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Research in Science Education

, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 1107–1133 | Cite as

Learning the Language of Evolution: Lexical Ambiguity and Word Meaning in Student Explanations

  • Meghan A. Rector
  • Ross H. Nehm
  • Dennis Pearl
Article

Abstract

Our study investigates the challenges introduced by students’ use of lexically ambiguous language in evolutionary explanations. Specifically, we examined students’ meaning of five key terms incorporated into their written evolutionary explanations: pressure, select, adapt, need, and must. We utilized a new technological tool known as the Assessment Cascade System (ACS) to investigate the frequency with which biology majors spontaneously used lexically ambiguous language in evolutionary explanations, as well as their definitions and explanations of what they meant when they used such terms. Three categories of language were identified and examined in this study: terms with Dual Ambiguity, Incompatible Ambiguity, and Unintended Ambiguity. In the sample of 1282 initial evolutionary explanations, 81 % of students spontaneously incorporated lexically ambiguous language at least once. Furthermore, the majority of these initial responses were judged to be inaccurate from a scientific point of view. While not significantly related to gender, age, or reading/writing ability, students’ use of contextually appropriate evolutionary language (pressure and adapt) was significantly associated with academic performance in biology. Comparisons of initial responses to follow-up responses demonstrated that the majority of student explanations were not reinterpreted after consideration of the follow-up response; nevertheless, a sizeable minority was interpreted differently. Most cases of interpretation change were a consequence of resolving initially ambiguous responses, rather than a change of accuracy, resulting in an increased understanding of students’ evolutionary explanations. We discuss a series of implications of lexical ambiguity for evolution education.

Keywords

Discourse Evolution Language Lexical ambiguity Multivalent terms Biology education Undergraduates 

Notes

Acknowledgements

We thank Judy Ridgway and Minsu Ha for help with data collection and analysis, Silas Baronda and Mike Gee for helping to develop and program the ACS, and the National Science Foundation REESE program (DRL 0909999) and a TeLR grant from The Ohio State University for funding parts of this work. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for helping to improve our work, and Dr. Jennifer Kaplan for insightful discussions of lexical ambiguity. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the NSF.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Meghan A. Rector
    • 1
  • Ross H. Nehm
    • 1
  • Dennis Pearl
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Teaching and LearningThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA
  2. 2.Department of StatisticsThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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