Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed (Part 1)

Part I: Tiers of Vocabulary and General Education

In many courses in higher education, we have a need for the students to learn a new set of vocabulary. Vocabulary words can be broken into three tiers (the following are the definitions from Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2013):

Tier One: Words typically found in oral language.

Tier Two: Wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users.

Tier Three: Words limited to a specific domain.

While there are three (simple) tiers of vocabulary, and these are often depicted in a pyramid or a cake with three levels, I think the learning of vocabulary is much more complex than that, especially as a student acquires the very domain-specific vocabulary of their future career. I prefer to think of the tiers as a more complicated structure of garden tiers, where the plants from one tier might intermingle with other tiers as priorities shift for the learner.

Landscaped tiers containing a variety of garden plants.

Let’s assume that Tier 1 words are what a college student picks up in K-12 education. For solid instructional design of assessments (both formative and summative) in higher education, first consider whether the vocabulary should be learned at the level of Tier 2 or Tier 3.  You might think of this as the difference between teaching to recognize a word and identifying some general connections to it or teaching to recall a word with specifics of function/definition.

As an example of this critical design thinking, let’s do a brief analysis for a set of biology vocabulary for a general education biology course:

  • cytoplasm
  • mitochondrion
  • cell
  • nucleus
  • nucleolus
  • vacuole
  • virus
  • chlorophyll
  • chromosome
  • chloroplast

Pay attention, because in this context of general education, the highest cognitive-level learning objectives do not occur at the highest vocabulary tier.

Tier 1 (words typically found in oral language): cell, virus

Most likely, college students already have common knowledge of how these two Tier 1 words are used in context, but they may lack specific details on how we differentiate between the words. For example, a student may understand both a cell and a virus to be very small structures in the body that carry genetic material but not understand the differences between them. In a college course, you may want to focus learning objectives for already-acquired Tier One vocabulary on differentiation of these words from other common language words, a deeper dive into the understanding of the word, or on how these words relate to other newly acquired higher-tiered vocabulary.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Compare the structures in a virus and a cell.
  • List the types of cells.
  • Identify the organelles that are often found in a cell.

Tier 2 (wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users): nucleus, chromosome, chlorophyll

Even if this is a general education biology course, it is likely that students will hear, read, and use these Tier 2 words again during their lives. High-utility means we should try to help the student learn the words at a permanent recall/mastery level (understanding both definition and context).  Learning objectives should be focused on definition (with relevance, like function), characteristics, and comprehension in context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the function of the nucleus.
  • Describe the function of chlorophyll.
  • Locate the nucleus, nucleolus, and mitochondrion in a cell.
  • Explain how a plant cell benefits from its chlorophyll.
  • Describe the structure of chromosomes in the human body.
  • Explain the function of chromosomes during human reproduction.

Tier 3 (words limited to a specific domain): cytoplasm, mitochondrion, nucleolus, vacuole, chloroplast

In a general education biology class, it might be important to recognize Tier 3 words and their functions, but it may not be necessary to recall specific definitions of the word or store it in long-term memory past the end of the course. Remember that biology majors that take this general education course will take more biology courses. Each subsequent biology course will provide opportunities for repeated vocabulary retrieval and in-depth learning. A general education course is not the time to drill in every property.  The learning objectives for Tier 3 words in a general education course should focus on the recognition-level with enough comprehension to make sense of the context in which the vocabulary words appear. These learning objectives should also focus on how the Tier Three words relate to lower-tiered words, since that is what will help the learning do sense-making around context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Identify the function of the mitochondrion, nucleus, and nucleolus.
  • Label the chlorophyll, chloroplast, and vacuole in a plant cell.
  • Select the organelles that might appear in a plant or animal cell.

As the student moves from general education to a majors-oriented biology course, the learning objectives should also shift and scaffold to support the deeper learning requirements. In this example, Tier 2 vocabulary should be treated as known by the student, but needing further differentiation. Tier 3 vocabulary should be learned to the recall level (instead of recognition). In addition, we ask students to do more sense-making with higher-order concepts while using the acquired vocabulary (even though we no longer mention the vocabulary by name).

Stay tuned for Part II of this series on Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed, where we will start to focus on designing digital interaction to teach vocabulary.

Note: I’m not 100% sure that cell and virus would be considered Tier 1 vocabulary words, but it seems to me that these are the most obvious candidates from the example list provided.  Both words appear in the Merriam-Webster Learners Dictionary (which provides definitions in simple English). If you know of a definitive source for Tier 1 vocabulary words online, please let me know.

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The 1-9-90 Rule and Observations of a Classroom Experience

I’ve referenced Vilma Mesa‘s Classroom Mapping for a while now, and want to give this some more thoughtful due diligence.

You can see examples of Vilma’s Classroom mapping in this Slideshow (the images are shared with her permission and you may reshare them by sharing the slideshow).

