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Understanding and Addressing Ambiguity in the STEM Classroom

Journal of College Science Teaching—November/December 2020 (Volume 50, Issue 2)

By Rachel Yoho

The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are some of the most jargon-heavy areas in higher education. As such, teaching and learning in these areas includes challenges with lexically ambiguous words and phrases, where one term has different meaning in another STEM field, nonSTEM field, or broadly in society. These further can be confounded when crosscutting concepts may include an aspect of lexical ambiguity. Overall, such topics and areas are understudied in STEM. This work describes a set of resources and guides for educators to orient themselves on the potential challenges of crosscutting concepts and lexical ambiguity, analyze lexically ambiguous words and phrases in their own disciplines, apply time efficient teaching strategies, and—broadly—scaffold their approaches to these educational challenges.

In a quote widely attributed to Socrates, we understand that “the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” Yet, how are we, as educators, defining terms? How do we decide which terms we need to define?

Few fields may be as jargon-heavy as the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The introductory-level courses especially are filled with new terms, definitions, or words with additional unfamiliar meanings for novices entering their course of study. This steep learning curve for students is compounded when considering the multiple concurrent STEM courses at the introductory level students may be enrolled in simultaneously and the quantity of new words and phrases in each.

Beyond this quantity of terms for introductory-level students in the STEM fields, crosscutting concepts and terms overlapping with nonSTEM fields may create additional challenges in complexity. Crosscutting concepts, ideas spanning multiple STEM disciplines, have recently increased in popularity in the educational expectations for undergraduate students across the disciplines. For example, structure and function appear in the undergraduate learning goals of multiple STEM fields and their respective professional societies as essential for the development of future practitioners (Yoho et al., 2018).

The appearances of a single unifying topic across multiple disciplines, while appearing at different scales and in distinct contexts, adds yet another layer to the learning process as they may use unique descriptive phrasing in individual disciplines. More recently defined and even less well understood in terms of student learning progression, crosscutting concepts represent a potential for terminology and concept unification in instruction across different STEM disciplines. However, these crosscutting concepts themselves can represent potential lexical ambiguity across STEM and nonSTEM disciplines. For example, nuances in meaning exist among biology, biochemistry, and chemistry disciplines for “structure and function” (Yoho et al., 2019; Yoho et al., 2020).

Similar to the way crosscutting concepts span multiple academic fields, other words and phrases that appear in both academic and nonacademic settings can create potential communication barriers in the classroom. Popular examples from the STEM disciplines might be “culture,” “bond,” “fitness,” “integral,” “novel” (Yoho, 2018), or “exposure.” In genetics, more examples include “pressure” and “select” (Rector et al., 2013; Yoho, 2018). These are examples of lexical ambiguity, when words or phrases have different meaning in different contexts (Barwell, 2005; Kaplan et al, 2009; Lemke, 1990). Essentially, terminology can have the same, different, or even opposite meanings in the discipline as compared to everyday or nonacademic use (Lavy & Mashiach-Eizenberg, 2009). Even function, a component of the crosscutting concept, “structure and function” outlined by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Vision and Change (Brewer & Smith, 2011) can be lexically ambiguous and potentially confusing to students learning the language and norms of the individual STEM disciplines (Yoho et al., 2020), but appears as a key component of expected learning outcomes by professional societies (Yoho et al., 2018). In summary, the context-dependent meaning of a word impacts the communication process, especially when individuals in the classroom may understand different meanings and not first think of the discipline-specific use.

Unfortunately, while the STEM fields could benefit greatly, the study of lexical ambiguity and similar concepts is often limited to research in fields such as memory, language, and cognitive studies. In the classroom, educators need several time-efficient activities to help students differentiate between everyday use and the discipline’s technical use (Yoho, 2018). Notable ideas from the STEM fields exist in the literature, yet these are spread across different STEM disciplines. As such, it is challenging for instructors to identify useful strategies from pedagogical literature.

To address this challenge, it is valuable to think about broad approaches and applying strategies established across the STEM fields. A stepwise conceptual strategy for instructors includes (1) brainstorming individually and with your colleagues about potentially ambiguous topics in your area; (2) critically evaluating your discipline and others for nuanced meaning in words and phrases; (3) talking with colleagues in other disciplines to understand meanings and explore teaching strategies, especially for classes students may take concurrently; (4) outlining quick and easy teaching techniques to try; and (5) implementing and improving on those techniques by talking with students and asking for feedback (see

Potential teaching techniques include, for example, Kaplan et al.’s (2014) mention of listing and writing sentences (Adams et al., 2005), prior knowledge questioning (Adams et al., 2005), and contrasting (Lavy & Mashiach-Eizenberg, 2009). Overall, the key to helping students acclimate to the discipline’s word use and meaning is the instructor’s awareness of students’ potential obstacles (Yoho et al., 2018; Yoho et al., 2020; Yoho, 2018), especially through presenting the target discipline’s technical definition, another discipline’s technical meaning, and colloquial definitions to students (Lavy & Mashiach-Eizenberg, 2009).

Successfully helping students develop their expertise in any field is through understanding and applying that field’s unique terms. Whether it is the Socratic understanding of wisdom through terminology or the way in which scientific knowledge is shaped by understanding nuances and language use (Fang, 2005), words and phrases are key. Education across the STEM fields could benefit from additional study of crosscutting concepts, development of students’ conceptual understanding and learning, and greater attention to lexically ambiguous words and phrases.


Adams T. L., Thangata F., & King C. (2005). “Weigh” to go. Exploring mathematical language. Mathematics Teaching in Middle School, 10, 444–448.

Barwell R. (2005). Ambiguity in the mathematics classroom. Language and Education, 19, 117–125.

Brewer C. A., & Smith D. (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: A call to action. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Fang Z. (2005). Scientific literacy: A systemic functional linguistics perspective. Science Education, 89, 335–347.

Kaplan J. J., Fisher D. G., & Rogness N. T. (2009). Lexical ambiguity in statistics: What do students know about the words association, average, confidence, random, and spread? Journal of Statistics Education, 17, 1–19.

Kaplan J. J., Rogness N. T., & Fisher D. G. (2014). Exploiting lexical ambiguity to help students understand the meaning of random. Statistics Education Research Journal, 13, 9–24.

Lavy I., & Mashiach-Eizenberg M. (2009). The interplay between spoken language and informal definitions of statistical concepts. Journal of Statistics Education, 17(1).

Lemke J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Ablex Publishing.

Rector M. A., Nehm R. H., & Pearl D. (2013). Learning the language of evolution: Lexical ambiguity and word meaning in student explanations. Research in Science Education, 43, 1107–1133.

Yoho R. A. (2018). A case of multiple meanings? Perspectives and tips for integrating students into specialized language use within disciplines. The Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching, Oxford, Ohio.

Yoho R. A., Urban-Lurain M., Merrill J., & Haudek K. C. (2018). Structure and function relationships in the educational expectations of professional societies across the STEM disciplines. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(6), 24–31.

Yoho R. A., Foster T., Urban-Lurain M., Merrill J., & Haudek K. C. (2019). Interdisciplinary insights from instructor interviews reconciling “structure and function” in biology, biochemistry, and chemistry. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research, 1, 16. 

Yoho R. A., Kohn K., Urban-Lurain M., Merrill J., Haudek K. C. (2020). Exploring the meaning of function as a complex idea embedded within the crosscutting concept of structure and function. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 31(1), 129–148.

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