What words would work?
Despite having been through school and university myself, and now working in the HE sector, I still find myself having new experiences with the education system. Now that I’ve got a child approaching school age, the latest exciting development is the primary school application process.
I’m not going to delve into the minutiae of the system (we’ve only got a short time here) but the experience made me think about the language we use for our own work in HE. When primary schools are choosing which children to accept each year, there are many criteria that go into the final decision. Alongside catchment areas, religion, siblings, and a bunch of other stuff, is a category for “looked-after children”.
When you work in a specialised field for long enough, you start to become immune to the jargon, so I didn’t notice anything wrong with this term. It was only when I saw another parent posting on a forum about it that it made me think again. The phrase refers to children who are looked after by the local authorities – those in foster homes or similar care. But this parent was confused and thought it would apply to all children – “my children are looked after by me, so does that mean they’re ‘looked-after children’?”
Using this kind of jargon in external-facing communications is easy to do – it’s a term that’s used inside the organisation, so everyone knows what it means. But that can lead to confusion and misinterpretation by exactly those it’s aimed at.
Whenever we’re communicating with an audience outside of our own immediate bubble, we need to make sure we’re not assuming they understand the same things we do. Language is often open to interpretation, and using jargon merely adds to the potential for confusion.
In higher education, we’re welcoming people into a world they are likely to have little prior experience of. Why would we make this even more daunting by using obscure words and phrases? Just because we know what a dean, a graduand, or a transcript are, that’s no reason to think incoming students would understand these terms. We’ve encountered university graduates who don’t know what “alumni” means.
Our internal language can sometimes spill over in confusing ways. “Home students”, for example, usually refers to those who are resident in the UK when they apply. But it would be easy for an applicant to think it meant students who live at home while studying, or who study remotely. And even though everyone uses the phrase “Tier 4” in the office, it means very little to most people.
Context makes a difference, too – different institutions refer to the same thing in different ways, of different things with the same word… terms such as “school”, “college”, “institute”, or “faculty” can have widely varying definitions depending on which university you’re at.
The country you’re in plays a part as well. The UK and the US supposedly share a language, but you wouldn’t know it from the confusion that regularly appears. “Academics” or “Professor” can mean different things to different people – and terms that seem clear enough in a US context – “Major”, “Fraternity”, “Coed” – are simply not used in other parts of the world.
What we need to do is find ways to avoid acting on these assumptions. Sense checking or proof-reading by an impartial eye is always helpful. Even better: why not test any potentially-problematic terminology with members of the audience? Tests like this can be carried out in person or online, depending on who your audience is and what you want to test with them. Run a series of focus groups, or send out a simple survey – even a few responses will start to show you a trend. We’ve carried out exercises like this as part of website and social media projects to find out what kind of language actually mean something to the target audience, and it’s surprising what you can uncover.
The audience themselves will be the best source of accurate feedback on possible confusion, and – even better – what they might actually use themselves.
The decisions people make around education are hugely important, potentially affecting years of their lives. We can help them make decisions that are right for them by providing access to information that they understand.
If nothing else, it would make applying for primary schools a little more straightforward.
If you need help with creating content that is effectively tailored to your audience, get in touch.