Making memories – how do we make scientific vocabulary stick?

It’s a spring afternoon and my student, John, is trying to remember a scientific word. We’ve been trying to get it to the front of his mind for a while and I’ve given him a few pointers, but it just won’t come. I’ve tried a few strategies to link it to what we’ve just been talking about (I said the word about three sentences ago) and even gave him the first letter, but this time the recall proves too much. 

“I’m really sorry, I just can’t remember it at all,” he cries, and I decide he’s suffered enough. Once I tell him the word, he is of course kicking himself. “That’s so obvious! Why couldn’t I think of it?”

“Well, there are lots of reasons you couldn’t remember,” I muse, “but partly it’s because you have a teenage brain.”

The best years of your life…

The process of secondary schooling is not particularly kind on our teenagers. Just as the majority of them are entering one of their most turbulent stages in mental and physical development, we ask them to choose a collection of arbitrary subjects to study over the next two years – and often give them the (rather exaggerated) impression that the outcomes of these studies will determine the path of their future endeavours for decades to come. 

Before my pupils arrive in the science lab in the afternoon they may have already had a full morning of French past participles, 19th century Russia, quadratic equations and Shakespearean tragedy. And yes, it is usually the afternoon by the time I see them, because the powers that be do like to timetable ‘practical subjects’ more heavily in the afternoon for the pupils below Sixth Form. 

The reality, of course, is that no matter how excited or ambivalent my particular group of teenagers may be about practical work, we’re practising relative atomic mass calculations today. And despite the fact that they may have learned how to carry out these calculations before, and successfully applied them in maths lessons, I know that many will find the cognitive load far too much to bear. Why should this be so?

It’s all Greek to me

I think it was during my teacher training that someone once dropped a startling fact into the conversation – pupils learn more new words in a science qualification than they do when studying a foreign language. I have never been able to find a quantifiable source to back this up, but after a decade and a half of teaching it no longer surprises me. A recent perusal of the STEM Learning website’s resources led me to find vocabulary lists of nearly 1000 scientific words that pupils are expected to know before they even start secondary school.

Unlike words in a foreign language, however, the vocabulary of science often sits entirely separate from the pupil’s everyday experiences. As well as recalling the names of unfamiliar equipment or experimental techniques, pupils have to learn nouns to describe objects they will never be able to see (electrons, atoms, mitochondria) and verbs to describe similarly abstract concepts (ionising, bonding, respiring) as well as understanding the ‘command words’ given in exam questions. In the mean-time, any words they already thought they had meanings for in everyday life (weight, precipitation, plastic, work) need to be ‘re-defined’ to fit their scientific use.

maths concept map
Maths – an artist’s impression
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It’s no surprise, then, that my pupils may quickly lose confidence at what might, to a weary practitioner, seem a relatively simple weighted average calculation. It’s not the calculation they can’t do – many pupils feel that they can’t approach the question at all because of the amount of specific terminology involved – atoms, elements, relative atomic mass, abundance, isotope – and are so put off that they don’t attempt the question at all. How can we help build pupils’ confidence in using vocabulary so that they are more confident in interpreting what is being asked of them? 

I’ve put together some simple strategies below that are not only tried and tested, but also supported by neuroscience – because if you want to know the best ways to learn science, the best place to start is the science of learning.

Regular, spaced retrieval practice

The best place I’ve found online to explain the processes of retrieval practice and spaced learning are the Learning Scientists, but you could spend hours going through their material (I know I have). Put simply, if you want any new information to stick you have to keep challenging your brain to retrieve it for you. Quizzes, flashcards, practice tests and questions – or just sitting down with a blank piece of paper and trying to write down everything you know about a topic. Every time you do this, you strengthen the connections your brain needs to retrieve the information more efficiently next time.

The only thing more effective than retrieval practice is spaced retrieval practice – making sure you retest yourself at regular intervals. This is particularly pertinent for adolescent brains, as they are more prone to ‘pruning’ – the removal of neural connections that are found to be redundant. 

Concept mapping

Glossaries and flashcards are good for learning key definitions, but one of the real issues with science vocabulary is that there are many words which are entirely conceptual – they cannot be defined without reliance on other concept words. The only way for pupils to build their understanding is to make connections between the words – after all, this mimics how the information will be organised in their brains. 

Effective concept mapping is a skill in its own right and most pupils would find a blank page too daunting to start with – Teachit Science provide some great templates to get them started.

Dual coding

This is another topic that is covered very well on the Learning Scientists website. Simply put, dual coding is combining words with visual stimuli. The visual stimuli don’t have to be actual pictures – diagrams, shapes or the concept maps mentioned above are all good examples. The brain attaches more significance to words, especially abstract words, if they are recorded and presented alongside visual stimuli. 

image of different sides of the brain
Just to be clear, dual coding is not about being a ‘visual learner’ – that science was debunked decades ago. Nor is it about activating ‘both sides of the brain’.
Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay

This technique is particularly effective if the pupil creates the imagery themselves, and yet it’s something many pupils tend to be averse to. Even making notes in the form of a graphic organiser (such as a concept map, flow diagram or storyboard) will be far more effective than just writing sentences and paragraphs. To remove some of the ‘fear factor’, try drawing a representation of an abstract concept on a whiteboard first before committing to paper.

Word games

The key to successful retrieval practice is getting the level of challenge right. It shouldn’t be too easy – I love the Quizlet app and website for flashcards, but too many of my students linger on the ‘matching activities’ or multiple choice questions that require very little effort or recall to complete. 

On the other hand, practising recall should not be too stressful – regular ‘low stakes’ testing is far more effective than less frequent formal assessments of knowledge. Playing word games is a great way to keep up the level of challenge without the fear of failure. My favourites are pictionary, charades, taboo, ‘Just a minute’ and word association games (if you are a child of the eighties like me, you may remember the popular Saturday morning spectacle of ‘Mallet’s Mallet’). 

Nothing will work unless you do

One of my old A Level teachers had this on a poster on the wall of the lab, and it used to make me squirm a little as a student. However, he had a point. Pupils often get themselves into a vicious cycle when it comes to dealing with science. The words can be hard to understand, which makes them hard to remember. This can lead students to avoid testing themselves, relying heavily on rewriting notes and never trying to extract anything from memory – making the words even harder to remember.

The vicious cycle - because science vocabulary is challenging, words make no sense and pupils resist testing themselves
The harder you find something, the more you avoid challenging yourself, the harder you find it… You see where this is headed.

The techniques above won’t lead to instant wins, but they will lead to long-lasting gains for study skills in all subjects. By taking small steps to regularly challenge their own understanding, pupils can break the cycle, make sustained progress in their understanding and see their mental efforts rewarded.

Claire Costello-Kelly

Claire Costello-Kelly

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