Every discipline has its own specialized vocabulary and students need to master this new language if they are to succeed, so here are a few suggestions for ways to help students get to grips with specialist terminology.
In lectures you could use clickers to test students’ understanding of specialist vocabulary, perhaps starting a lecture by checking how many can identify the correct definition for a key term from last week or asking which words students feel comfortable using. The low stakes nature of answering with a clicker will usually ensure that everyone will respond and the lecturer and students will be able to see at a glance which terms are proving challenging.
In seminars or tutorials some people like to use flashcards with pairs or groups of students. Getting students to create the cards in advance gives them an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the terms and in the session they can learn from each other in just a few minutes. If you are teaching in a room with an interactive whiteboard (SMARTboard) you could produce a slide that shows terms and definitions which can then be moved around and matched up as part of a group discussion.
Study Direct (SyD) offers a couple of very useful ways to help students with vocabulary online. The glossary function allows tutors and/or students to create definitions for particular terms that then make up a database that is not only searchable but can also be linked to the rest of the content in the site so that when a word is used in a discussion forum or activity it becomes a link to the glossary. Tutors can ask individual students or groups to write their own definitions and check them before they are added, or set the task of finding and adding definitions from reliable sources. SyD quizzes could also be used for checking understanding of specialist vocabulary with multiple choice, true/false or matching questions.
You might also want to think about using word searches with your students as a fun way to get to grips with unfamiliar terminology. You could hide 10 new words from the module and ask students to find them and define them. There are numerous websites that will turn a list of words into a puzzle for you – we tried word search world which was free and easy to use.
Once students become more fluent in the language associated with a particular discipline they will be in a better position to understand course materials and discussions and to express themselves in writing, so it is well worth introducing some activities that support the development of a discipline-specific vocabulary. If you have found an engaging way of doing this in your subject area please share your ideas in the comments below.