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Ambiguous Terminology: A Challenge in Teaching …-social science terms

International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 2020, Volume 32, Number 3, 519-527
http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/ ISSN 1812-9129
Ambiguous Terminology:
A Challenge in Teaching Social Science Research Methods and Statistics
Maria M. Talbott and Junghee Lee
Portland State University
Research terminology is an underexamined challenge in the teaching of social science research
methods and statistics courses. An important problem in research terminology is that many of the
common terms have more than one meaning in English, which students often confuse. For example,
the words random, pretest, validity, and regression have more than one meaning and are often
problematic for students. Clarification of the most common of these misunderstandings is provided,
and teaching strategies are suggested. This issue of ambiguous terminology has not previously been
directly addressed in the literature.
Research methods and statistics are important in research (Auslander & Rosenne, 2016; Fouch? &
components of higher education in the social Bartley, 2016). Cameron and Este (2008) reviewed
sciences. Social science students must learn about several strategies to increase students' involvement in
research in order to critically evaluate and appreciate research, including a recommendation that students
the research findings they are taught. In our field of disseminate their work through publication. Moore and
social work, learning research skills also enables colleagues (2008) espouse including students in faculty
social work students to discover best practices, research projects. Elliot, Choi, and Friedline (2013)
evaluate their own practices and their own agencies, described an innovative online statistics lab that
and contribute to the knowledge base of the improved students' attitudes toward statistics.
profession (Cameron & Este, 2008; Moore, Avant, & There has also been work on specific topics
Austin, 2008; Rubin & Babbie, 2014) related to improving the teaching and the
A substantial portion of the teaching of research understanding of research. Henderson, Acquaye-
involves the teaching of research terminology. Doyle, Waites and Howard (2016) presented a
Learning the correct meanings of research terms culturally relevant research pedagogy that uses the
allows students to understand research. Acquiring the Black perspective and is informed by historical trauma
vocabulary of research also allows students to theory. Mapp (2013) and Slayter (2017) provided
describe their own research to others, as well as to ideas about how better to integrate social justice issues
communicate about research in general with faculty, into research courses. Calderwood (2012) developed a
researchers, and colleagues (Grix, 2002). Being able decision-making flow chart to facilitate the teaching
to understand and use research jargon is an important of inferential statistics. Baker, Hudson, and Pollio
learning objective of research education in the social (2011) developed the Practice Evaluation Knowledge
sciences. Even internationally, social work research Scale, an assessment tool to evaluate the effectiveness
is often taught in English. Here, we attempt to deal of social work research courses related to empirically-
with one aspect of research that poses difficulties for based practice. These represent just a sample of some
some students: ambiguous research terminology in of the more recent topics that have been addressed
American English. regarding the teaching of research to social work
Since we are social workers, we looked at the students. However, we have not discovered any work
research literature on teaching research in social work. that addresses the challenges of teaching research
This literature on teaching research in social work terminology, despite its importance.
education covers many topics. A good deal of the This article focuses on research terms with more
scholarship focuses on strategies to overcome students' than one meaning in English, which is a prevalent but
anxiety, lack of interest, and resistance to research and underexamined concern in teaching research. First, we
statistics. For example, several authors have described note that research terminology is a source of concern
evaluation projects involving service learning for students in research classes. We then offer
partnerships with community agencies that helped authoritative clarification of the some of the ambiguity
students to overcome their reluctance to learn how to in research terms, based on reliable sources. We suggest
conduct research (e.g., Harder, 2010; John, & Bang, innovative teaching strategies to improve the
2017; Kaye-Tzadok, & Spiro, 2016; Postlethwait, 2012; understanding and use of these terms by social science
Shannon, Kim, & Robinson, 2012; Taliaferro & Ames, students. This article provides helpful attention to an
2010). Others have recommended data mining to help important yet previously unnoticed issue in teaching
students become more interested and more competent social research--ambiguous terminology.
