Sustainable Language Support Practices in Science Education: Technologies and Solutions

Sustainable Language Support Practices in Science Education: Technologies and Solutions

Felicia Zhang (University of Canberra, Australia), Brett Andrew Lidbury (Australian National University, Australia), Alice Marion Richardson (University of Canberra, Australia), Brian Francis Yates (University of Tasmania, Australia), Michael Guy Gardiner (University of Tasmania, Australia), Adam James Bridgeman (University of Sydney, Australia), Jurgen Schulte (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia), John Cameron Rodger (University of Newcastle, Australia) and Karen Elizabeth Mate (University of Newcastle, Australia)
Indexed In: SCOPUS
Release Date: August, 2011|Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 266|DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-062-0
ISBN13: 9781613500620|ISBN10: 1613500629|EISBN13: 9781613500637
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The effective communication of science through language, including reading, writing, listening, speaking, and visual representation, is an essential part of scientific learning, understanding, and practice. Language is the medium by which scientific reasoning occurs, whether be it formal language or symbolic representations of scientific phenomena.

Sustainable Language Support Practices in Science Education: Technologies and Solutions presents cases on the results of a study done in Australia on first-year university students and the impact of new techniques of language acquisition on science education. The project covered biology, chemistry, and physics. Nearly 3,400 students were involved in the project, drawn from the University of Canberra, the University of Technology-Sydney, the University of Sydney, the University of Tasmania, and the University of Newcastle in Australia. This book serves as the latest research available on meta-cognitive assessment and language needs for a diverse student body; it is a vital resource for academics and practitioners designing and implementing science education around the world today.

Topics Covered

The many academic areas covered in this publication include, but are not limited to:

  • Academic Predictors
  • Computer-Enhanced Language Acquisition
  • Concepts Inventory
  • Experience Based Learning
  • Instructional Design
  • Language Focused and Career Oriented Interventions
  • Open and Distance Learning
  • Scientific Method Instruction
  • Symbolic Language
  • Tertiary Education

Reviews and Testimonials

Over the years there has been a dearth of projects involving cross-disciplinary teams addressing the crucial issue of the interaction between language and conceptual understanding and learning in science. This book will go a long way towards filling this gap in our knowledge and at the very least it will raise awareness among science educators of the different types of verbal and symbolic language used to communicate science, the demands they make on the students and the difficulties they could encounter that might necessitate remediation.

– Trevor R. Anderson, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Table of Contents and List of Contributors

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This case book is a result of a project in science education funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. The project, ”A cross-disciplinary approach to language support for first year students in the physical sciences,” commenced in October 2007. It addressed the language needs of a diverse student body by investigating and testing language oriented strategic approaches to learning and teaching in first year sciences. This project was concerned with the acquisition of language specific to science in addition to the implicit teaching of meta-cognitive skills required in doing science. The disciplines covered by the project were biology, chemistry, and physics. Around 3400 students were involved in the project from the University of Canberra, the University of Technology, Sydney, the University of Sydney, the University of Tasmania, and the University of Newcastle in Australia.


Student retention and progression rates are a matter of concern for most institutions in the higher education sector (Burton & Dowling, 2005; Simpson, 2006; Tinto & Pusser, 2006). There is also substantial literature concentrating on the first year experience at university (Kerri-Lee Krause, Hartley, James, McInnis, & Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, 2005).
Currently, there are two broad approaches to providing extra academic (rather than language) support to help students succeed during their first semester at university: targeting all students who wish to participate in extra learning opportunities or targeting only those students deemed to be at risk.
For example, the peer assisted study support schemes at the University of Wollongong, University of Queensland (Miller, Gregg, & Kelly, 2000), and now at the University of Technology, Sydney and a number of other universities, offered academic support to all interested students. Students usually self-select to participate in these schemes. While there are considerable resource implications associated with such broad-based schemes, they are widely reported to be effective (O'Byrne, Britton, George, Franklin, & Frey, 2009).

