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Let's say that at a British university, there is a chemistry exam. The exam describes a person performing a chemistry experiment. This person leaves the experiment sitting there for a fortnight. After a fortnight, the person comes back to see the results.

The question asks the students to describe what the student in question will most likely see. But let's say there are Americans studying at this university, and they're taking this exam. In America, the word fortnight is not used, and most people don't understand what it means.

So if these students got this question wrong, could they complain about it? Is there anything that can be done to help their grade on the exam? What it it's a foreign professor who is teaching at a university in America, and the student doesn't realize this word is not used over there? What if the student's exam contained this question, and the whole class got confused by it?

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12 Answers 12

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During the test, the student can ask about the exotic non-technical word, and the proctor can clarify on its meaning.

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    At some universities, like UCL, this is explicitly forbidden: the procedure there is that the invigilator can't give an answer, but the student is expected to fill out a form detailing their concern, which is passed to the examiners alongside their script. But this is in some ways better since it definitively brings the matter to the attention of the graders, and creates a paper trail. In any institution, students could also write in their answer something like "I have no idea what a fortnight is, and have answered on the basis that it means ten days", which a grader would certainly see.
    – alexg
    Mar 12, 2023 at 10:51
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    We have a regulation that the person setting the exam must be reachable during the exam, precisely for that reason. Mar 13, 2023 at 0:08
  • Additional comments (lots of them about fortnights) have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Mar 14, 2023 at 19:24
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I dealt with this exact issue just a few months ago.

I was invigilating an exam on deep learning, at a British university where ~60% of the students are international. One question asked something like,

Give your verdict on the accuracy of the model.

I had at least two Chinese students put their hands up and ask what "verdict" meant. Since it's a computer science exam, not an English exam, I gave them a definition:

A verdict is like a final opinion, or conclusion. For example, in court, when the trial is over, the judge makes a verdict, which is the final decision about the case.

This is part of the job of the invigilator. "Verdict", like "fortnight", is a common English word, and not technical either. It is not unreasonable to use it in a normal sentence or an examination, and if someone doesn't understand it, that's their fault, not the examiner's...but since it isn't part of the technical content of the exam, there's no reason to not tell them what it means if they ask.

If they don't ask, then they can't complain; they had the opportunity and knew that that's what the invigilators were there for, yet chose not to.

If this particular word becomes a recurring problem, then it might be worth not using it in the future. But to simplify all language usage because international students are not fluent in the host language is unreasonable.

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    In the spirit of this answer: what is an invigilator. I (a non-native speaker) have never heard this term before.
    – Sursula
    Mar 13, 2023 at 9:15
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    @Sursula an invigilator is literally somebody who "keeps watch"; in this context it is used as a standard term to mean "a person whose job is to watch people taking an exam in order to check that they do not cheat"
    – penelope
    Mar 13, 2023 at 9:57
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    @Sursula I believe invigilators are referred to as "proctors" in US English. Mar 13, 2023 at 11:08
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    @JackAidley I have not heard that before in that context, although it sounds equally science fictional, so fine.
    – Tom
    Mar 13, 2023 at 12:37
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    "they had the opportunity and knew that that's what the invigilators were there for, yet chose not to" I think it is crucial for the answer to notice that students may or may not know that this is actually part of the invilgator job. If it has never been clarified, it is hard to blame the students for deciding to not disturb an exam room with something that may not be allowed.
    – Kolaru
    Mar 14, 2023 at 13:51
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Students are (usually) expected to understand the local language

In general, students are expected and required to be competent in the language in which they are taught and - yes - this includes knowing the local version of that language. An American being educated in the UK needs to take the effort to learn the differences with British English. For an absolutely common bog-standard word like "fortnight" it's entirely reasonable to expect students to know the word and if they don't, well, that's their problem (which they can ask the invigilator about and they'll likely help with).

