Monday, June 6, 2011

Vocabulary and Jargon

If you taught physics before, you've likely heard something like this from a student: "The ball's energy force went into powering all the momentum of the collision vector."

Many of us cringe when we hear sentences like this, but maybe not for the same reasons. Some of us may cringe because students are mis-using a lot of vocabulary. Others may cringe because it seems such an unproductive way to approach talking and making sense of the world with other human beings.

Perhaps, all this jargon from students really signifies nonsense--the student is just grasping at whatever vocabulary they can, hoping that with a shotgun of terms, something will sound right. Or, perhaps, the student was thinking something more like, "The ball was moving fast, and so it had a really big influence in the collision," and they were trying to communicate this idea using terms they thought they were supposed to. I tend to think it can be one, either, both, or something in between. My inclination is to gently encourage students to stop doing this, and I try to help them express their ideas using familiar words, pictures, etc. In the PER community, there have been and continue to be lively debates about whether this kind of jargon-infused talk can be productive for learning.

Jargon-infused talk is not limited to physics. As an education researcher, I've heard new PER graduate students say things like this: "The framing was made of and led to symbolic forms and p-prims resource schema activation, but not a coordination class." I sort of cringe when I hear students say these sorts of things, too. If I listen really hard, I can imagine maybe they are trying to say, "The students seem to be engaged in the activity with a mish-mash of ideas that are both mathematical and physical". Like the physics students, I encourage them to articulate, elaborate, clarify, and refine their ideas in their own words, and not worry (yet) about technical vocabulary.

The role of vocabulary in learning is a tricky thing, because it's not all the same. Learning that the french word "pomme" means "apple" is easy, because we already have the concept of apple. We have likely felt apples, tasted apples, smelled apples, seen apples. You've probably had apple juice, apple sauce, apple pie. You've head phrases like, "the apple of my eye". You've distinguished apples from other fruits like pears or plums. You probably know that apples come from trees, and not from the ground (like the pomme de terre). You know of different kinds of apples. With this rich network of ideas, distinctions, and experiences, it's easy to just add on "pomme".

With scientific terminology however, it's not always as simple, because we aren't likely to have all the (right) conceptual anchors in place to hook those words to. The question of when and how to introduce vocabulary is an interesting one. Recently, I was discussing two different approaches to managing vocabulary in the physics classroom:

(1) Frontload the introduction of vocabulary, so that students can better make sense of ideas discussed during class. This will help reduce students' cognitive load, and students can spend mental effort on understanding ideas and not just getting lost in a sea of vocabulary.

(2) Backload the introduction of vocabulary, after you've had a chance to introduce ideas in class. This will provide students with some conceptual "hooks" to anchor the vocabulary to.

I want to talk about this more, but I want to pause with the following questions:

What are some situations in which you think #1 would be better than #2? Why?

What are some situations in which you think #2 would be better than #1? Why?


  1. I lean a lot towards #1, especially in my mid- to advanced-physics courses. Things like spin, angular momentum, Lagrangian, Hamiltonian, Matrix, quantum collapse, normal-modes, inertia tensor, etc are good to have some sense of before having students explore the interesting physics. Sometimes this means the beginning of a class, sometimes this means reading ahead of time, sometimes this means screencasts.

    Where #2 seems appropriate is when you're studying science that is involved in everyday, macroscopic existence. Springs, levers, static electricity, collisions, etc are great to have students explore/define before trying to come up with communal language to agree on.

  2. Would 'frontloading' refer to defining the terms before you use them and 'backloading' be the converse? I'm not familiar with the usage.

    My other thought while reading this is that groups of people seem to enjoy their specialized language. I don't cringe when I hear such language (from a student as given above) as I expect it. Part of my responsibility is to help them learn the 'new definitions' of these words.

    I'm okay with people misusing words like energy, power, force, etc in common language since there are non-technical definitions/usages of those words that are acceptable by society. Recognizing that there are multiple definitions for words is probably important to avoid frustration.

    I find it frustrating when subgroups use their 'special definitions' of words as evidence for a judgment about the intelligence of non-subgroup members.

  3. @Kevin, Yes front loading would be like defining terms ahead of time (say in a reading before lecture), and backloading would be to explore ideas first (through phenomena, data, discussion), then attach names to the ideas that emerge through that exploration. Could backload in a short amount of time or after many weeks of inquiry.

    I don't cringe when students use everyday meaning of words that have more specific meanings in physics. I do take pause when students just cram as many physics words into a sentence as possible. Using everyday words in a wrong way is still a sign they are trying to make sense of the world and communicate those ideas. Throwing out jargon until it sticks is a possible sign that they are not engaged in meaningful activity.

  4. I have to use a word a couple times in order to understand it. Sometimes I'll be unsure of a word but instead of perpetuating my ignorance I'll just go for it and ask a professor if I used it correctly.