However, the problem with both of the approaches above is that students either have to self-select or be selected for such extra academic support. This works on the assumption that students who are not selected are all coping with their first year science study. This project questions this assumption and offers proof that as far as language in science is concerned, all students need support. Thus, we aimed to offer language support to all students who attended lectures and tutorials thereby developing an approach of academic support that supports all students.


Specifically this project aimed to:
  1. target the issue of language in science and suggest ways of solving some of the language issues by importing techniques and strategies frequently used in the teaching of foreign languages;
  2. create innovative online teaching modules that directly address the language difficulties in the targeted disciplines in science;
  3. expand and reshape the current teaching approach to include a language focus in the teaching of science in the face to face mode;
  4. increase student awareness of the language used in the targeted disciplines by presenting student and staff insights of the particular types of language used in that context;
  5. rigorously evaluate the implementation of these learning strategies on student learning to enable their transportability to other teaching contexts in higher education in Australia.

Students undertaking tertiary studies in the physical and biological sciences are a highly diverse group, and that diversity is increasing (Harris, et al., 2007). For instance, at the University of Sydney, Australia there are usually around 2000 students from various faculties in the first year chemistry cohort. Some of these students had little or no Higher School Certificate studies in chemistry (especially students in Sports Sciences). However, others have very high Universities Admissions Index chemistry scores (>98 for Veterinary Science students). With such a diverse group there is also, naturally, a wide range of interest in and aptitude for the subject. Such diversity is typical for classes in biology, chemistry, and physics at a number of Australian universities (see Table 1).

Table 1. Summary of discipline areas studied through a language focus, host universities for each discipline and features of large student cohorts and learning environments.


The project protocols were developed through collaboration among all stakeholders. These included a specialist in language learning and science subject specialists who were also e-learning developers and students. Designs built on the team members’ knowledge of research into online learning (Schulte, 2006), computer-assisted language learning (F. Zhang & Barber, 2008), linguistics (F. Z. Zhang, 2006), empirical research in science (Ellem & McLaughlin, 2005), and pedagogical practice. A student-centered approach was emphasized in the design process and in the design itself.

The subjects in this project were taught by lecturers who hold broadly constructivist views of learning as described by Bruner (1986). In this view of learning, learners are considered to bring different conceptualizations, intentions, styles, and approaches to the learning situation (Kolb, 1984; Marton, Hounsell, & Entwistle, 1984; W. G. Perry, 1988). Students’ active engagement in learning activities was also an essential ingredient.

Furthermore, these activities should be based on direct experience as far as possible (Boud, 1993) and reflection was seen as important in building understanding (Schon, 1987). Finally, the project was also informed by Lave and Wenger’s ideas of situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Students and staff were participating in academic communities of practice. Therefore, the classroom was no longer a site for the transmission of knowledge but rather a site for social practice. To be included in such a social practice environment, the language of that environment must be learnt.

In this process, the roles of teaching and lecturers were changing too. Science lecturers worked alongside an educationalist and contributed to educational research and scholarship. Just as experiencing change in how they learned took place over two years for the students involved in this study, academics teaching also experienced changes. The science academics involved in this project were extremely accomplished and knowledgeable individuals in their own disciplines. By participating in this project, they were positively recognizing the possible contribution education theories and practices could make to their teaching. The involvement of the educationalist was a way of establishing a mutually beneficial learning relationship so that science academics and the educationalist could gain new knowledge from each other. The educationalist involved in the project had very little scientific background or knowledge in the targeted disciplines. She, in a sense, was like a student who chooses to do science without the necessary pre-requisites.

In this model, changes in teaching approaches were explored through a co-teaching or peer coaching approach (Ladyshewsky, 2006; Roth, 1998; Roth, Tobin, Zimmermann, Bryant, & Davis, 2002) in which the education/language expert shared with the science academic techniques and strategies used in teaching in a constructivist model. The science academics taught the education expert the content and pedagogy used in a particular science discipline. This coaching practice before lectures and tutorials in private between the educationalist and the lecturers was an essential element in successfully implementing the change in science academics’ lecturing styles in the face to face context. During the coaching practice in private, the educationalist and the lecturers worked together to anticipate areas that students might not understand. This preparedness enhanced the delivery of the content using the new face to face protocol.

