Often, engineering writers tell me that they do not need to define their terms because their audiences know what they are talking about. So this week, I did an experiment in two classes, one of 18 students and one of 23 students. They were to write down words and phrases that they need to use when discussing their work. And then we passed the lists to every other person in class, who each marked the words they did not know. They might have heard them before, but they would have to look them up, or they’d feel that the term was vague or ambiguous. In short, they’d like it to be defined. Here’s the data.
There were close to 400 unique terms, and about half of them were familiar to most people (no more than two people, or about 10%, were confused by them). But about half confused more people than that, and some confused over 60% of the people in the room.
I want to emphasize that everyone was a PhD student in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept. at UCLA. They’ve all passed their preliminary exam. They are the most informed audience one might hope to have, beyond one’s lab partners. Yes, we sometimes talk to people in our very specific fields, but others should be able to understand us, too! When you go ranging around the literature for ideas, you’d like to feel that the authors are trying to help you!
I hope to continue this exercise with future classes, so I can collect more data.
One note: if there are several numbers to the right of a term, that means that more than one person put it on his or list list. In the smaller class, no term was listed by more than two people; in the bigger class, some terms were listed by four people.