Learning the Language of Evolution: Lexical Ambiguity and Word Meaning in Student Explanations

Meghan A. Rector, Ross H. Nehm, Dennis Pearl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Our study investigates the challenges introduced by students' use of lexically ambiguous language in evolutionary explanations. Specifically, we examined students' meaning of five key terms incorporated into their written evolutionary explanations: pressure, select, adapt, need, and must. We utilized a new technological tool known as the Assessment Cascade System (ACS) to investigate the frequency with which biology majors spontaneously used lexically ambiguous language in evolutionary explanations, as well as their definitions and explanations of what they meant when they used such terms. Three categories of language were identified and examined in this study: terms with Dual Ambiguity, Incompatible Ambiguity, and Unintended Ambiguity. In the sample of 1282 initial evolutionary explanations, 81 % of students spontaneously incorporated lexically ambiguous language at least once. Furthermore, the majority of these initial responses were judged to be inaccurate from a scientific point of view. While not significantly related to gender, age, or reading/writing ability, students' use of contextually appropriate evolutionary language (pressure and adapt) was significantly associated with academic performance in biology. Comparisons of initial responses to follow-up responses demonstrated that the majority of student explanations were not reinterpreted after consideration of the follow-up response; nevertheless, a sizeable minority was interpreted differently. Most cases of interpretation change were a consequence of resolving initially ambiguous responses, rather than a change of accuracy, resulting in an increased understanding of students' evolutionary explanations. We discuss a series of implications of lexical ambiguity for evolution education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1107-1133
Number of pages27
JournalResearch in Science Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education


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