The staff project participants were instrumental in ensuring the sustainability of the project processes and findings. At each participating university, the staff project participants involved were instrumental in disseminating the outcome and findings of this project in higher education to colleagues within their own disciplines in their own universities and across the sector. Teaching project staff participants consulted with staff in units for the promotion of teaching and scholarship in higher education such as the Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of Canberra. Teaching staff project participants also conducted workshops to train lecturers in their disciplines in using the online and face to face protocols. Project participants were also involved in a peer-mentoring program organized at each individual institution. During the peer mentoring program, project participants mentored colleagues who intended to adapt and implement the strategies tested in this project, and they also conducted workshops and seminars to showcase the processes and outcomes of this project at their own institutions.
In the project, we undertook to do the following:

  • conduct an online language difficulty survey to ascertain the problems students might have with scientific language;
  • implement the following two protocols in teaching in all five universities
We also implemented the following protocols:
  1. During each lecture, the lecturer built into the lecture materials short survey questions made available on VotApedia <> or audience response devices such as clickers <> to offer feedback on lecture content;
  2. During tutorials, interactive activities were introduced. Such interactive activities could include small group discussions involving the linking of concepts learned.
Ethics approval for surveying and communicating with participants was given and monitored by the University of Canberra Ethics Committee; approval number: 01-119. Each participating institution also obtained ethics approval for their participation in this project.


This casebook will be of interests to educators, science educators, both education and science lecturers themselves, as well as staff in teaching and development units. Researchers in higher education might also be interested as this cross-disciplinary approach to science education can be a sustainable model for the professional development of the staff.


The chapter submissions in this volume include nine chapters detailing successful collaboration in science education. Chapter 1 documents the results of language difficulty surveys distributed in the participating institutions to ascertain the extent of the language difficulties encountered by first year science students.

Chapter 2 documents the successful implementation of various Chemistry language strategies in the first year Chemistry curriculum at the University of Sydney, Australia. This is followed by another instance of successful implementation in Chemistry at the University of Tasmania, in Hobart, Australia in chapter 3.

Chapter 4 documents the longitudinal implementation of language strategies in the curricula of Genetics and Molecular Biology at the University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia. Chapter 5 details the verification of the Genetic Concept Inventory (GenCI) (Elrod, 2007) which was used extensively at the University of Canberra in the Genetics unit.

Chapter 6 of this book documents a successful transfer of the strategies to the subject of Human Physiology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Chapter 7 contains a description of the implementation of language strategies in the first year Physics curriculum at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. Chapter 8 describes another example of successful transfer of knowledge to the discipline of first year Statistics teaching. Chapter 9 is a concluding chapter which summarizes findings from the project for science education starting with the issue of language difficulties.


One of the key achievements of this project was that it succeeded in changing the teaching practices of science lecturers, not by imposing a set of “best practices” onto them, but by directly involving them in designing, testing, and implementing practices that they would use in their own teaching. With the idea of disseminating sustainable strategies in mind, the guiding principle of selecting suitable strategies was that the strategy must be easy to use and flexible enough to be modified to suit different institutional contexts. As a result of the cross-disciplinary collaboration between the science lecturers and the educationalist (the project leader, Dr. Felicia Zhang), some twenty-five language oriented exercises created using the freeware Hot Potato software (, over forty critical thinking activities, and over forty five multiple choice questions and a large number of VotApedia questions ( in the disciplines of chemistry, biology, and physics have been created. These teaching materials can be used either online or in face-to-face contexts, in lectures or tutorials, and are not constrained by institutional computer infrastructure such as the Learning Management System (LMS). This case book contains many of the teaching materials used in different project sites and is intended to be a one stop shop for science language activities used in the project.

