Patterns of Student Difficulty with Science Text in Undergraduate Biology Courses

By J. Mitchell O’Toole and Maria Schefter.

Published by The Learner Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Equality of access to tertiary education, especially biology, requires access to the language of science. Our analysis of the patterns in student responses to an authentic science passage in university biology classes may reveal an important reason why many students experience difficulty. An existing test of student control of the specialist language of English characteristic of science was administered to 285 students in undergraduate biology classes at the University of Guam, USA. The assessment uses traditional and modern grammar categories to analyse student responses to a gap filling exercise.
The results indicate that entry-level students were having more difficulty than those who were further advanced in their study of biology and that, in general, students indicating that their families spoke Chamorro or other Micronesian languages at home had more difficulty than those specifying Philippine languages who, in turn, had more difficulty than those indicating that only English was spoken in their homes. The data were further analysed to indicate the specific features of the language of science that were problematic for particular groups of students. ‘Cohesive devices’, prepositions and nouns presented noticeable challenges for these undergraduate Biology students.
Difficulty with the language of science may seriously impede the learning of science in the study population, even though they seemed more capable than the secondary students and other undergraduates in previous studies. The levels of difficulty for all groups compared thus far have been large enough to be of concern.
In many science classes, a language-conscious approach could markedly increase the understanding of those groups of students experiencing most difficulty while supporting the conceptual development of students for whom language activities would serve a predominantly review function.

Keywords: Literacy, Discourse, Register, Diversity, EAP, ESP, EST

The International Journal of Learning, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp.133-148. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.175MB).

Dr. J. Mitchell O’Toole

Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, Australia

Dr. J.M. O’Toole has long been involved in the preparation of resources for science teachers who have become conscious of the language component of their expectations of students at various levels of education. He is currently responsible for secondary science teacher preparation and post-graduate re-training at the University of Newcastle. Mitch’s major research interests are in the impact of language style on science teaching and in the interaction between student and teacher understandings of the history and nature of science. He has published many articles in both national and international journals as well as textbooks and research-based teacher resource books for secondary science.

Maria Schefter

University of Guam, Guam, USA

Dr. María Schefter assists under-represented students to communicate effectively in the language and culture of science, assists colleagues with assessment and design of the learning environment, and conducts biological field research. She publishes on learning, teaching, assessment, and tropical environmental biology. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociolinguistics of Science from The Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio and Masters degrees in TESOL, Linguistics, and Reading. She is a member of the (U.S.) National Association of Science Teachers, American Evaluation Association, and the Audubon Society.

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