A New Way to Help Students Learn Course Vocabulary

Most college students struggle with the vocabulary of our disciplines. In their various electronic exchanges, they do not use a lot of multisyllabic, difficult-to-pronounce words. And virtually all college courses are vocabulary rich—unfamiliar words abound. Most students know that the new vocabulary in a course is important. They use flash cards and other methods to help them memorize the words and their meanings for their exams. Two days later, the words and their meanings are gone.

Word Sort is a strategy that helps students learn and better remember new vocabulary. Students work in small groups, with each group given an envelope containing key terms on separate slips of paper. Students are instructed to discuss what they think the words mean and then organize them into different categories based on what they think the relationships among the words might be. The strategy was developed for use in science courses, where terms have more precise meanings and fit more readily into categories. Students do this initial sort before reading about the terms or hearing them defined and discussed in lecture. After exposure to the words in the text or lecture, students get back into their groups and re-sort the words, comparing their new arrangements with the ones they first constructed.

A lot of iterations of the basic strategy can be used. For example, individual students can be given the collection of terms and told to define and relate them after having done the reading as a homework assignment. Before turning their work in for some modest number of points, students might share with other students in a small group what they’ve done. Or the instructor might use a particularly good categorization in a final review of the material or position that chunk of content with what’s to be learned next.

As might be expected, some students (in this article it was a small group) object to the approach. These are the students who think that the instructor should just tell them the definitions and their relationships. Having to figure it out for themselves means that the students are doing the work the teacher should be doing. What these students fail to understand is that the process of discussing—saying the words aloud and using them in sentences—makes the words more familiar and therefore easier to remember. Exploring how the words relate to each other means that the students are building a framework that puts the words in context, also making the words easier to remember in both the short and long terms.

If students work with the terms and their relationships before being given their definitions and relationships, they are forced to draw on their prior knowledge and experience. Students discover that they often do know something about the terms and their relationships, and teachers need to include more activities in courses that challenge students to draw on their prior knowledge. Students do not arrive in college courses as blank slates—they have taken (in this case) science courses previously. That tasks like these challenge students is a good thing. Students benefit when they are put in situations where figuring out answers is up to them.

Reference: Nixon, S. and Fishback, J. (2009). Enhancing comprehension and retention of vocabulary concepts through small-group discussion: Probing for connections among key terms. Journal of College Science Teaching, May/June, 18-21.

Reprinted from Word Sort: An Active Learning, Critical-Thinking Strategy, The Teaching Professor, 23.10 (2009): 4.