Finally, this book contains a wealth of ideas, practical exercise sheets, and technological advice targeted at a number of specific topics in the Physics, Chemistry and Biology curricular. In some disciplines such as Chemistry, materials concerning all the usual topics have been included. Though coverage in other disciplinary areas has been isolated to a few topics, the model of creating language oriented exercises, creating exercises that integrate the use of technology can be readily transferable to other areas of science and other disciplines such as the discipline of business and health. What distinguishes the materials in this book from other curriculum advice is that our learning materials are not like those in any science textbooks, are produced by the disciplinary science academics themselves rather than by the educationalist, can be easily implemented with or without technology, and most importantly, have proven to produce significant improvement in first year science students’ achievement.


Boud, D. (1993). Experience as the base for learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 12(1), 33-44.

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burton, L. J., & Dowling, D. (2005). In search of the key factors that influence student success at university. Paper presented at the HERDSA 2005 International Conference: Higher Education in a Changing World. Retrieved from

Ellem, G. K., & Mclaughlin, E. A. (2005). Tales from the coalface: From tragedy to triumph in a blended learning approach to the teaching of 1st year biology. Paper presented at the 2005 National UniServe Science Symposium: Blended Learning in Science Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Elrod, S. (2007). Genetics concept inventory.

Harris, K.-L., Krause, K., Gleeson, D., Peat, M., Taylor, C., & Garnett, R. (2007). Enhancing assessment in the biological sciences: Ideas and resources for university educators. Retrieved 1st April, 2007, from

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Krause, K.-L., Hartley, R., James, R., Mcinnis, C., & Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne (2005). The first year experience in Australian universities: Findings from a decade of national studies. Retrieved from

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK & New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Marton, F., Hounsell, D., & Entwistle, N. J. (Eds.). (1984). The experience of learning. Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Academic Press.

Miller, V., Gregg, G., & Kelly, B. (2000). Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS) in a first year biology teaching program-strategies developed by undergraduate PASS leaders. Paper presented at the Effective Teaching and Learning at University Conference. Retrieved from

O'Byrne, J. W., Britton, S., George, A., Franklin, S., & Frey, A. (2009). Using academic predictors to identify first year science students at risk of failing. CAL-laborate International, 17(1), 15-25. Retrieved from

Perry, W. G. (1988). Different worlds in the same classroom. In P. Ramsden (Ed.), Improving learning: New perspectives. London, UK: Kogan Page.

Schon, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schulte, J. (2006). Delivering first year physics assignments with limited resources - An Australian three-centre study. Paper presented at the 2006 National UniServe Science Symposium: Assessment in Science Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Simpson, O. (2006). Predicting student success in open and distance learning. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 21(2), 125-138.

Tinto, V., & Pusser, B. (2006). Moving from theory to action: Building a model of institutional action for student success. Paper presented at the National Symposium on Postsecondary Student Success. Retrieved from

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Author(s)/Editor(s) Biography