Academics teaching outside their own country need to be careful with language

But this also goes both ways. An academic in a country that they're not from needs to consider that their language is different to where they are now. This may be particularly difficult for academics moving to countries which apparently speak the same language - for example, it'd have never occurred to me that "fortnight" wouldn't be universally understood by English speakers - but the onus still lies on the academic to deal with it. If it becomes apparent after setting an exam that a mistake has been made, there should be appropriate flexibility in marking the answer according to common misunderstandings.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 13, 2023 at 14:49
  • I'm not sure I agree with this. Sure, they should have a grasp of the local language, but the exam isn't testing that their English is perfect. It's testing that they understand the technical content. They couldn't ask for a definition of a technical term, but a non-technical one seems perfectly reasonable as it has no bearing on whether or not they actually understand what the exam is testing for. Mar 13, 2023 at 21:30
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In Germany foreign students are allowed to use dictonaries during exams (like French -> German). This solves the problem quite well.

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    Indeed! But I wonder whether there is a UK-English-to-US-English dictionary available... :) Mar 12, 2023 at 17:48
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    The problem seems to be that the students do not expect to bring a dictonary. Nobody in their right mind would bring an UK-English-to-US-English dictionary to a chemistry exam unless told before that such a weird situation might occur.
    – user111388
    Mar 12, 2023 at 18:37
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    Why not provide a certain amount of dictonaries during an exam in general, if you have foreign students? "There will be 10 students tomorrow, so I will bring 5 dictonaries just in case, if someone forgets to bring its own". Mar 12, 2023 at 19:16
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    @user111388 They could/should use an English dictionary like OED.
    – d-b
    Mar 12, 2023 at 22:20
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    Watch out for idioms, though. A dictionary won't help you understand an idiom, since its meaning cannot be deciphered from the usual definitions of its constituent words. Mar 13, 2023 at 15:33
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could they complain about it?

Yes, they can raise their concern with faculty. A glance at a typical instructor's email inbox will confirm that this happens. Certainly, if a student wants their instructor to be aware of something, then telling them about it will be more effective than not telling them.

In this scenario, a student faced with this problem during the exam could also write on their exam paper: "As an American, I am hopelessly confused by the word 'fortnight' and I am assuming it means ten days. On that basis, my calculation is [...]". Or they need not be quite so explicit; if it's clear that they understood the chemistry but plugged in the wrong number for the time period, people doing the grading would ordinarily give due credit.

Another answer suggests asking the invigilator. This is practical if the question is clearly not to do with the subject-matter of the exam (e.g., you wouldn't expect them to explain what titration is), and if institutional policy allows them to give an answer. Universities can have rules about giving mid-exam clarifications, in the interests of fairness and avoiding student stress. (When I was an undergraduate, we had one exam which featured a succession of contradictory clarifications, finishing with the announcement that the entire question would be scrapped. This was very stressful for everyone.) This can also be harder if it is an online exam, and doesn't work if the exam is already over.

In some cases, clearing things up during the exam may well be hopeless. Suppose the subject is physics and the lecturer has set a problem involving the trajectory of a cricket ball, referring to such things as the popping crease, the wicket, being hit for six, and so on. Someone innocent of cricket may find the setup totally bewildering, and the exam hall is not a great place to explain cricket from first principles. The best option here is for the student to proceed as best they can during the exam, and raise the issue afterwards as swiftly as possible through the proper local channels.

However...

Is there anything that can be done to help their grade on the exam?

The processes for this differ between the UK and the US. In America, the professor commonly has very wide discretion to assign grades. British universities will have a different set of methods, with second-marking and oversight by external examiners. But either way, this sort of grading issue is very hard to appeal after the decision is made - there is an academic judgement call, and that is generally that. Student concerns have to be raised within a fairly narrow timeframe, in order to be taken into account.

Students who would like their overall mark to be higher could dedicate their efforts to worrying about a wording issue on a single exam question, and lobbying for a change in grade. Or they could spend the same amount of effort learning more about the synthesis of alkanes, say, and hope to get a higher overall mark in their next module. There is very little institutional appetite in either country for entertaining lengthy disputes about this sort of thing. Matters might be different if the student could show that they were significantly disadvantaged as a result of the grading decision, but this single question will not be the determinative factor that gets them a 2:2 instead of a 2:1.

