Teaching Spotlight – Making Questions More Understandable For EAL Students

Photo credit: Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing

As an instructor in Botany and Vantage College, Caitlin Donnelly teaches many international students for whom English is not their first language and who are still in the process of learning English. She has found that these students sometimes answer questions incorrectly, not because they don’t understand the concepts, but because they don’t understand what is being asked based on the way the question is phrased.

Because of this, Caitlin recently collaborated with Academic English instructors at UBC who are helping instructors reduce linguistic complexity and make questions more understandable for English as an additional language (EAL) students.

Below, Caitlin describes her motivation for making questions more understandable for EAL students, how she did it, and what she has learned along the way.

What was your motivation for making your questions more understandable?

I heard about this project from some colleagues in Vantage College and I was interested in participating because in the past, I’ve noticed that EAL students would sometimes misunderstand my questions and get them wrong, despite knowing the concepts.

I also realised that I would sometimes (incorrectly) assume that students were familiar with words or cultural references that are very familiar to me as someone who grew up in B.C. For example, I once wrote an exam question for BIOL 111 that referred to the impact of logging on caribou populations. I was trying to make the question interesting by using a local example, but it turned out that several students in the class did not know the word “logging”, and had to ask me to define it during the exam.

This was unproductive for both me and the students, so I was motivated to make my questions more understandable in order to make everyone’s life easier and to give students the opportunity to accurately demonstrate their knowledge of the content.

How did you do it?

I first attended a workshop about this project in 2021, in which Jennifer Lightfoot and Daniel Riccardi presented on how to make questions more intelligible for EAL students, similar to their recent Skylight workshop. At this workshop I learned about some things to keep in mind when writing questions, such as reducing unfamiliar language, breaking down long and complex sentences into shorter sentences, and removing or explaining references that require specific cultural knowledge.

Afterward, I arranged for a consultation with a project team member to review some of the questions that I had used in a BIOL 140 exam and make suggestions for reducing the complexity and making them more understandable. (I didn’t intend to re-use the edited questions; just to use them as examples for the consultation so that I could learn general principles for writing more accessible questions in the future.)  In my case, I had some questions that contained quite a bit of background information about experimental scenarios, and I realised that by covering multiple complex ideas per sentence, I was likely distracting the students from the main focus of the sentence. The consultation helped me to better determine what information was essential and what could be cut, what terms were unfamiliar and needed to be defined, how I could emphasize certain important information, and how to make the actual question I was asking more clear.

What did you learn?

After going through the consultation process and reviewing my questions, I’m learning to keep in mind some of the basic principles when creating new questions: defining unfamiliar terms, breaking down long and complex sentences into shorter sentences, and being more clear and precise about what exactly I’m asking for. But I’ve also realized that there will always be things that I miss, and that it can be really challenging to write a clear question. So, I’m just going to have to stay on top of it and try to anticipate possible misunderstandings.

What challenges did you encounter?

One issue I had with some of my questions was trying to simplify them linguistically without giving the answer away. For example, in one question I was trying to get students to give an answer about how mycorrhizal fungi affect plant growth, but I didn’t want to mention plant growth in the question so frequently as to give away the answer. So I’ve found that sometimes it can be a delicate balance of making the question more understandable while also not providing the answer itself in the question.

Why do you think this is particularly important for biology courses?

Biology has a bit of a reputation as being difficult for English language learners because there’s so much new vocabulary to learn. And it’s especially difficult for people whose first language is not European, because so many biology terms in European languages are based on Latin and Greek words. So students are not just learning English – they’re also learning some Latin and Greek, but with no formal instruction in those languages. This is important to keep in mind as we’re introducing new terminology and including these terms in questions.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to do something similar in their course?

One thing I would advise is to listen to this podcast about the project (Episode 1 – Revising Multiple Choice Questions to Enhance Multilingual Learner Comprehension). This will help you understand the rationale for why it is important to make questions more intelligible and will also give you tips for how to go about doing this in your own courses.

I realise that in practice we’re often writing questions at the last minute, but another thing that I would advise is to try to write your questions as early as possible. This will give you time to run them by someone else and get feedback, such as a co-instructor, TA, or peer tutor. One of the things that was most helpful for me about the consultation was just having somebody else look at my questions. Writing questions in advance will also allow you to take a break from them so that you come back a bit later and see them again with new eyes. When doing so, ask yourself: Is there anything that people might misunderstand? Is there any difficult vocabulary? Are any sentences really complex? Would this be hard for an EAL student to understand?

Finally, pay attention to the types of questions that students particularly struggle with. If you notice that students frequently get certain questions wrong or answer them in strange ways, it could be a sign that the question is phrased in a way that is too complex or is difficult to interpret.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

For people who aren’t familiar with Vantage College, this is a first-year program for international students who meet the academic requirements to get into UBC, but whose English proficiency is slightly beneath the required proficiency. This one-year program is pretty intensive, as students are taking a normal course load in addition to academic English courses. I mention this because the Vantage College Science program does not currently offer biology courses, and so most biology instructors are not familiar with the program.  However, some of the Vantage students do go on to study biology after their first year, and so you may have Vantage alumni in your classes – I think it helps to know a bit about these students’ background. And of course, we also have students who may struggle with linguistic complexity or culturally specific language or references, whether their first language is English or not.

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