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?

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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...

Rob