Language Focus for Genetics and Molecular Biology Students

Language Focus for Genetics and Molecular Biology Students

Brett Andrew Lidbury (Australian National University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-062-0.ch004
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This chapter examines the role of scientific language comprehension and confidence for senior undergraduate students in Genetics and Molecular Biology, and the impact of language-centred learning strategies to assessment outcomes. A number of online and tutorial language exercises and strategies are described that were designed to promote scientific language competence and subsequent genetics learning. The effect of these interventions was analysed through grade and assessment performance comparisons with earlier traditionally taught Genetics cohorts. While no significant grade improvements were found for cohorts taught via language, deeper statistical analysis revealed that motivation to adopt new learning strategies was crucial for best student performance. Language was found to be most influential for middle range performing students. Despite at least a year of tertiary education, students still had difficulty interpreting some everyday words in a science context. The study also encourages a greater evaluation of student motivation in adopting new learning techniques.
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The majority of the study described and discussed within this volume concerns the experience of first year science undergraduates in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and statistics, and the consideration of a role for field-specific language competence in performance for the first contact of students with tertiary science education. The studies conducted identified language difficulties and then set about addressing such difficulties via particular teaching and learning interventions focused on language. The importance of language to science education has been discussed and studied previously (Wellington & Osborne, 2001). One earlier study suggested that first year university biology students encounter more new words than their counterparts studying foreign languages in their first year (Yager, 1983; Wandersee, 1988). Given this evidence, the centrality of language to successful science learning has not been generally embraced, and is at best an auxiliary issue.

This chapter examines the role of language in learning in the advanced undergraduate subject of Genetics (with some reference also to the associated but separate subject Molecular Biology). The students involved in these studies were experienced university students with at least a year of tertiary level study when they entered Genetics. Also different to the other studies contained here, language support had been introduced three years earlier than for first year biology, chemistry and physics, and as such was a standard aspect of teaching once the formal study began (Zhang & Lidbury, 2006). This chapter describes the language interventions used in teaching genetics, the results of language comprehension (and confidence) testing using everyday words that also have usage in science (the same analysis as for first year biology, chemistry and physics, described in other chapters) and a statistical analysis of student data to reveal which learning factors, including language, are associated with student performance in undergraduate Genetics.

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