Overall, even though assessments shouldn't contain hidden cultural assumptions - because then they're not assessing the right thing - the extent to which they can be challenged will vary depending on the seriousness. I have seen universities on both sides of the Atlantic take student feedback seriously, but generally with more focus on improving assessments in the future than on wrangling over ones which have already happened.

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  • British English is similar to American English. So even if an American came across whilst instead of while for the first time, he would be able to tell what it means. But let's imagine we live in a world where they are much different, and the words don't look similar. And the university is located in Japan, which doesn't have its own English dialect. So how would the exam setter know which version to use to avoid confusion? And how do you think confusion would be handled? Mar 13, 2023 at 2:29
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    How about the word football? It is not slang, in either dialect. It is a commonly used and understood term. Yes, a person living in England for more than a few month would know exactly what football means there, but a new American to the country, who is not at all into sports, will know exactly what football is, due to having lived a life in America ... and it won't be the round-ball kind.
    – CGCampbell
    Mar 13, 2023 at 10:34
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Here is my complete guide:

Before the exam

First, if there is no indication at all that such a scenario is likely to happen, don't worry about it, it is absolutely unlikely. This is evidenced by the fact that you chose the example "fortnight" and "chemistry exam" (and could not come up with a better example). It's hard to believe a chemistry teacher to use this word in an exam instead of "14 days".

If, on the other hand, in the lecture from time to time the lecturer uses words not common in your locale, inform them that they are not common and ask for their meaning. This should tell the instructor that there is some discrepency between your languages and that they should be careful when creating the exam. Maybe even tell them that you worry about the exam - most likely, the instructor will tell you a solution (like "in this case, just ask during the exam" or "I will make sure to go through the exam with a local collague").

If the instructor speaks competely ununderstandble (eg speaks in mediavial English), treat this case like the professor would speak a different language (which some of my professors at some point did). I don't know how it works in your school, but a good way would eg be to first talk to the professor, then your student union, then higher-ups.

During the exam

If there is a word you don't understand, just ask. Most instructors will clarify non-technical words (or, for importantbquestions, even words you need to know to be able to answer the question even if you should know them). If for some reason, you cannot ask, treat the question like any other questions where you don't know an important word. Eg do the other questions before, think logically what the word could mean; if you must make a guess write something like "The word is not known to me, I assume it means 12 days."

After the exam

If your answer was marked incorrect because of the word (this includes the case where you thought you know the meaning but the meaning is different in your and the instructor 's dialect) and you are allowed to debate it, discuss with other students to find out if the word was really uncommon. Try to find proofs that it is not a British word and tell the professor. If this doesn't help, do what you usually would do if you'd see a question as unsolvable. This could be doing nothing because there is no effective way of complaining in your institution or go the "chain of complaints" (eg starting with the student union).

There are a lot of answers here and my answer is relatively long. This may seem like there is a lot to think about - I'd say it isn't. Don't worry and just use common sense.

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This is just a particular case of the more general problem of what happens when the meaning of the statement of a question is somehow ambiguous (because of dialect or because of anything else). I usually use two ways to solve it:

  • Students can ask during the exam, and clarification about the statement can be given. That includes telling the students anything except the knowledge being tested or its prerequisites.
  • In case this is not possible - because of the invigilator not familiar with the question or the subject, or because a clarification can't be given without telling about the answer, or because of any other reason - tell the student to state clearly how they understand the question and answer accordingly. Here, if the question was actually ambiguous, and the student's understanding of it was reasonable for anybody having followed and learned the curse, grade it accordingly to that interpretation - as much as possible.

Of course, making test statements not ambiguous is the perfect solution, but sometimes you don't realise your statement can be misunderstood until your students start misunderstanding it.

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Sometimes it is a language evolution issue

In taking a Professional Engineer (PE) exam (Electrical Engineering - pre 1995) was the first time I read Siemens. Even with a clear understanding of mho, the context of the question was enough to warrant a clarification.

Since the 8-hours exam allowed one for bring reference books, (it was amazing how may some folks brought), my good dictionary readily addressed the issue: Siemens is about the same unit of unit of electric conductance as mho. The dictionary was the best reference I brought to the exam.

