How do we test the cultural assumptions of our assessments?

I’m teaching a course on user interface software development for about 260 students this semester. We just had a Midterm where I felt I bobbled one of the assessment questions because I made cultural assumptions. I’m wondering how I could have avoided that.

I’m a big fan of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and Parsons problems on my assessments. I use my Parson problem generator a lot (see link here). For example, on this one, students had to arrange the scrambled parts of an HTML file in order to achieve a given DOM tree, and there were two programs in JavaScript (using constructors and prototypes) that they had to unscramble.

I typically ask some definitional questions about user interfaces at the start, about ideas like signifiers, affordances, learned associations, and metaphors. Like Dan Garcia (see his CS-Ed Podcast), I believe in starting out the exam with some easy things, to buoy confidence. They’re typically only worth a couple points, and I try to make the distractors fun. Here’s an example:

Since we watched in lecture a nice video starring Don Norman explaining “Norman doors,” I was pretty sure that anyone who actually attended lecture that day would know that the answer was the first one in the list. Still, maybe a half-dozen students chose the second item.

Here’s the one that bothered me much more.

I meant for the answer to be the first item on the list. In fact, almost the exact words were on the midterm exam review, so that students who studied the review guide would know immediately what we wanted. (I do know that working memory doesn’t actually store more for experts — I made a simplification to make the definition easier to keep in mind.)

Perhaps a dozen student chose the second item: “Familiarity breeds contempt. Experts contempt for their user interfaces allows them to use them without a sense of cognitive overload.” I had several students ask me during the exam, “What’s contempt?” I realized that many of my students didn’t know the word or the famous phrase (dates back to Chaucer).

Then one student actually wrote on his exam, “I’m assuming that contempt means learned contentment.” If you make that assumption, the item doesn’t sound ridiculous: “Familiarity breeds learned contentment. Experts learned contentment for their user interfaces allows them to use them without a sense of cognitive overload.”

I had accidentally created an assessment that expected a particular cultural context. The midterm was developed over several weeks, and reviewed by my co-instructor, graduate student instructor, five undergraduate assistants, and three undergraduate graders. We’re a pretty diverse bunch. We had found and fixed perhaps a dozen errors in the exam during the development period. We’d never noted this problem.

I’m not sure how I could have avoided this mistake. How does one remain aware of one’s own cultural assumptions? I’m thinking of the McLuhan quote: “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.” I feel bad for the students who got this problem wrong because they didn’t know the quote or the meaning of the word “contempt.” What do you think? How might I have discovered the cultural assumptions in my assessment?