Cultural Bias in Online College Courses: This Inequity in Higher Education Should Anger Everyone

My emerging tutoring passion is assisting ESL college students with their coursework. Most of them must also hold full-time jobs to support themselves and often their families as well. Many require online courses to get college educations. They could not earn a college degree any other way.

Do textbook publishing companies realize how much cultural bias is written into their online ancillary (supplemental) materials? Do teachers of online college courses realize how hopeless these students feel about merely passing a class when their grades depend on online multiple-choice exams consisting of 60 items to be completed in 60 minutes (60 in 60), for example? This may be a subtle form of cultural bias, but bias it is.

Frankly, as a native speaker of American English with a master’s degree in journalism from University of Wisconsin—Madison, I’m not sure I could pass a 60 in 60 exam. I would like to challenge the instructors who teach these online courses and college administrators who authorize use of publishing companies' tests to sit for one of these tests with me. Would YOU pass? Would any of us pass?

For more overt (and heartbreaking) cultural bias, just add just one instance of cultural bias in misuse of idioms. Here's an example from a current web quiz for a chapter about adolescence in a developmental psychology textbook crushing one of my brightest ESL college students: The illusion of invulnerability is best defined by the phrase: (a) "once bitten, twice shy" (b) "nothing is worth the risk of dying" (c) "slow and steady wins the race" (d) "dangerous but fun."

Is this fair?


I certainly can not imagine being a college student in another country with a completely different culture. I certainly agree with you on the idea of 60/60 and misuse of idioms. However, there are great books for help with idioms. Having taught many ESL students in California public schools, I can certainly understand their difficulty with idioms. One school I worked in had a 90% ESL population. Idioms was a topic we covered for several weeks in the 7th grade ELA class. As I explained to my students, Don't feel bad, I grew up in the South, infamous for idioms, and there were a few it took me years to figure out.
Your article was very enlightening. I was a military kid, "ex-pat," and an adoptee living overseas for all of my childhood. I grew up bilingual in that country too and for some reason, I missed out on learning idioms. I thought my English was quite advanced and sufficient until I permanently moved to the U.S. in college. There was a gap in my English as I saw my personal deficit in slangs and idioms. International students and bicultural citizens like me need to be taken into account whenever exams or textbooks are written. 
Idioms and slang have been challenges with ESL students that I had tutored and friends who have languages other than English as their first language.  There are also differences between various types of English presented--American English from the USA, Canadian, British, Australian, etc.  I know of one young student from China whose parents spoke British English fluently and she was learning American English, with an East Coast dialect.  She was trying to understand one of her teachers from Chicago.  I also agree that this can be problematic on tests.  I encourage any ESL students to not be discouraged and that native English speakers have problems with various idioms, too.  Thank you so much for presenting this topic.


Deborah M.

Your Wise Aunt at WyzAnt for writing, ACT, SAT, GRE, TOEFL, all ESL

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