Defining in the 21st Century

Vocabulary assignments should evolve with the times.

Vocabulary assignments should evolve with the times.

This past week marked the beginning of my last semester of graduate course assignments. One of the courses I’m taking is EDUC 295, Quantitative Methods II. The week’s assignments were somewhat typical – reading the online lecture, participating in asynchronous discussion, and reading online articles and textbook chapters. Next came an assignment that at first glance looked quite typical, but ended up as anything but traditional –

Our small group, consisting of 5 students (located geographically across the country and in the Middle East), was to come up with definitions for a list of 13 research terms. We were asked to define the terms in our own words. It sounded somewhat traditional, I thought, but with a collaborative flair. Once I looked at the terms at hand, however, I was surprised to find they didn’t sound familiar. Surely the text or article I just read would assist. Maybe the words wouldn’t be in bold, but certainly they were discussed. My first reaction was that I missed something – was my mind wandering while I read all about null hypothesis?

I quickly realized that no, the definitions weren’t provided for us in our readings or through Dr. Watkins’ lecture. Individually, we had to call upon a combination of research skills and web literacy — using multiple reliable sources to come up with a definition that made sense to us. Then came collaboration, which involved synthesizing our findings into one negotiated, concise, and clear definition. Not quite the “copy these definitions” task so often assigned.

What a strong foundation to start the semester! Assuming his role as “guide on the side”, Dr. Watkins had us work together within the content to accomplish the goal (becoming comfortable with the research terms). Sure, Dr. Watkins could have handed us his definitions to study, but how much would have copying and memorizing helped vs. the constructing and combining we accomplished? I’d love to see such assignments more in K-12 education. It is just one simple way to give more depth to content vocabulary.

Photo courtesy Visual Thesaurus


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