So even being a native English speaker, the lingo of the industry had evolved from using mho to preferring Siemens. PE exams often happen years after college. (Also I suspect my college was not up-to-date in the small regard.)


What if a student doesn't understand a question because of differences in dialect?

Such issues like this are foreseeable and the resolution should be clearly stated beforehand.

Have the policy known prior and test takers have to live with it - or can seek alternatives beforehand.

If developing a policy, I'd favor simplicity most of the time. Allowing exceptions will propagate exceptions.

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First off, I am not a native English speaker. This is the first time I heard of the word "fortnight". I had to google for its meaning: two weeks. Am I right? Or wrong? Could it also mean half a month? (if it means half a month, it's 15 nights to me)

If I were a student sitting in the exam, I may take the word "fortnight" for a "battle night" because "fort" means a military building to me. So, I would take "fortnight" to mean just one night of the battle for the experiment.

There is a comment and an answer saying that the student should ask to clarify the meaning of the word. But, why should I ask for the clarification if I think I already know its meaning without much doubt?

I think the answer to the question should be to give the students reasonable marks in their best interests. What should be the reasonable marks depends on the exam and the instructor.

My point is, the instructor should be precise when describing the problems in an exam. Why not writing fourteen (14) nights in the first place? This way no one would be confused and the exam would be fair to everyone. After all, the students are there to learn chemistry (in this case), not English Literature.

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    'fourteen night… fort'night. I really don't comprehend how someone could logically extrapolate 'a fort is a building, so it must mean a battle, so that's one night'. That's some pretty wild lateral thinking.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 12, 2023 at 11:43
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    That wasn't at all what I was questioning. It was your mental leap from that to 'one night'. There seems to be absolutely no intervening logic.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 12, 2023 at 12:10
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    I keep inviting you to explain yours, so far you have demurred.
    – Tetsujin
    Mar 12, 2023 at 12:14
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    "Fortnight" in British English is not some exotic phrase. If you're expecting a simple, primary school level, word like that to be defined, where do you stop? Mar 12, 2023 at 12:39
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    @Tetsujin: I do know what fortnight means, but I also understand that "fourteen nights", "fourty nights" or "some special kind of (single) night" (because it's "fortnight", not "fortnights") are equally plausible to someone who doesn't know. (That having been said, I wholeheartedly agree with Jack's answer.)
    – Heinzi
    Mar 12, 2023 at 13:05
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I would split this into 3 different parts. And whether the time period of 14 days is relevant to the answer or not. I mean if it were absolutely relevant that it was that long, then it's very important point to get right.

I would ALSO factor in if the student could ask for a clarification of the word in question during the exam. If, yes and they were able to get a 'real' answer (i.e. a fortnight is 14 days, not, a we can't answer that question or a 'non-answer' answer), then, I would treat it more as a failing on the student's part -- they could have asked, but didn't. However, if not, I would treat them more leniently.

Part 1, the student didn't understand the word:

In this case, I would grade the question based upon the understanding of the question that the student had.

E.g. If the student said I didn't understand "a fortnight" and assumed it was this time period, I would base it upon that time period.

Could the student complain about it:Yes, they could, especially if it's not a particularly common thing.

Part 2, the foreign professor using a word/phrase that's not common:

I would treat it similarly to Part 1. Base the grading on what the student understood the question to be asking.

Could the student complain about it: Yes.

Part 3, everybody got it wrong:

In this case, I would throw out the question, because since nobody got it right, something must be wrong with how the question was worded -- and since there was the issue, it's not fair to grade on that question.

Although, I would, as the professor, make sure it was the question that was the issue and not an issue with the class not getting the concept in question.

Could the student complain about it:No, because the question would be a non-factor.

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I am French and somehow heard about the word fortnight. Since I do not know what this means exactly I would have asked during the exam. From a teacher perspective, this is a completely normal question.

