Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Assessment of writing in multicultural settings

Catherine McLoughlin
Faculty of Education (PhD Student)
Edith Cowan University

Assessment in higher education has many purposes, the most important of which is to encourage students to learn. There is considerable evidence that the quality of student learning is adversely affected by inappropriate assessment methods (Rowntree, 1977). Surface approaches to learning (memorisation rather than deeper understanding) are adopted by students when study demands are excessive and students are under pressure. There is thus a conflict between the summative objectives of assessment, selecting, grading and maintaining standards, and the formative role of encouraging learning. In a multicultural learning context, as characterised in tertiary learning contexts, the formative role of assessment procedures is critical in developing self-directed learning strategies. Assessment strategies should therefore promote and match these higher order cognitive activities. Assessment then, should form an integral part of the learning process. It is also a way of helping students to learn more effectively (Ramsden, 1992).

In this article, several strategies will be presented which aim to enhance the quality of student writing, by considering the different perceptions students may have of essays and the influences that cultures exert on writing patterns.

The multicultural context

In the context of an increasingly diverse and multicultural university, questions about the quality of student learning are foregrounded. When there is linguistic and cultural diversity there is also complexity in the range of problems encountered by students as they learn to cope with the demands of academic study.

The link between student approaches to learning and assessment methods has long been emphasised in the literature (Ramsden 1992; Watkins 1986). No teacher or academic could dispute the claim that one of the central functions of assessment is to encourage and assist students to learn. The increasingly multicultural environment in Australia and its attendant student diversity requires that greater attention be given to promoting understanding and acceptance of assessment methods. The diverse cultural backgrounds of students means that there are major differences in expectations and approaches to study (Ballard & Clancy, 1991). Such differences need to be taken into account when assessing students from different cultural backgrounds so that students can meet the requirements of assessment tasks.

Many international students are aware that different learning strategies and attitudes to knowledge are required for success at Australian institutions (Volet & Kee, 1993). It is also important to bear in mind that the problems encountered by students from overseas are within the range of difficulties faced by Australian students in so far as both groups may need to improve academic skills, writing approaches and critical thinking.

Student learning outcomes are influenced by the learner's perception of context i.e, teaching, assessment, curriculum, and the nature of learning tasks. If this is the case, the methods of assessment must be carefully constructed around clearly specified learning objectives. Communication of objectives and criteria for assessment of tasks should be explicit and accessible to all students so there is understanding of expectations and standards.

Different conceptions of the essay

In a multicultural learning environment students may have different approaches to, and definitions of, essay writing. In order to help students to improve their writing skills, it is important for teachers to:

Defining the essay

The root of the word essay lies in the active verb "to try" (French essayer). It may well be salutary to remember this origin, and to conceive of the essay as an opportunity for students to put into words what has been learnt. Essays are essentially concerned with trying out ideas and arguments supported by evidence.

According to Hounsell (1984), students may have different conceptions of essays viz:

Another possibility is that an essay is a random display of ideas and facts in response to the question or task set. Research has shown that the conception of the essay as argument reflects a deep approach to learning and a concern with constructing meaning through active engagement with the subject matter (Hounsell, 1984).

What skills does essay writing require of students?

The act of writing is a process that leads to, and at the same time demonstrates, understanding. It is in fact a way of thinking. Most of the following activities are required by students in both written and verbal expression.


Such higher order activities are the hallmark of quality in composition, but they are also ways of thinking. They are characteristic of the process of writing and may be more critical in good writing than displaying knowledge of content. However, many students are less aware of these process skills than they are of the content of writing. For the sake of learning it is important that they learn to separate the two.

Composing an essay is a thinking process which calls on a number of complex cognitive skills. Writing has become compared to the problem solving which takes place in many everyday activities. While the finished product may show a linear development, in reality writing is not a progression through successive stages but a continual reworking of a number of stages, i.e, generating ideas, developing plans, composing an outline, reviewing and redrafting, organising and reviewing.

The development of these facets of student writing is directly influenced by how the tutor/instructor shapes, directs and supports essay writing. Student performance will therefore be affected by:

The following section highlights the impact of culture on one aspect of the academic performance of international students, viz., the organisation of ideas in writing.

Cross-cultural perspective: Understanding the nature of writing in other cultures

As a basis for any discussion of assessing writing, it is important to understand that many errors may be attributed to differences in rhetoric and presentation of ideas. This section will present the view that cultural differences are one feature that may affect students' academic writing, resulting in differences in style and presentation of ideas.

Many international students are not only working in a second language in an Australian educational institution, but also within a second culture. For some, this may involve a transition to a writing style appropriate to the requirements of the academic discipline in which they are studying.

Cultural differences in terms of rhetorical systems and discourse organisation should be appreciated when evaluating and assisting students with academic writing.

The notion of cultural differences in styles of discourse and rhetoric originates with Kaplan (1987). This cultural variation in thinking and logic is not limited to the level of grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure. Paragraph organisation and overall coherence may also reflect such variation. The way discourse is structured often reflects a distinctive cultural way of organising ideas in writing, and reveals fundamentally different ways of understanding events.

Wierzbicka (1990: p.43) has expressed the inter-relationship of language and culture when she states that:

Differences in the ways of speaking prevailing in different societies and different communities are profound and systematic, and reflect the different cultural values.
One area where intercultural variation occurs is in the organisation of discourse. Languages seem to display certain preferences for particular forms of organisation, some of which will be discussed below. Caution should be exercised in ascribing particular features to all members of a particular culture or language background. The discourse features described below are trends, not absolutes, and are provided as an illustration of the variation possible in written discourse.

