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Durham University

School of Education

Staff Profile

Publication details for Ros Roberts

Boohan, R., Campbell, P. Charlesworth, J., Galloway, I. Millar, R. Needham, R. & Roberts, R. (2010). The language of measurement: terminology used in school science investigations. Hatfield, Herts: ASE Publications.

Author(s) from Durham


The scientific community has developed over time a specialised vocabulary for talking about practical exploration and investigation. Terms such as valid, reliable, accurate, precise, error, uncertainty – and many more – are frequently used in discussing the design and outcomes of practical enquiry. Like other examples of specialist terminology, its purpose is to enable people to communicate clearly and effectively with each other about their work and its outcomes.

In school science, we introduce pupils to some of this vocabulary and the ideas it is designed to encapsulate and express. At present, however, the way we do this is far from satisfactory. There is not general agreement within the science education community on the terms that are used or their meaning. So we can find the same word being used to express different ideas, or two (or more) different words being used to express the same idea. It can also be unclear if a word like ‘reliability’ or ‘accuracy’ is being used as an everyday term, or as a technical term with a precise and specific meaning.

This becomes a more serious issue if pupils are being assessed on their understanding of these words, or their ability to use them correctly and appropriately in reports of their own practical work. Assessment of practical work, in some form, has long been a part of school science. Since the mid-1980s, this has involved assessing pupils’ ability to plan and carry out practical investigations. The way this has been implemented has increased the prominence of a particular vocabulary for talking about aspects of investigation design, and the collection, analysis and interpretation of data. More recently, the emphasis on ‘How Science Works’ has heightened the demand on pupils (and teachers) to be able to talk about these matters in a clear and consistent way.

One particularly unsatisfactory aspect of the current situation is that there are differences between awarding bodies in the terminology used to talk about investigative work. Some
GCSE specifications include a glossary of terms associated with investigative work in science, but there are differences in the terms included and in how these are defined. And there are differences in whether (and if so how) pupils’ use of these terms is examined in written papers or through coursework. Not surprisingly, now that almost all publications are specification-related, there are corresponding differences in teaching materials from different publishers.

The result is confusion among teachers and pupils about how the special terminology associated with practical investigation is to be learned, when it is to be used, what specific terms mean, and how they appear in coursework marking criteria. This is a particular concern for ASE and Nuffield, which publish educational materials that are intended to be useful for all teachers, whatever science course or specification they may be using.