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College Quarterly
Winter 1994 - Volume 2 Number 2
Evaluation Bias in Challenge Processes
by Dan Haden and Sue Wells

In 1993, The Centre for Instructional Development (CID) at Centennial College received funding from the Ontario Council of Regents to investigate the effects of student diversity on prior learning assessment evaluation processes and to develop responsive guidelines for any effect(s) demonstrated (i.e. the ‘project’). The literature review and demographic analysis conducted as part of the project resulted in a ‘Responsive PLA Challenge Processes’ package consisting of: an interactive computer presentation entitled ‘The Prior Learning Assessment Challenge Process Adventure Tour’, a corresponding ‘hard copy’ booklet, a consolidation of ‘Just the Facts’, and a one page ‘Summary Sheet’. The object of the different presentations was to appeal to the various learning styles of users. This article discusses the project, presents some of its conclusions and limitations, and makes suggestions for future research.


While the fact of student diversity within the college system is being increasingly acknowledged, it appears from issues which are arising that we are only beginning to understand how such diversity is reflected in our educational responsibilities and routines. According to Grosz (1990 p.17) our lack of understanding may originate in how our particular race and socioeconomic status affect our perceptions, such that the perceptions of the majority of educators “… are so different from those of minority students they sometimes struggle to help, that they simply cannot perceive the nature of the problem.” The ensuing biases are so pervasive and influencing that they have also become rooted in our “… historical, political, social, economic and legal structure[s] …” (Ont. Council of Regents, 1993 p.30). Within teaching responsibilities, these biases clearly affect evaluation systems and, consequently, the students who participate in them (Smith, 1989 p.9). When, in turn, educators witness evaluation differences in students, the tendency is to “… assume the institution's perfection and the students' incompetence.” (Smith, 1989 p.65) and move towards ‘special needs’ remediation (Wells, 1994 ‘Literature Review’ p.2).

Literature Review - Barriers to Equitable Evaluation

One of the first tasks of the project was to conduct a literature review to determine “… what types of barriers may exist in the evaluation tool or its administration which may prevent access to equal opportunity for the learner to fairly demonstrate his or her learning.” (Ontario Council of Regents, 1993 p.13). Within the community college system, equal opportunity to success is an issue of education equity (Vision 2000 p.30).

Generally, six factors were identified as significant characteristic barriers. These included alienation, self-confidence, reaction time, vision and hearing, language, and learning style. They were identified in the following ways:

  1. References to alienation and isolation occur frequently in the related literature, especially literature regarding minority students, women, disabled students and adult learners (Smith, 1989 p.iii). Immigrant students seem particularly vulnerable where their feelings of alienation are experienced within demands imposed by new environments (Kiang, 1992 p.101).
  2. Diminished self-confidence was also a barrier, especially for students with English as a second language or whose educational background was other than based on the Eurocentric model.
  3. Adult students and those with certain physical or language distinctions may have slower reaction times which adversely affect learning processes (Cross, 1988 p.132).
  4. Any extent of visual or hearing impairment may affect the learning and evaluation process (Cross, 1988 p.135).
  5. English language difficulty can challenge learners during evaluation processes.
  6. Learning style is one of the most influential barriers, especially for minority and learning disabled students. Knowing that students learn differently has led some to conclude that students should also be evaluated differently (Smith, 1989 p.62; Rodriguez, 1991 p.7).
Literature Review - Strategies to Reduce Barriers

From the literature review the project compiled the following eight types of strategies to overcome the identified barriers:

  1. Evaluation instruments should be comprised of neutral language, avoiding the use of slang, idioms and colloquialisms. This does not negate reference to culture (Byers, 1993 p.72), but may mean accommodating the student through translation (Byers, 1993, p.82), oral examination (Byers, 1993 p.83), or evaluating content separately from language (Santos, 1986 p.17).
  2. Experience from American truth-in-testing legislation and especially the Illinois golden rule bias reduction principle substantiates that certain evaluation items may be culturally biased or contain culturally biased distracters. (Weiss, 1987 p.5). This emphasizes the need for scrutiny to assure bias free content.
  3. “Defining clear outcomes [was] an important strategy discussed frequently in the literature … Evaluation criteria should be explicit … [and] obvious” (Wells, 1994 ‘Literature Review’ p.5). Performance should be based on valid indicators of learning (Smith, 1989 p.62) which are also sufficiently rigorous (Rodriguez, 1991 p.8).
  4. Flexible evaluation can accommodate learning and culture (Smith, 1989 p.65; Rodriguez, 1991 p.8), and measure quality in light of diversity (Smith, 1989 p.65). As well as reducing barriers to fair evaluation, this could increase validity through score analysis across various evaluation methods (Byers, 1993 p.82).
  5. Increasing the locus of control of the learner over the evaluation will increase the learner's self-confidence. This might be achieved through self-administered tests and permitting evaluation options (Byers, 1993 p.82).
  6. Regular formative evaluation supports positive self-esteem and otherwise reduces barriers to fair evaluation by promoting goal directed behaviour (Guba & Lincoln, 1985 p.31). This is especially effective for students whose self-esteem is negatively affected by the uncertainty of goal deferment (Blum, 1992 p.25).
  7. Consideration should be given to creatively extending supportive peer-tutoring and other group models to the evaluation process (Rodriguez, 1991 p.12) to reduce student feelings of alienation. In applying such models however, instructors must be careful not to promote learned helplessness (Blum, 1992 p.25).
  8. “Performance based assessment … [which] evaluates skills in a natural setting” (Wells, 1994 ‘Literature Review’ p.6) supports both the adult student's expectations that study will validate experience (Smith, 1989 p.67) and the particular strength of high risk students to work with tangible problems (Blum, 1992 p.37).
Survey on Evaluation Methods