The shape of discourse in English

The English language has evolved out of a particular Anglo-European cultural pattern. The expected thought sequence is linear in its development. In written communication in English for example, the paragraph begins with a topic statement and then proceeds to develop that statement by example and illustrations. The central idea is related to all other ideas in the whole essay and therefore a good piece of writing is considered to be unified, with no superfluous information.

Discourse patterns in other languages

Languages differ in their orientation to the reader and in the manner in which ideas are presented and organised. Because the discourse of academic writing in English is "linear" there is a preference for a mode of writing where the main point is stated near the beginning so that the focus and direction of the work is clear. In contrast, some Arabic and Semitic languages may contain a complex series of parallel constructions. The main points may be over emphasised and exaggerated, resulting in restatement. Such a style of writing might strike an English speaker as awkward and could stand in the way of clear communication.

Traditional writing in other languages, like Chinese and Japanese may be indirect and circular. The subject matter is shown and discussed from a number of different angles, but never directly. Japanese displays great tolerance for ambiguity. In addition, it is the reader's responsibility to determine relationships between the parts and the essays as a whole. In English, such a paragraph would strike the reader as clumsy and inefficient. Other languages may introduce digressions which do not contribute to the central idea of the paragraph. In Russia for example, digressions are tolerated and the sentence structure differs from that of English.

These discourse characteristics affect paragraph development in different languages and show that the ways argument can be developed and concluded vary across cultures. In the education system of Australia, linear progression is implicitly recommended, and digressions are strongly criticised. It may happen that the writing style employed by a student violates the expectations of the reader for linear progression of ideas. This may result in "the content" being lost or hidden by irrelevant or redundant details. Such essays may take longer to mark even if the tutor is aware of the cultural differences that may present themselves in writing.

Variations in writing patterns

In summary, cultural differences in the organisation and presentation of ideas should be considered in the assessment of written work and provision of feedback to international students. Lecturers and tutors can, for example, convey the discourse requirements and conventions of writing in English. Students need to be informed that in all modes of written assessment (except multiple choice) there is a great deal of emphasis placed on presentation and relevance of answers, an a linear progression of ideas is expected.

Given the expectation for linearity and relevance in essay writing, the important issue is to find ways in which students can be helped to master a range of writing skills so that they can be helped to improve written expression and so become more effective communicators whether they are writing formal essays, reports on projects or examination responses. By making explicit the requirements of writing academic English and of particular disciplinary areas through examples or modelling, students can be actively assisted to make a transition to an appropriate style.

Where assessment tasks can pose problems for students

By bringing together the perspectives on essay writing as a multi-level skill and as a culturally influenced activity, the instructor should appreciate the demands placed on students, particularly those whose first language is not English, when presented with a written assignment.

Though the demands are great, an essay writing task can provide students with opportunities to consolidate and extend their learning. To summarise, an essay writing assignment requires students to:

Students whose first language is not English may find such demands difficult to meet, because of different expectations, attitudes to learning and possible cultural variations in presentation of ideas in writing.

Ballard & Clanchy (1984, 1991) provide a very useful insight into the adjustments that many international students need to make when studying in Australia. Students may need to modify their approaches to study, styles of learning, and ways of developing arguments and presenting ideas.

Clearly these factors influence their performance on assessment tasks and should be considered when setting and marking work. The literature on international students' experiences in Australian institutions gives detail and substance on these aspects of learning, and more recently, Volet & Kee (1993) demonstrated students' different perceptions of demands of studying in Australia as opposed to Singapore. The pedagogical implications of these findings are that staff need to be more explicit and directive in making their expectations clear in all areas of course presentation, instruction and assessment so that students develop appropriate strategies for study and presentation of written work.

For students whose first language is not English, learning skills and literacy are multi-dimensional and complex. There is an entire grammar of learning - a formal integrated network of intellectual rules and processes which must be understood and followed.

Given the demands of academic study, questions typically asked by students are:

Often, students do not ask for help directly, but their need for direction, assistance and feedback will become evident as soon as written work is presented for assessment.

Summary: Arranging assessment tasks to maximise learning opportunities for students

  1. Students must be very clear about expectations with regard to assessment.

  2. Adequate, timely and helpful feedback should be provided on students' work.

  3. Consider cultural influences on writing and provide appropriate guidance.
It is important to recognise the cultural foundations of the techniques of writing and give a prominent place to explanation of essay writing requirements and patterns of linearity and relevance in the wording of the topic.


Ballard, B., & Clanchy, J. (1991). Teaching Students from Overseas. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

Hounsell, D. (1984). Learning and Essay Writing. In W. J. McKeachie (Ed.), The Experience of Learning, (pp. 102-122). Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Kaplan, R. (1987). Cultural Thought Patterns revisited. In R. Kaplan and U. O'Connor (Eds.), Writing Across Languages: Analysis of L2 Text. Reading: Addison Wesley Publishing.

Nightingale, P. (1986). Improving Student Writing. Kensington NSW: HERDSA Green Guide no.4.

Norton, L.S. (1990). Essay Writing: what really counts. Higher Education, 20, 411-442.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Rowntree (1987). Assessing Students: How shall we know them? London: Kogan Page.

Samuelowicz, K. (1987). Learning Problems of Overseas Students: Two Sides of a Story. Higher Education Research and Development, 6(2), 121-133.

Volet, S. E. & Kee, J. P. (1993). Studying in Singapore - studying in Australia: A student perspective. Murdoch University Teaching Excellence Committee Occasional Paper No. 1.

Watkins, D. (1986). The Approaches to Learning of Australian Tertiary Students. Higher Education Research and Development, 5(2), 185-190.

Wierzbicka, A. (1990). Cross-cultural Pragmatics and Different Values. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics.

Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. (1995). Assessment of writing in multicultural settings. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p165-171. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/mcloughlin.html

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