Talbott and Lee Ambiguous Research Terminology 520
Student Concern About Learning Research some research terms have different meanings in general
Terminology usage and/or in social work practice theory and/or in
research, and some terms have more than one meaning in
We are two experienced research teachers in a research. Social science research textbooks introduce
school of social work (30 years and 14 years) in the these terms and provide research definitions, but they do
Pacific Northwest. Between us, we have taught research not often address the ambiguity.
at all three levels of social work education: bachelor's, In our teaching experience, these ambiguous terms
master's, and PhD. We both ask students in our research contribute noticeably to the confusion that students
classes to complete anonymous questionnaires during the sometimes encounter when learning about research.
first class meeting. These questionnaires cover the Students experience difficulties when they have a prior
students' attitudes and knowledge about research before vernacular understanding of a word and are taught an
they begin taking our research classes. These additional new, different, and technical meaning of it.
questionnaires are used in several ways in teaching the They also experience challenges when one word is used in
classes. Here, we report some of the data we have research in two or more different ways. We have found it
obtained through these pre-test questionnaires, which are more useful to confront and address the possible confusion
comments indicating students' attitudes about research than to ignore it. To promote the carefulness and precision
terminology. The use of these anonymous data was that are valuable characteristics of the research process, we
approved by our university's Institutional Review Board. here point out some of the major sources of confusion and
Findings from these pre-test questionnaires show that provide clarification. The terms we focus on here are not
research terminology is a troublesome area for many the only instances of ambiguity in research, but they are
students. For example, one question on a pre-test asked the the ones that are most likely to be taught at the different
students about their negative thoughts and feelings about levels of higher education and appear to cause the most
research. (See Appendix for exact wording of questions.) confusion. Similarly, we do not present all of the
This question has elicited comments about not being able to definitions of the terms we review here, but only the
understand research and being confused, as illustrated in, common definitions that are the most troublesome.
"Lack of understanding the terminology," "Jargon is
difficult to decipher," "I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the Sources of Clarification about the Terms
terminology," and "I'm afraid of the language used." On
other pre-tests, a question asked the students to name their To establish different meanings and to obtain all
fears about research. Many students reported that they the relevant definitions, we used a variety of current
feared they would not be able to understand the concepts. dictionaries and a few research sources. Three types of
Students replied, "Getting confused by definitions," definitions are presented here: (1) as used in general or
"Getting used to the language and terminology," and "It vernacular usage, and in one case, slang, (2) as used in
seems like a foreign language to me." These data indicate theory about social work practice and therapy, and (3)
that some students' apprehension about learning research is as defined in social science and social work research.
partly related to research terminology. The data do not We consulted the following dictionaries and sources:
indicate that terminology is the primary concern of most
students as they begin a research course, but it is an 1. For vernacular or general usage, and for slang:
important concern. There is a corresponding question on the ? The American Heritage Dictionary of the
pre-test, asking for students' positive thoughts and feelings English Language (5th Ed.). (Kleinedler,
about research. There, one student wrote, "I place great 2016).
value on understanding research methods and ? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (New
terminology--in order to better inform my practice." Ed.). (Merriam-Webster, 2005).
Another question on the pre-test asks about any topics the ? The New Oxford American Dictionary
student is particularly hoping to learn more about in the (3rd Ed.). (Stevenson& Lindberg, 2010).
course. One Ph.D. student answered, "Get a very thorough ? Cassell's Dictionary of Slang. (Green,
understanding of research and research terminology." 2006).
2. For practice and therapy usage:
Ambiguous Terms in Research and Evaluation ? The Social Work Dictionary (5th Ed.).
(Barker, 2003).
Research is known for its carefulness and precision. ? APA Dictionary of Psychology.
By a painstaking process, knowledge is gained, and the (VandenBos, 2007).
strengths and limits of the process to gain the knowledge ? The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology
can also be known. Paradoxically, while research (4th Ed.). (Reber, Allen, & Reber, 2009).
requires precision about language, in social science ? A Student's Dictionary of Psychology (4th
research the terms used are often confusing. Specifically, Ed.). (Hayes & Stratton, 2003).
