say, “I don’t have any,” the words are, “No tengo nada.” Directly translated this says, “I do not have none.” Therefore, when a Spanish speaker sees a double negative, they do not automatically interpret it as a positive.  This is equally true for many other languages.  You can imagine, therefore, how difficult a double negative exam question might be if you are not 100% fluent in the English language.

Use globally understood terms rather than idioms to the extent possible

As it is important to remember for lectures, it is equally important to avoid idioms and culturally-referenced themes in exam questions, unless they are pertinent to the subject matter.  Although technology has certainly made the world a much smaller place, it is still true that a student who grew up in China (or many other countries) will not have had similar access to popular pop idols of the 90’s, American sitcoms, or geographical references.  If you have explained these references in class, be sure to include them on any study guides or material reviews if you plan to use cultural examples on exams.

Should translation devices be permitted during exams?

JMU does not have a rule or provide official guidance about whether the use of translation devices are appropriate in exams, so each professor must make that determination.  The following factors should be considered:  Would the use of translation devices provide assistance to students without impeding on the validity of the exam? Is it possible to determine whether the translation device can be used only for translation?  Is terminology acquisition part of the learning outcomes for the course? If so, how would the use of a translation service negate that outcome?  Is there an alternative to a translation device which would satisfactorily address the students’ concern?  For instance, would it be possible for the student needing some translation to sit near the professor and simply ask for explanations or translations where necessary? 

Consider allowing extra time for test taking

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not provide accommodations for English language learners, and faculty are not legally required to make exceptions to rules when they have ELLs in their classrooms.  However, there are times when it may be appropriate to allow ELL students extra time to take exams.  This is a decision that must be made on a case-by-case or course-by-course basis, taking into account the amount of reading comprehension and writing necessary for the exam.  For example, a mathematics exam with only number problems would seem to be less likely to require additional time than a sociology exam which was essay based.  Factors to consider include: (1) the individual’s needs or demonstrated capability and commitment to the course material, (2) precedence, (3) departmental culture or directives from an Academic Unit Head, and (4) what provides the greatest access to learning while giving the individual equitable access to demonstrate content knowledge (rather than test-taking prowess or American cultural knowledge.)

Consider requiring a variety of assignments for assessment

All students learn differently and have different strengths.  The student whose writing is weak may be much better at an oral presentation.  The student with a fear of public speaking may be excellent at writing essays.  These strengths and weaknesses can be exacerbated by the cultural norms and experiences that international students bring to the U.S. classroom. Therefore, to the extent possible, a variety of assignments which assess the students’ comprehension of the material is ideal.

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