Helping students tackle terminology barriers

Lots of new terminology can leave students feeling overwhelmed. Sonja Dunbar shares one way to build student confidence when encountering discipline-specific terms

Sonja Dunbar's avatar
University of Cambridge
7 Jun 2022
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Many disciplines have a lot of subject-specific terms and concepts. Used correctly, these terms are a key to engaging in academic discussion, but they can be viewed as jargon by those unfamiliar with them. This is a barrier to students, particularly first-year undergraduates, taking steps towards mastering and developing an identity in their chosen discipline.

Glossaries of key terms are helpful but are difficult to consult quickly within the fast pace of a live lecture. A student might have to choose between continuing to listen to the lecturer but finding it hard to understand what is being described or checking the term but potentially losing the flow of the lecturer’s narrative. Either option can result in the student feeling left behind.

Priming students to confidently engage with key terms

We wanted to prepare students for encountering key terms before lectures to give them a better chance of keeping up with the new concepts, rather than novel terms being a stumbling block.

So we developed interactive, online primers for key topics that the students used in advance of their first lecture. These were short, quiz-based resources that introduced new terms or refreshed older terms that we thought were likely to have been forgotten or to have misconceptions associated with them.

We made these available for students to use in their own time so they could solidify their knowledge in a low-stakes environment, away from peers or instructors where they might feel pressure to already know the terms. They could also reuse the resources as many times as they liked.

Among students who used these topic primers, 86 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that they felt confident in their understanding when encountering the terms in lectures; and 91 per cent felt that they were better able to visualise key physical systems that were discussed in lectures.

Try it yourself: tips on designing effective primers

Keep it short: Primers are designed to be used by students in their own time, so they should not become a burden. Each of our primers was designed to take less than 10 minutes to complete, even if a student had multiple attempts at questions, and our students were very positive about this being an appropriate length.

Prioritise topics: Think carefully about which topics are your priority for students starting your course. While they are individually helpful, too many primers risks seeming overwhelming and off-putting. For a course of 19 lectures, we made four primers: two introducing new terms and two refreshing terms. We recommend asking students which topics they’d like to see – we added the two refreshing terms based on student requests.

Make it interactive: More than 80 per cent of our students felt that an interactive format was the best option for primers. We recommend drag and drop questions and fill in the blanks as these often allow you to cover multiple, related terms in one question. Drag and drop worked particularly well for topics where you had a diagram or a structure to label – we used it for visualising plant anatomy. Fill in the blanks worked well with a topic that you wanted to refresh rather than teach from scratch.

Provide immediate feedback: All of our students completed an attempted primer with 100 per cent success scores. This relied on their being given the ability to receive feedback and try again, and when given that ability they clearly were trying until correct. We used settings that told students how many answers were correct and then cleared only the incorrect answers for them to try again. This rewarded successes and let students consolidate and iterate towards a fully correct answer. Some resources had comments for common wrong answers that provided specific feedback to dispel misconceptions likely to have led to that choice. Explore the question modes available in your virtual learning environment.

Pitch appropriately: These resources need to be accessible to students tackling them independently. For refreshing terms, we told students which previous resources this primer drew on (for example a lecture in an earlier course) and deliberately built them with reference to these resources. For new terms, we looked at how and to what extent this topic had been covered previously, so that we could link new terms to existing knowledge. If you build a primer for first-year undergraduates this will involve familiarising yourself with A-level or equivalent content. You could also recruit student partners to help design and correctly pitch the primers.

These primers helped all our students arrive at lectures on a more level footing, regardless of educational background. They meant we could be confident that our students were working from the same definitions. We hope that feeling confident with these terms might contribute positively to our students building their identity in our discipline and avoiding impostor syndrome.

Sonja Dunbar is a teaching associate in the department of plant sciences at the University of Cambridge.

This advice is based on a presentation given at a HUBS-funded workshop, Fundamental Biosciences, hosted by the University of East Anglia.

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