Talbott and Lee Ambiguous Research Terminology 521
3. For research usage: the same independent probability of being chosen.
? The SAGE Dictionary of Statistics and Usually this sampling method employs a table of
Methodology (5th Ed.). (Vogt & Johnson, random numbers on the sampling frame to obtain the
2016). sample. Random assignment refers to using a method of
? Pocket Glossary for Commonly Used assignment of cases to experimental groups, in which
Research Terms. (Holosko & Thyer, each case has an equal chance of being assigned to each
2011). condition, and the assignment is made entirely by
? APA Dictionary of Statistics and chance. A coin toss or a table of random numbers may
Research Methods. (Zedeck, Harlow, be used on the sample to assign cases to different
Blozis, & Panter, 2014). experimental conditions. A further wrinkle is the term
? Quasi-Experimental Research Designs. randomization, which usually refers to random
(Thyer, 2012). assignment. Random sampling and random assignment
? Experimental and Quasi-experimental are two different processes with two different names.
Designs for Generalized Causal One might think that they would not be confused;
Inference. (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, however, it is our experience that since both random
2002) sampling and random assignment begin with the word
? Research Methods for Social Work (8th random, they are sometimes used interchangeably by
Ed.). (Rubin & Babbie, 2014) students. Highlighting the difference between these two
? Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social separate meanings has been useful.
Behavioral Research (2nd Ed).
(Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2010) Chance: A Vernacular Definition, a Research
Definition, and Two Research Applications
The Terms
The vernacular meaning of chance is somewhat
Random: Two Vernacular Definitions and A imprecise, while its meaning in research is technical
Research Definition with Two Research and specific. But then there are two uses of chance in
Applications research that are not as precise as the strict research
meaning. In vernacular usage, chance refers to
Random has two related vernacular or general possibility, or accidental, or luck, or without design or
usage meanings, as well as a research meaning. The premeditation. The general research meaning of chance
general usage definition is haphazard, chance, or is the likelihood of a particular event. Chance refers to a
occurring without intention or design. This is related to purely random process, such as is seen in using a coin
an informal or slang usage of unplanned, odd, or toss or a table of random numbers. So, saying
unexpected. In research, random refers to processes that something occurred by chance in a normal conversation
are governed entirely by chance. Usually it refers to a does not have the same meaning as saying something
process such as a coin toss; or one in which cases or occurred by chance in a research context.
units are assigned numbers, and then a table of random Moreover, there are two uses of the term chance in
numbers is used to select the units. While the research that relate to but do not apply this strict
vernacular and the research meanings of random definition of chance. Chance is used to refer to, first,
overlap, they also diverge. In this case the research the effects of extraneous unmeasured variables. Those
meaning of the term is more precise than, and effects may or may not actually be due to chance; they
somewhat different from, the general usage dictionary may be attributable to other variables that were not
definitions. Without explicit clarification students may measured in the study. Secondly, while not definitional,
assume that the three types of meanings overlap more chance is sometimes used for sampling error, the
than they do, and students may form an inaccurate difference between a sample statistic used to estimate a
understanding of the research meaning of random. For population parameter and the relevant parameter. For
example, walking outside and asking whoever one sees example, the likelihood that a particular finding of a
to answer a questionnaire does not meet the criteria for relationship between variables in a sample would occur
a random sample, at all, yet it does meet the vernacular where the variables are not related to one another in a
criteria of being unplanned and without design. population is sometimes referred to as by chance or
There is additional confusion about the word sampling error. The problem here is that some of these
random in research, in that it is applied to different differences (between estimates and the real parameters)
processes. The two major processes are random are due to chance, but some of them may be due to
sampling and random assignment. Random sampling systematic bias in how the sample was selected.
refers to a sampling method where the sample is chosen Therefore, chance should not be used to refer to all
by chance only, and each individual in a population has sampling error. We recommend using the term

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