Learning the Language of a Discipline

learning language of discipline

In many courses, students struggle to master the technical language of the discipline. The meaning of new terms is usually not obvious or intuitive. Moreover, the words describe concepts and processes that are also unfamiliar to students. Not surprisingly, the jargon of the discipline can get in the way of learning, especially for students who do not have large vocabularies or a love of language.

This problem motivated researchers to examine whether there might be a better way to introduce students to new content. They shared their findings in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education; however, the implications are relevant for most every discipline. I’ve summarized the key points here and encourage you to read the article in its entirety if you think the authors’ approach might benefit your students.

The study

McDonnell, L., Barker, M. K., & Wieman, C. (2016). Concepts first, jargon second improves student articulation of understanding. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 44(1), 12–19. https://doi.org/10.1002/bmb.20922 [Open access]

The research question

  • What is the relationship between the introduction of jargon and students’ conceptual understanding of a new topic in undergraduate biology?

Interesting background information

There’s research documenting that the number of new terms in some science textbooks outnumbers words learned in an introductory foreign language course. The work is also theoretically aligned with cognitive load theories, which posit that the brain has a discrete amount of cognitive processing power. If a student is using their mental resources to figure out pronunciations and meanings, they’ll have fewer resources available to focus on understanding the concept or process. This can be exacerbated when an instructor moves quickly through unfamiliar disciplinary language.

The study cohort

A first-year introductory cell biology course taught in two lecture sections with a cohort of 42 students in each section participated in the study.

Methodology (a succint summary)

Students in the experimental group completed a reading assignment before class in which everyday language replaced disciplinary jargon. The control group read the same material without the technical language being replaced. The 42-student cohorts, one for the control group, the other for the experimental treatment, were selected because they indicated that they’d read all the assigned pre-reading material. At the beginning of class, students in the experimental group were introduced to the jargon terms. Afterward, the same instructor lectured on content covered in the reading in both sections. Student performance was measured on an in-class post-test that included both multiple-choice and free-response questions.

Key findings

  • “The most striking difference between control and concept-first groups is the number of correct arguments included in answers to the [two] free-response questions. The concepts first group provided 2.5- and 1.5-fold more correct arguments than that of the control group” (p. 15).
  • There was no significant difference in overall scores or the percentage of correct answers on a question-by-question basis for the four multiple-choice questions.
  • “The fact that we saw any learning gains after such a modest instructional change, and after minimal student time interacting with the material, is quite a promising finding for educational impact” (p. 18).

Cautions and caveats

The researchers did not measure student familiarity with the jargon used during the study. It may be that some students already knew the terms, having taken biology courses in high school. Such prior knowledge could have influenced their test question answers.

Practical implications (what you might want to do about the findings)

This research underscores the validity of small changes: “We did not increase class time, reduce course material, or increase student workload” (p. 18). The results, furthermore, should encourage those teaching introductory courses to consider these questions: Is there too much technical language in courses for nonmajors? Is learning the language of a discipline more or less important than understanding what the field studies and how knowledge in the field advances? Finally, the results should motivate faculty to consider describing important concepts and processes in common, everyday language. The findings do not excuse students from learning technical language. Rather, they explore what happens to learning when students are encouraged to understand first and attach a label after they know what it names.

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