Felicia Zhang possesses a Master of Arts degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne, Australia; Holder of a Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certificate (TEFLA) issued by the Royal Society of Arts, United Kingdom; and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Canberra. She is currently a senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics and Chinese at the University of Canberra, Australia. Her research interests include the use of active learning techniques in foreign language teaching, the use of technology in language teaching and acquisition, e-learning, integrating computer technology in curriculum design in education. She has just completed an Australian Learning and Teaching Council grant on science education which also won her and her team at the University of Canberra, Australia, a University of Canberra Teaching Award for Programs that Enhanced Learning. She published the “Handbook of research on computer-enhanced Language Acquisition and Learning” in 2008. She is also the 2003 winner of Australian Awards for University Teaching.
Brett Lidbury is an Associate Professor in Biomedical Sciences, the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of Canberra. Post-graduate studies encouraged a research path into immunology, cell biology, and the molecular biology of virus infection and disease. A/Professor Lidbury lectured and taught Molecular Biology and Genetics for 10 years, and recognized the barrier of molecular “foreign language” to student learning. With Dr. Felicia Zhang, funding was obtained to study language pedagogy in the science context, with the results of this study forming the foundation for a successful Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) Project grant in 2007. In addition to the role of language, other empirical observations on student learning at a tertiary level are reported, particularly in terms of motivation.
Alice Richardson is an Assistant Professor in Statistics, in the Faculty of Information Sciences & Engineering at the University of Canberra. Her PhD research, carried out at the Australian National University, was focused on robust estimation and mixed linear models. Her main research area is now statistics education. She has published several papers on active learning in the statistics classroom, informed by her experiences teaching semester courses to undergraduates, postgraduates, and short courses to government employees. She has also collaborated with researchers on quantitative projects ranging from pattern recognition in pathology databases to change management in small businesses to drivers of learning outcomes in universities.
Brian Yates, following a PhD at the Australian National University, completed postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Georgia (USA) before taking up an academic position at the University of Tasmania in 1989. Following his appointment as an academic in 1989, he has built up a strong reputation for teaching excellence. He has taught across a range of units in years one to four of undergraduate chemistry; involved in a number of competitively funded teaching development projects at the national (CAUT/CUTSD, ALTC) and state (UTAS) levels and has been rewarded with the 2006 Australian University Teaching Council Award for University Teaching Excellence in Physical Sciences. From 2006 to 2010, Brian was Head of the School of Chemistry at UTAS. In 2010 Brian was appointed as Discipline Scholar in Science for the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.
Michael Gardiner is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemistry at the University of Tasmania, Hobart. Prior to commencing this current role, he obtained B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. degrees from Griffith University. He then undertook postdoctoral research at Monash University, the Technical University of Munich, and the University of Sydney. His research is in the area of synthetic and catalytic applications of organometallic chemistry. He teaches into a range of undergraduate and postgraduate units covering a number of chemical sub-disciplines. He has been the first year chemistry coordinator since 2006 and has led the program through a number of administrative and teaching based changes in that time.
Adam Bridgeman is the Director of First Year Studies and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Chemistry, The University of Sydney. He has published 60 peer-reviewed articles. He was awarded the 2005 RSC Higher Education Teaching Award in the UK for his work on using the internet to enhance and support student learning. As a recent import to Australia, he is focusing on developing the effectiveness of service teaching and electronic resources in the School of Chemistry.
Jurgen Schulte is Lecturer in Physics and Advanced Materials at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has published 37 peer-reviewed articles, 11 peer-reviewed proceedings, edited 7 books, holds 4 industrial patents, and presented at over 30 international conferences. He is the Reviews Editor of CAL-laborate, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on Information Technology in tertiary teaching and learning for the sciences. He is currently undertaking a study on the efficacy of online assignment delivery in large service teaching classes with respect to student performance.
John Rodger is the Director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment at the University of Newcastle. His area of research interest for nearly 40 years has been marsupial reproduction and the development of innovative biotechnological 'tools' for manipulation of marsupial fertility. This work has lead to over 80 peer reviewed publications. From 1995-2003 he was Director of the Australian Government funded Cooperative Research Centre for Conservation and Management of Marsupials, an Australian-New Zealand outcomes-focused collaborative joint venture. Professor Rodger has been teaching biology at first year university level and is interested in seeking new ways to effectively bridge the transition from school to university. The second major teaching interest is in preparing later stage students for the transition to the workplace, in particular, skills to meet the challenges of the application of students' science and technology knowledge and expertise in practical outcomes–focused situations.
Karen Mate is a part-time lecturer in the School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy (SBSP) at the University of Newcastle. Over the past three years she has taught and coordinated several first year undergraduate subjects in the areas of human physiology, biochemistry, and biomolecular analysis, and is also coordinator of the Peer Assisted Study program for SBSP. Her research interests are in the area of reproductive physiology and more recently, the diagnosis and management of dementia.


Editorial Board

  • Roy Tasker, University of Western Sydney, Australia
  • Robert K. Norris, Monash University, Australia
  • Trevor R. Anderson, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa