The Language of the Field

“All I know is what I have words for.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are many components to a bachelor’s degree, part of the goal of the degree is to give students a wide range of skills and knowledge.  The single largest component of the degree is the disciplinary component.  While there is often overlap in basic skills in addition to the content knowledge of the field students learn how to think, analyze information, and communicate in and outside their field.

Throughout four (sometimes more) years that a bachelor’s degree takes students to build their skills.  Over the last decade or two, there has been a significant focus on the teaching of higher order thinking skills. Whether or not this focus on higher order thinking skills has been successful, I think, like many things we have embraced higher order thinking skills without a lot of thought, this focus on higher order thinking skills above everything is causing damage to our educational process.

While I agree that the introduction of higher order thinking skills can and should as early as possible, it is critical to realize that higher order skills don’t work independently of the so-called lower order thinking skills.  I remember consulting with an instructor that was having trouble with his student’s test performance; his students were performing significantly lower than students in other classes.  He brought in a couple of tests for me to look at, one of my first questions was what are your goals.  He said he was focusing on higher order thinking skills.

His tests had some of the most thoughtfully written questions I had seen.  It was composed almost exclusively of open-ended and long answer word problems.  Even though the questions were excellent, I immediately had an idea of what the problem was.  Most of the questions relied heavily on discipline-specific language.  Since he was teaching a lower division course, I asked if he is sure that his students understood the meaning of the words he was using, after a little discussion he realized he was assuming information about his students that he didn’t know.

After making some changes and including some content about language his student’s scores improved, which shows its essential to keep all skills in mind.  I have never liked the idea of defining skills as lower level and higher level. I think these skills are more of a gradient than levels.  Additionally, characterizing them as lower level and higher level suggests a hierarchy of importance that is not true. The skills we are teaching in a course should be dependent on the goals of that course not some external evaluation about the “best” skills.  However, that is probably a discussion for another day.

Continuing with the devaluation of “lower order thinking skills” I have been thinking about how this might be affecting textbooks.  In many fields, textbooks are used extensively in the introductory courses.  One of the most important things that take place in these introductory courses is teaching the students the language of their field. Since learning the language of a field is the main component of introductory classes textbooks should support learning the discipline language.

I have been looking at several textbooks lately especially open source textbooks, and I think I have started to see a problem.  Imagine you are a student working on a homework assignment, and you come across a word you don’t know or remember.  Yes, today I know it is likely that a student will Google it.  Let’s suppose instead they go to their textbook; how do they look up the word.  The student could look it up in the glossary.

Surprisingly this could be a problem; if you go to the back of many textbooks, you will find there isn’t a glossary in the back.  It turns out that many of the new books both open source and some commercial are designed to be customized.  You only choose the parts of the book that fit your course if, and I do mean if, the textbook has a glossary it has probably been divided into small sections and placed at the end of every chapter.

So how are you our student supposed to find the word you are trying to look up.  Since you can’t remember what the word means, in which section do you look?  You probably start with the most recent section you read if it’s not there well then, I guess you look through the entire book till you find the definition.

While we are currently trying to solve many problems with textbooks, cost, compatibility with curriculum, and accessibility we need to be sure we don’t introduce new problems by not paying attention to what we are doing. Students are not going to want to use textbooks that are difficult to use.  While many of the problems go away with the use of digital textbooks, isn’t the search function simply fantastic, we need to design textbooks for both digital and print.

While I understand the idea of designing textbooks so that you can pick and choose which parts you want to use splitting up the glossary confuses me.  It should be relatively apparent that separating the glossary into a lot of separate section through the whole book makes the glossary harder to use.  I wonder if this glossary design is because book designers think lower order thinking skills like memorizing definitions is unimportant.

Independent of the reason for this separate glossary model what is wrong with having a single glossary in the back of the book?  Why does it matter if the glossary has words in it that don’t appear in the text?  A single glossary in one place (I don’t care if it’s in the back) is much more usable than a scattered one.

I suppose if you think have extra words in a glossary is a problem the glossary could be laid out in a separate section like in an appendix.  We could label glossary sections by chapter and page, and each would be a separate section.  For example, G.12.2 would be the glossary for the 12th chapter second page.  Then you could leave out the unused parts of the glossary.

While a glossary organized by chapters might still require some searching by a student (if they don’t know what chapter a word they are looking for comes from), they would at least know where in the book to look.  Of course, I suppose if we are talking about Open Source textbooks we could edit the glossary and remove the extra words.

Lastly, if you think that a divided glossary is the best thing to do there is one other potential solution.  That solution would be to include all the words in the glossaries in the index.  Listing the glossary words in the index would give the students a single place they could look to find the definitions.

As we design the next generation of textbooks and learning materials we always need to remember that the most critical design consideration needs to be usability.


Thanks for Listening to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

2 thoughts on “The Language of the Field

  1. Pingback: We Need CSS for e-books – The Teaching Cyborg

  2. Pingback: Polymaths Everywhere – The Teaching Cyborg

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