Another Example of What You Say Is Not What They Hear

Probably how students perceive me

Back in April, I gave an example of students comprehending a question differently than I did. In that case, I identified what I thought may have caused the miscommunication — the question needed to be worded slightly differently.

I now have another example, in an online graduate course. The question was “Of the different political and religious reactions to European imperialism by Middle Eastern societies, which was the most effective? Why?” This writing prompt corresponded to chapters from No God but God by Reza Aslan and The Modern Middle East: A History by James L. Gelvin. Students referenced information from these books, something I require, so I know that they actually read the assigned material.

Instead of writing about the ways in which Middle Eastern societies responded to colonization, several students submitted answers that discussed:

  • Islamic civilization (whatever that is).
  • Political barriers to the formation of stable Middle Eastern nation-states.
  • Differences between French and British colonialism in the Middle East.

Not what the question asked. Since most of the students are native speakers of English, I will assume that the problem is not language proficiency. Could the comma and subsequent subordinate clause be causing the problem? If I rewrite the question without this, I get:

  • Which of the different political and religious reactions to European imperialism by Middle Eastern societies was the most effective? Why?

I can also turn the prepositional phrase “by Middle Eastern societies” to an adjective closer to the beginning of the question. This might more clearly emphasize that the question asks about actions of the colonized, not the colonizers:

  • Which of the different Middle Eastern political and religious reactions to European imperialism was the most effective? Why?

Unfortunately I will have wait until I teach the course in a year’s time to find out if this change makes any difference.

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