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IN MY OPINION

Do students understand what you are saying?

Your discipline’s jargon could be an impediment to learning.

By CALVIN S. KALMAN | MAR 14 2012
talk448

For the student taking a particular subject for the first time, the language and epistemology are akin to a foreign culture.

“Language tells us what the world is made of, not because language somehow accurately captures a world independent of language, but because it is the heart of dealing with the world, “wrote Bruce Gregory in Inventing Reality: Physics as Language. “When we create a new way of talking about the world, we virtually create a new world.”

The student works in a different paradigm than the professor, and he or she does not understand the meaning of technical words that they encounter in the classroom. Here is what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein had to say about it (in Philosophical Investigations):

I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: “This is the king; it can move like this … and so on.” In this case we shall say: the words “This is the king” (or “This is called the ‘king’”) are a definition only if the learner already knows what a piece in a game is …
We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it can significantly ask a name.

There is an analogy between a student entering a university class and an anthropologist spending time among a Native group in some remote part of the globe. The students’ culture (ontology, epistemology, sociology) is very different from the culture assumed by the professor.

“At best,” wrote Ibrahim A. Halloun (“Mediated Modeling in Science Education,” Science & Education), “students resign themselves to the authority of teacher and textbook and learn things by rote only to satisfy curriculum requirements.”

At best indeed! Many years ago I attended a workshop given by Graham Gibbs, a noted expert on study skills. He related the following experience: He had been asked by a noted historian to help his class with note taking. The professor spoke about voyages to North America. The professor was such an engaging speaker that Graham Gibbs forgot why he was at the class. He seemed to even smell the salt water carried by the wind. With a start, he remembered why he was there and looked around the class. Surprisingly, at even the most interesting parts, students were staring out the window! This revelation led him to tear up his notes.

At the end of the class, he handed the professor a transparency. “Write down the three most important points that you wanted students to take away from this class,” he instructed the professor. Then he asked the students to write down the three most important points that they had derived from the class. Mr. Gibbs asked how many students had written down all of the points that the professor had written on the transparency. Not a single student raised a hand. How many students had written down two points? Not a single student raised a hand. How many students had written down one of the three points that the professor wanted them to take away from the class? A few students near the front timidly raised their hand.

My solution to the problems that I have raised is to have students read textual materials in a metacognitive [thinking about their thinking] manner before coming to class. They are instructed to first read each part very carefully, trying to zero in on what they don’t understand, and all points that they would like to be clarified during the class using underlining, highlighting and/or summarizing the textual extract. They are then told to free-write on the extract.

“Write about what it means. Try to find out exactly what you don’t know, and try to understand through your writing the material you don’t know.” They were also told that the marker would read the material only to ensure that the students were on task (writing about the subject matter and doing “reflective writing” rather than for example summary writing) and to ensure that the students had written an adequate amount of material. (I’ve developed this in “Enhancing students’ conceptual understanding by engaging science text with reflective writing as a hermeneutical circle”, Science & Education, 2011.)

Interviews and examination of student writing products indicate that students performing reflective writing have developed a more holistic approach to the course. At the same time they refine and come to a clear understanding of key concepts.

Dr. Kalman is principal of Concordia University’s Science College and a professor in the physics department. He heads a research group that includes members from McGill University, Ryerson University and the University of British Columbia as well as researchers in Vietnam, China, South Korea, Turkey and Portugal that is attempting to find ways of improving how students learn.

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  1. Aaron Slepkov / March 14, 2012 at 15:38

    This is a straightforward article about the place of jargon and high-level language when trying to “teach”; that is, to convey information from one source to another. They key issue that is un-addressed are ways in which a member of a certain culture (me as a physics professor) can easily identify culture-specific jargon that is unfamiliar to people who are not in that culture (my freshmen students). This, however, may require an unreasonable amount of “metacognition” (to use the only jargon word that is defined in the article). A case in point, I feel, is the irony in this article’s use of terms such as “epistemology” [in the first sentence!], “paradigm”, “ontology, epistemology, sociology”, and “hermeneutical”. Sure, these words vary in level of obscurity for the average reader of UA, with most of us fairly familiar with most of the terms, but are they not replaceable jargon themselves?

    Then again, maybe this is an “gotcha” trap by Mr. Kalman, wherein his article about barriers to understandings is meant to be purposefully self-serving of its main point.

  2. Anonymous / April 4, 2012 at 16:29

    These ideas do not apply to teaching engineering at all. . .

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