Sitting exams in a second language: minimising bias maximising potential


International students studying at Oxford Brookes face many challenges as they navigate their way through a new educational culture. Assessment procedures are one of these challenges because of the many potential differences between the assessments they are used to and those that they will encounter here. Some of the differences are the same as those faced by all students moving from a school to a university environment, but others may be due to the traditions of their previous education systems or, for many students, the fact that they are studying and being assessed in a language which is not their mother tongue.

This guide aims to offer advice and assistance to lecturers who have international students in their modules, particularly students for whom English is a foreign language (EFL). The primary aim is to focus on points within the teaching, learning and assessment cycle where you can take action to minimize any potential bias against international students on your exams. The goal is to ensure that differences between students’ performances on exams are not due to language proficiency or lack of understanding of exam procedure, but rather due to differences in their discipline-related skills, abilities and knowledge.

The guide introduces two areas where changes to lecturers’ behaviours or practices have the potential to result in improved or maximised international student performance on exams.

  • Changes to exam papers
  • Teaching and learning practices

Before presenting these approaches, the next section will first provide some background on the rationale for this guide and on the linguistic knowledge base of EFL students.

Diane Schmitt
ASKe, Oxford Brookes University

3 May 2007