I have this recollection from when I was in school of looking in the back of my textbooks at a glossary of important words, and copying down definitions to my notebook paper of lists of words my teacher had given me for our upcoming chapter of study. Now, this could have been a nice introduction to some of these words, or the beginning of learning some new words that I would be seeing as we studied the chapter in class. However, it seems that when it came to science vocabulary especially, it didn’t work out quite that way. So, I think because of my own experience with vocabulary words, somewhere along the way in my teaching career, I decided to throw out vocabulary assignments. Here are the top three reasons I don’t find vocabulary assignments too effective in science courses.
- Vocabulary can easily become nothing more than mindless busywork to a student.
Vocabulary assignments can often be a passive act of copying down definitions without much focus at all on what the student is writing down. The student merely copies down the words without processing what the words are saying. Since students are so adept at this easy job of copying down definitions, they sometimes find that they can even do it while also doing something else… say watching television or talking on the phone to a friend. So, the point here is that unless a student really commits to focusing on the definitions and what they mean, copying down the words does not usually capture a lot of meaning and can be a waste of time.
- Lack of Context
Science vocabulary words are often large and unfamiliar words to students, and frequently the student does not even know how to pronounce them. Unless students can listen to the correct pronunciations and are given context for how this word relates to something else that they already know, the definitions of twenty big, unknown words can be overwhelming and confusing. I like to introduce these vocabulary words by simply talking about the word as it comes up in our notes and discussion in class, without ever referring to it as a vocabulary word. It is just new information that we are learning as we go. Similarly, the student can be introduced to the word as he is reading through the chapter and it is explained in context, rather than pulling the word out on its own as one word in a long list of new words.
- Memorization vs. Understanding
When learning about new words in context rather than mindlessly copying down a definition, the student has a much better chance of understanding the word rather than just matching a word to a definition. A student could memorize terms and their definitions and even take a test where he matches up the definitions to the correct terms perfectly – all without really having any deeper understanding of how to apply and use these new words. But, if a student learned the vocab in context and came to understand what the word means and how it relates to the subject being studied, then he is able to apply his understanding of this new word in new situations. This is higher-level thinking and this is what science is all about!
So, although I know that vocabulary lists do have their purpose and there are students who do benefit from copying down definitions for new terms, I have found it productive to use the time a student might spend copying vocab to instead complete a task that requires higher level understanding of that same vocabulary.
About the Author
Debbie Stokes has been teaching science classes since 1991 and still finds great awe in how beautifully and intricately the Creator designed all things. She finds it a great privilege to journey through the “study of life” with students!
Debbie graduated cum laude from Kennesaw State University in 1991 with a B.S. in biology. She soon after earned her M. Ed. in science education from Georgia State University. Debbie taught high school science classes in the public school system of Cobb County, Georgia for sixteen years and has taught science classes online since 2011. She describes her teaching style as a combination of passion for the subject matter mixed with creativity and fun.