Too Much Jargon: A Barrier to Learning?

student struggling with test

The language of our disciplines is complex—it has to be. What we study is specific and detailed, and it needs to be described with language that precisely captures essence and nuance. However, for students being introduced to our disciplines for the first time, it’s all new language, and it’s mostly new language for students now learning about our fields more in depth at the postsecondary level. Moreover, many students now come to college with limited vocabularies. They might be learning in a second language, or simply not had educational backgrounds that promoted vocabulary development.

Most introductory courses contain literally hundreds of terms that are unfamiliar to students. When learning a foreign language, students are helped by knowing what the new word refers to. When they learn that the French word chat means cat, they know what a cat is. But when it’s a term like sidereal time or pyrimidine, not only is it a new phrase or word, it refers to something also unknown to students.

An interesting study in a first-year introductory cell biology course explored “the impact of jargon on conceptual understanding” (p. 12). The goal was not to replace all the jargon in the course with easier-to-understand language. Rather, it was to test what happened when students were first introduced to a new concept without jargon. “In developing scientific literacy within a specific discipline, it is necessary to gain fluency with the fundamental concepts” (p. 12).

Here’s a brief overview of the method. Students were assigned a preclass reading. For half the students, it was a reading from the course text that introduced (with jargon) the concepts to be covered in lecture. The other half of the students were assigned a reading passage that included the same content—in the same order, with the same figures—only in this case “specifically chosen jargon terms were replaced with everyday language” (p. 13). Both groups took an online quiz after reading the material. As might be suspected, not all the 230 students in each section did the assigned reading. In order to ensure that all the students in the study had experienced the experimental variable, “our primary comparisons of post-test results included only those students who selected ‘I read all of the pre-reading before today’s quiz’” (p. 14).

Students in the experimental section were introduced to the jargon terms during the first three minutes of class. Then students in both cohorts completed a worksheet, listened to a lecture, and answered clicker questions. At end of the class session, all the students took a test that consisted of four multiple-choice questions and two free-response questions.

“Although the two groups performed the same on the multiple choice questions of the post-test, the group exposed to the concepts first and jargon second included 1.5 times and 2.5 times more correct arguments on two free-response questions about the concepts” (p. 12). As the researchers point out, this study involved a very small intervention. “The fact that we saw any learning gains after such a modest instructional change, and after minimal student time interacting with the materials, is quite a promising finding for educational impact” (p. 18).

This is an initial exploration of an important area, commendable for its recognition that the solution is not a wholesale “dumbing down” of language in our disciplines. They and other experts (they mention some in STEM fields, but it would be the consensus of experts in most fields) “agree that students need to develop the ability to use the specialized language in order to communicate their understanding of concepts” (p. 18). But as they note, “the literature is scarce on practical approaches to address the issue…” What makes their approach particularly promising is that it did not require more class time for students, it did not involve a reduction in the amount of the content covered in the course, and it did not increase student workload. It did involve some faculty time to create the jargon-free content, but that is a one-time-only investment of time. And, they point out, the same approach could be used during in-class presentations.

If jargon is a barrier to learning, more work is needed that explores ways teachers can help students find their way around the issue of complicated language that can inhibit learning.

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.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 30.4 (2016): 6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.