Concluding, in part, that the literature “did not speak to the unique issues that various diversities may bring to both the evaluation process … and … specific types of evaluation[s]” (Wells, 1994 ‘Literature Review’ p.7), the project recommended that a survey “ … to identify evaluation methods participants felt provided them with the most fair and equitable opportunity to illustrate knowledge and skills” (Wells, 1994 ‘Literature Review’ p.7) be designed and distributed to the current Centennial student body. Anticipating the possibility that allowing students to indicate their most preferred evaluation method might be interpreted by some as validation of a student propensity to avoid a more difficult evaluation choice, the project premised that the reason for any particular student's choice may, in fact, lie in such factors as the student's age, gender, experiences, etc., or otherwise their evaluation history. If students feel they are better able to exhibit knowledge and skills in a particular evaluation method, it might be due to something in their experiences which allows them to more successfully manage that method.

In consultation with the Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat and pursuant to relevant legislation, including the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act R.S.O. 1990, c.F.31, a survey was designed which related the evaluation experiences and preferences of the then current student and faculty population.

The survey was administered between March 19th and 21st, 1994. 1,542 continuing education students, 1,688 full time students and 156 faculty responded. Although results were compiled for the college as a whole, many results were also tabulated separately for the day and continuing education schools.

The survey analyzed seven different major demographic groupings, namely; age, gender, highest level of education, country of education, length of time since education completed, language, and cultural background. Each grouping was asked to respond to questions about their experiences with a list of evaluation formats including essay, short answer, fill in the blank/completion, true or false, multiple choice, demonstration or performance assessment, product assessment, and interview or oral examination. Specifically, students were asked to identify formats they had experienced, they thought difficult or unfair, and, for which they thought a lack of skill in English or a special need would cause a lower mark. The survey did not ask respondents to identify the reasons for their preferences.

In addition, faculty were asked to identify evaluation formats they: had used, thought were not suited to their course, thought required too much time and effort to use, and thought would especially challenge students with lack of skill in English.

Since the survey was comprehensive, only those portions relating to the conclusions of the project are reported here.

Survey Results

When the survey data was independently tabulated results interestingly identified relationships between demographic groupings and experience with certain evaluation format(s). According to the 'Just the Facts' portion of the project, students' reports indicated that:

  1. “Some cultural groups … [had] a wide range of experiences with evaluation formats, while others … [had only] limited exposure” (Wells, 1994 p.13);
  2. female students and students under 25 were more experienced with all formats than were male students and those over 25;
  3. almost hierarchically, students whose language at home was English only had more experience with all formats than those who spoke English and another language at home; in turn, students who spoke English and another language at home had more experience with all formats than those who did not speak English at home, and
  4. students completing their highest education level 1-3 years ago or within Canada experienced “a broader range of testing” (Wells, 1994 p.13) than students completing their highest education level more than 3 years ago or outside Canada.

Given these relationships, the project ‘Summary Sheet’ concluded that processes used by faculty in selecting evaluation format(s) may be influenced by unique past experiences and may wrongly assume “… that the student already possesses skills and abilities consistent with that format. These may have little or nothing to do with the content that is being assessed.” (Wells, 1994) Such individual assumptions may bias evaluation results.


Based on the literature review and survey, the project recommended 5 strategies faculty could use in selecting evaluation formats which would take the research results into consideration.

The first of these strategies, ‘Defining Learning Outcomes’ takes advantage of recent trends in the community college system. Learning outcomes “describe performances that demonstrate that significant learning has been verified and achieved …” (Wells, 1994 'Just the Facts' p.14). When determined before the course content is delivered, learning outcomes can be weighted by assigning a percentage mark value to the respective worth of the outcome, and designed to measure learning at any of the traditional taxonomical levels. This clarifies what is being evaluated and guides the design of the evaluation instrument.

