Metacognition and Learning

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 91–111 | Cite as

What makes a word difficult? Insights into the mental representation of technical terms

  • Regina JucksEmail author
  • Elisabeth Paus


Learning from texts requires reflection on how far one has mastered the material. Learners use such metacognitive processes to decide whether to engage in deeper learning activities or not. This article examines how the lexical surface of specialist concepts influences their mental representation. Lexical encodings that are the concise wordings of a concept (e.g., tension headache or migraine for specific types of headache) provide immediate access to the underlying content. To understand learning contents appropriately, learners have to work on such lexical covers to gain insight into the underlying semantic meaning. It was assumed that a technical term’s origin (either German or classical Latin/Greek) is used systematically as a hint for further elaboration. 41 college students rated the difficulty, familiarity, competence, accessibility, and their knowledge of 17 German-language (GL) terms and their classical language (CL) synonyms. The influence of word frequency was controlled. As expected, results showed that GL terms were perceived to be less difficult than CL terms. Consequently, comprehension of these terms was rated more highly. Analyses of how lexical encoding influenced accuracy of participants’ comprehension judgments showed that participants’ comprehension ratings were less accurate for GL terms. Theoretical and practical implications for learning from written information are discussed.


Technical terms Perceived difficulty Feeling of knowing Conceptual understanding Metacognition Word comprehension 



The authors thank Lena Opitz, Stefanie Diener, Katharina Seiler and Franziska Thon for support with data collection and analysis and Jonathan Harrow for English language editing. This research was funded by a grant awarded to the first author within Special Priority Program SPP 1409 of the German Research Foundation (DFG; JU 471-2/1).


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MuensterMuensterGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Psychology in EducationWestfälische Wilhelms-Universität MünsterMuensterGermany

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