The Vocabulary of a Community

Brief Description:

In this warm-up exercise, students are asked to think of an area where they are experts, such as a hobby or a sport. By listing terminology for their own area of interest—and then swapping with a partner and attempting to make a list for their topic—they are encouraged to reflect on ways communities develop specialized vocabulary that is unfamiliar to outsiders. This activity prepares students to have a positive mindset in the face of challenges they will encounter with keyword searches for scholarly sources that use specialized disciplinary vocabulary.

Primary Learning Outcome:

  • Develop and apply topic-specific vocabulary throughout the research process. (2.1)

Additional Learning Outcome:

  • Evaluate why information creators have authority to speak on a subject, recognizing that authority is earned in a variety of ways. (3.1)

Time Needed:

15-20 minutes, depending on length of class discussion


  • Printable Activity Plan [Word] [PDF]
  • Example Slide [PDF]


  1. Optional: Explain to students that they will be thinking of a community they are part of in which they have a lot of experience, or expertise. If you want, give your own example, in this format.
  2. Ask students to spend a couple of minutes writing a list of terminology related to one of their interests (such as a hobby, sport, or job). Then, have them fold the list in half, write the area of interest on the front, and swap with a partner. Without looking at the existing list, have students attempt to make a list of terminology for their partner’s area of interest.
  3. Ask a few pairs to share their experience. You can prompt them by asking questions such as, “How did it feel to make your list vs. your partner’s list?” “Who found it difficult to make a list for their partner’s topic, and why?” “Who found it easy, and why?”
  4. Use student responses to highlight some of the following:
    • It takes a lot of experience in an area to learn the specialized vocabulary, and it’s hard for people who aren’t part of that community to know that vocabulary
    • You can become an expert in different ways (practicing a sport or job duties, participating in community events, studying a particular area)
    • Expertise is narrow. People are usually experts in one specific area
  5. Transition to discussion of academic communities, expertise, and the search process. You can cover ideas such as:
    • Academic disciplines are communities with their own specialized vocabulary
    • When you start research on a new topic, it might feel frustrating because you won’t always know the terms to search, just like many of you didn’t know the specialized terminology of your partner’s topic
    • There are strategies you can use to make it easier to develop that vocabulary and get more useful search results, such as doing background research online in order to make a list of terms that seem important
    • It is important to be flexible and patient with yourself as you are searching.

Instructor’s Notes:

This activity touches on two related ideas: participation in communities and what it means to have expertise. While it is meant to lead students into the beginning of their search process in academic databases, the ideas students generate related to what it means to be an expert might extend to other teaching moments throughout the research process. For instance, students might use articles by professors in different disciplines (different areas of expertise and perspective) in combination with “non-academic” sources created by people with a variety of claims to expertise.

More Information:

As librarians and instructors, we see students grapple with a range of emotions throughout the research process. Carol Kuhlthau, a former school librarian and Professor Emerita of Library and Information Science, conducted a series of studies on the affective dimensions of research and developed the Information Search Process (ISP) model to identify common emotions–both positive and negative–that students experience at during different research phases. The “exploration” stage is marked by confusion, frustration, and doubt as students seek relevant information on a chosen topic. A major frustration is “an inability to express precisely what information is needed” (p. 366), and in many cases this inability stems from unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of the topic. This activity is based on Kuhlthau’s ISP model and helps students identify the issue of vocabulary as a legitimate cause for frustration that they can counter with specific strategies.

Kuhlthau, Carol. “Inside the Search Process: Information Seeking from the User’s Perspective.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science, vol. 42, no. 5, 1991, pp. 361-71. Wiley Online Library.

Questions about this activity? Contact Lauren Wallis.

Creative Commons BY-NC-SAThe Vocabulary of a Community by Lauren Wallis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.