2014 GSA Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia (19–22 October 2014)

Paper No. 94-6
Presentation Time: 9:30 AM


CALLAHAN, Caitlin N.1, LIBARKIN, Julie2, BOMZER, Daniel2 and SMRECAK, Trisha A.3, (1)Geocognition Research Lab, Michigan State University, 288 Farm Lane, 206 Natural Science, East Lansing, MI 48824, (2)Geocognition Research Laboratory, 206 Natural Science, East Lansing, MI 48824, (3)Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48906

Scientific jargon is perceived as a barrier to student comprehension, whether the jargon is used in speech or in print. By comparison, colloquial language is considered to be more accessible and therefore more likely to yield better outcomes in terms of student performance. In this study, we seek to identify the extent to which scientific jargon may inhibit undergraduate students’ comprehension of science-related reading material. A total of 525 college freshmen completed a survey as part of a university orientation program. Three different versions of the survey were distributed. All three surveys followed the same format: a text passage about convergent evolution was followed by four open-ended questions related to the reading. However, the wording of the reading passages and the questions differed between the three versions. Form 1 was written with scientific terms. On Form 2, scientific jargon was replaced with colloquial language; on Form 3, all the scientific terms were replaced with nonsensical terms, or gibberish. Each gibberish word, however, still fulfilled the appropriate grammatical role in the sentence (a noun was replaced with a noun, a verb with a verb).

We completed a text analysis of the open-ended responses using an emergent coding scheme. We also assigned point values to different codes in order to obtain a total score per question and per survey. Students that received the form with colloquial language left fewer questions blank, used fewer quotes in their responses, and received higher scores. In addition, the students who received the form with the scientific jargon performed similarly to the students who received the form with gibberish. We suggest that these results imply not only that colloquial language is the most accessible format for presenting scientific content but also that jargon is not significantly different than gibberish from the perspective of an undergraduate student.