It would have been a different situation if

  • the word was tetra-fluo-carbo-monohydrate because this is the name of a well -known chemical molecule, and a student passing the exam in English is expected to know it no matter what his mother tongue is. (full disclosure: I am an ex-physicist and completely made up the name)
  • a word that has a completely different meaning between variations of English (not a false friend as we have many in French-English; but a word that means, say, "clear" in British English and "cloudy" in Singaporean English).
    This would have been way more complicated because on the one hand the exam happens in the UK so British English is the reference, but it is not a matter of lack of knowledge of English, just a different English.

This can happen even with casual words. We have in French the word prochain which means next (mercredi prochain = next Wednesday). In some regions, however, prochain means the one after next. In other words, if today is Monday and and I say mercredi prochain, some people will understand the closest Wednesday, that is in two days, and others the Wednesday after the closest one, that it in 9 days.

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    Your prochain confusion can also happen with next in English. (If it's Monday, and I mean two days' time, I'd say this Wednesday, not next Wednesday.)
    – TRiG
    Mar 14, 2023 at 19:04
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    @TRiG: ah, this is interesting. It makes more sense in English, though because in French the word prochain comes from proche which means close (as in "not distant"). So the logical meaning is "the closest Wednesday" (which is unambiguous) but we still manage to complicate it :) We actually invented a special concept "Wednesday in eight", which means "the first Wednesday after adding 8 days to today's date". There is also "in fifteen".
    – WoJ
    Mar 15, 2023 at 10:18
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I can offer some suggestions that may help but probably aren't a complete answer, nor one that can be applied everywhere.

But first, the instructor needs to become aware of the issue somehow. Perhaps it is brought to their attention by the student, or by a confusing answer on the exam. Otherwise the "what if" is that the student suffers.

Next, the instructor needs to recognize this is a failure on their part if their language in exams isn't clear and precise and understood by all. In the instant case, if they have never used fortnight in a lecture and have non-native speakers in the class it is their issue, not that of the students. So, part of the larger solution is to change the language for future classes so the issue doesn't continue to arise.

I'll assume that the instructor has noticed the problem too late and they are looking at an exam paper. There are two things that might be done, though they apply narrowly to a case like this one. Perhaps they give some guidance to a wider set of cases. Or not.

If you can understand, by asking the student, how they interpreted "fortnight" (four nights, forty nights, whatever) then you can grade the student based on what the reaction would have been in that time period. If they interpreted it as forty nights and give a consistent answer then mark it correct.

Second, if no such solution is possible, you can, perhaps, remove that question from the marking for that student. So, supposing a 100 point exam and they missed this one for such a reason and the question was worth 10 points, mark their exam based on 90 points instead to get a "percentage" correct. This still disadvantages the student, though less, since they may have spent unfruitful time on the question. But 65/90 is much nicer than 65/100.

The educational philosophy here is I'm not perfect and I don't expect you to be perfect. But learning is more important than grading and that's why we are here.

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    I'm tempted to downvote this for "the instructor needs to recognize this is a failure on their part if their language in exams isn't clear and precise and understood by all" as if it's a failure of the instructor if the student can't understand English but it's an otherwise great answer so +1 instead. Mar 12, 2023 at 14:41
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    It seems the instructor used 100 percent normal British English, which is the language spoken in the UK.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 12, 2023 at 15:08
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    @Elin that assumes students have no course to clarify the meaning of some normal words in the local language.
    – justhalf
    Mar 13, 2023 at 3:12
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    For better of for worse, there are English language requirements for enrolment into UK Unis for international students. We are, officially, expected to prepare materials for students who have a certain minimum understanding of English. Unfortunately, as the motivation of our admissions team (money) is often different from that of the academics (teaching and education, in this case), these requirements are not well enforced. However, we can not turn our lectures into English classes, and I don't accept that the student's lacking level of English is a failure on the part of the academic.
    – penelope
    Mar 13, 2023 at 10:07
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    We had cases where the students' eyes go wide reflecting they haven't understood a single word after getting asked simple questions such as "How are you enjoying the class?", students using Google translate to be able to interpret entire lab/practical sheets (not just for individual/difficult words), and students not being able to communicate at all with their supervisors and tutors without Google translate. I simply can not see and will not accept that this is a failure on my part / on the part of the academic.
    – penelope
    Mar 13, 2023 at 10:13

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