The importance of words

In the introduction to LECTURE DEMONSTRATIONS & ASSOCIATED RESOURCES I was interested to read that,  "Students need to learn the precision with which the words of the discipline are used to be able to communicate effectively."  At a surface level this seems rather pedantic. Why such a strong focus on "words" at the expense of Physics content?

Then I thought back to my Physics education and realised that language is essential. To hold a critical conversation with someone else you actually need to understand the physics quite deeply.  If the conversation is with another student who follows a similar critical process you both learn greatly from the exchange (I recall the philosophers call this the dialectic).  Indeed I recall a neurological principle that states that logical reasoning is contingent on having some language to "reason with", although after a short search I have been unable to find a solid reference to this principle.

Experience suggests that many students try to bypass the effort associated with learning the terminology of their discpline in aid of a more intuitive understanding.  I have no axe to grind when in comes to intuition, but perhaps we need to "hold the line" by forcing them to discuss their experiments in an erudite fashion?

Rob Phillips's picture

Hi Gareth

Precise language is important, but a shared understanding of the concept that is described precisely is more important. Previous University Teacher of the Year, Chemist Roy Tasker, highlighted this in a talk he gave at Murdoch a few years ago.

He drew on psychology research about 'working memory' (max 6-10 items can be retained at once). If you set a science problem that requires a student to retain more than this, they will struggle. This can happen with a complex problem where a student doesn't understand the underlying concept. However, if a student understands the concept of 'moles', for example, then this 'precise word' only takes up 1 piece of working memory, and other pieces can be used for analysing the problem.

I'm not sure I'm explaining ths well...