Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Jargon and Student Articulation of Understanding

Friday January 29, 2016 by Anonymous (not verified)

Good morning,

One of the most surprising assessments of my work as a professor was when a colleague from Biology, whom I did not know well, commented after a conversation we’d been having that he was happily surprised at my use of jargon-free language. At the time, I did not know how to respond, but upon reflection, I was most happy that I my argument had been advanced, at least in part, because I did not let disciplinary vocabulary get in the way.

I’m pleased to offer evidence that we may be able to use this same concept to advance our teaching as well.  In the attached article, Concepts First, Jargon Second Improves Student Articulation of Understanding (McDonnell, Barker & Wieman, 2016) the researchers present the results of a study in which they substituted “plain language” for four jargon terms in a pre-class reading assignment in one section of a large undergraduate Biology class. The same reading (with jargon) was assigned to another section of the same class, with all other class components (activities, lecture material, and instructor) being identical.  The results indicate that many more students in the experimental group was able to make correct arguments on two free-response questions on the post-test.  The article offers important details on the experiment, and there are some potential methodological flaws – but – I think the results are significant food for thought about the ways in which we introduce students to the topics we care about so deeply.

I hope you enjoy this work and that it provokes thought about your own work, in and out of the classroom.

Best wishes,

Nancy S. Niemi, Ph.D.
Director, Faculty Teaching Initiatives

Contact Information 

Contact Dr. Niemi via email Nancy.Niemi@yale.edu or phone 203.432.8644 with thoughts about the collection and/or to receive these notes in your inbox.


jargon, language, concepts