The next strategy, 'Carefully Considering the Format' asks the reader to consider several options, including: allowing the student to select from several formats, using more than one format within a test, selecting a format the student has previously experienced, and using a format the students feel will best demonstrate their skill/knowledge.

'Examining the Content Closely' provides a list of questions which help determine the extent to which an evaluation format may bias. The questions are designed to alert the reader to consider: offensive and/or unfamiliar references; stereotypical representations; such language peculiarities as slang, idioms, reduced forms and simple sentences; multiple concepts, and illustrations.

‘Linking Things Together’ helps students “connect personal experiences with the challenge process” (Wells, 1994 'Just the Facts' p.18). According to the project this is of special importance for students with the characteristics of diversity. Linking things together can be achieved by giving students opportunity to practice the type of evaluation(s) they will experience, providing tips for studying - perhaps by referring the student to available resources for improving studying, or even by connecting the student with other students who have completed the evaluation process.

The last suggestion offered by the project is 'Providing Formative Feedback'. This involves communicating with the students about their progress, usually through continuing evaluation which may or may not form part of the students' grades. This reduces feelings of alienation and isolation.


In conclusion, while the project accepted uniqueness of personality and experience as a certain factor in the delivery of curriculum content, the precise effect of various diversities on the range of available evaluation processes remains to be better understood. This study attempts to heighten awareness and contribute to a greater understanding of the potential for evaluation bias - as may be centred in the learner, the teacher and, most importantly, in the diverse differences between them - and to provide a foundation for a more scientific understanding from which future research can take direction. This study is only an initial step, and is subject to such limitations as are above-mentioned (including that respondents were not asked to explain the reason(s) for their responses), and as may be scientifically concluded from further research.

Specifically, future research could:
  1. more precisely clarify and define the effect of diversity(ies) on individual evaluation formats
  2. determine whether the fact of evaluation bias is generalizable to other evaluation scenarios, e.g. classroom, employee and course evaluation
  3. determine the extent to which the current understanding of evaluation bias in other disciplines such as human resources management are incorporable or generalizable to knowledge/skill evaluation
  4. propose other and/or more effective strategies for reducing the possibility or effect of evaluation bias
  5. contribute to a greater understanding and propensity toward fair and equitable evaluations generally.

Blum, M.E. and others.(1992) Developing Educational Programs for the High Risk Secondary School and College Student. New York: Columbia University Press.

Byers, P. (1993) Evaluation in a Culturally Diverse Classroom. In Pro Diversity: A Guide for Achieving Equity in the Classroom. George Brown College: Toronto, ON.

Cross, P. (1988) Adults as Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Grosz, K. (1990) The Challenge of Cultural Diversity in the Classroom. The Forum, Academic Senate for Community Colleges. Vol.7, Summer, 1990. Sacramento, CA.

Guba, E. and Lincoln. Y. (1985) Effective Evaluation, Improving the Usefulness of Evaluation Results Through Responsive and Naturalistic Approaches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kiang, P.N.(1992) Issues of Curriculum and Community for First-Generation Asian Americans in College. New Directions for Community Colleges. No. 80, Winter, 1992.

Ontario Council of Regents (1993) PLA and Ontario's Culturally Diverse Population - Prior Learning Training. A workshop sponsored by the Ontario Council of Regents, May 10-14, 1993. Toronto, ON.

Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities (1990) Vision 2000: Quality and Opportunity. Toronto ON.

Rodriguez, A. (1991) Multi-Cultural Education: Some Considerations for a University Setting. Ms.

Santos, (1986) Professor's Reactions to the Academic Writing of Non-Native-Speaking Students. Los Angeles: California State University.

Smith, D.G. (1989). The Challenge of Diversity: Involvement or Alienation in the Academy? ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 5.

Weiss, J. (1987) Truth-in-Testing and the Golden Rule Principle: Two Practical Reforms. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Measurement in Education: Washington, D.C. April 21-23.

Wells, S.B. (1994) Review of the Literature: Prior Learning Assessment Challenge Process Project. Scarborough, ON: Centennial College

Wells, S.B. (1994) Just the Facts: Prior Learning Assessment Challenge Project. Scarborough, ON: Centennial College

Wells, S.B. (1994) Summary Sheet: Prior Learning Assessment Project. Scarborough, ON: Centennial College

Dan Haden is an instructor in legal skills in the School of Continuing Education at Centennial College.

Sue Wells is chairperson for the Child Studies Department at Centennial College.