The 1-9-90 rule is a rule of thumb governing interaction in collaborative environment: 1% of the participants are creators, 9% are contributors (they comment, like and share things), and 90% lurk. While it is applied mostly to collaboration and networking in digital environments, I was struck by how it also plays out in classrooms. If you click through the slides, you’ll see the same ratio play out over and over.
The instructor (one person) creates the content. Roughly 3-4 students ask and answer questions. The rest of the class? They lurk, probably hoping to just watch it all play out without having to participate.
If this is the natural norm of collaborative environments, this gave me a couple questions to ponder. First, should we even try to shift the norm by mandating more participation by the lurkers? I think that classroom environments are a good place to try to engage students in more active learning. Even if a students’ natural tendency is to lurk, she/he has to learn to participate actively even when it is not desirable (they will have to face an employer eventually that will require this of them). So I think that we should try to increase the participation by the 90%, but just be mindful of this natural social breakdown in collaborative settings (translation: there will be pushback).
The second point to ponder is this: typically online instructors do “force” the lurkers to participate in activities like discussion boards. But often the same instructor will have no such type of participation requirement for a face-to-face classroom. Clearly one reason is the time that would take too much time to let everyone in the class have a say in every discussion, not to mention that the discussion would quite quickly become a lot of rephrasing of what other people said. Oh wait … that is what required online discussions are like. If you teach both online and face-to-face, give this some good thought – I think it is our goal to create the most high-value learning experience we can, and while the environment should impact the design of the experience, be mindful of creating dull experiences just because everyone “has to” participate.

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Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Technology-Enhanced Teaching

I’ve been giving versions of this presentation at several events lately: AlaMATYC, SXSWEdu, STEAM3, and Elgin CC’s Distance Learning Conference. I said I would post the slides, and so here they are in one version.

To see the video of students in the math classroom, here are some links to the YouTube videos:

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Silicon-Valley Tinted Glasses (and MOOCs)

A great deal of Ed Tech (and the VC money that supports the industry) seems to be viewing the world through lenses that are quite different than those of us who have taught students at public institutions. They are building ed tech in their own image, and many of them either dropped out of school and self-taught or attended ivy-league institutions.  The Silicon-Valley view of the problem of education reminds me of Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average) and is based on something like this:

Higher Education: Where all the learners are motivated, everyone has Internet, and the only thing standing between a student and their success is affordable access.

But this isn’t reality. For example, the students we teach at community colleges (4 in 10 college students in the U.S.) were busy with school, work, and family responsibilities. Learning for most was a means to an end, not a side-project or hobby built through self-motivation. Even with daily in-person coaching from instructors, free access to tutoring, and personal encouragement through email, phone calls, and hallway conversations the instructor and institution can rarely coach out motivation where there was none to begin with and the magic MOOC is not likely to either (see San Jose experiment in developmental math as a case in point).  A detailed reading of the CCSSE survey might be worthwhile for Ed Tech companies seeking to build apps to serve the population of “self-motivated” learners.

Let’s tackle Internet next. According to the latest PewResearch study on broadband, only 70% of adults in the U.S. have broadband Internet. Some of those folks are certainly seniors that do not wish to participate on the Internet, but there are two other groups to consider: (1) those with incomes less than $30,000 a year and (2) those who cannot get Broadband even if they want it (mostly rural students who have to live off of very-expensive satellite access if they can even get that).  The FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress report pegs the number of Americans without Broadband access at 19 million. This does not translate to just an area here and there, but involves large swaths of the country that are rural. For example, this map (2011) shows all the rural areas without access in light orange (ignore the beige areas – those are unpopulated). These rural areas are places where families (and students) live, but can’t get Broadband.

Finally, let’s take a look at affordable access. If it were true that the only thing stopping students from learning was the cost, we would have seen a large movement of Freshmen and Sophomores from public 4-year institutions back to community colleges (where the tuition is, on average, half the cost). While community colleges did see an uptick in enrollment during the recession, so did most other public institutions  (see Figure 4 of the NCES enrollment data here). In other words, community colleges were not stealing enrollment back from 4-year colleges because they were more affordable.

The truth is that for many families and students, going away to college is and will continue to be a coming-of-age ritual that is a gateway to adulthood. No MOOC or online learning experience can duplicate the experience of being away from home and being “on your own” for the first time. If we had some alternative to this experience that rose in popularity (GAP years, public service years, etc) then I could see these online experiences becoming a viable alternative. However, the away-from-home college experience is very much a part of our culture and cannot easily be replaced.

With all of that said, I do think that massive online experiences (like MOOCs) can play a valuable role in the education ecosystem, they just need to be redirected:

Alumni Degree Updates: Suppose you graduate with a Biology degree and wish to stay up-to-date in the field. As a non-student non-faculty member, you do not have easy access to journal articles, and the media provides only questionable interpretations of the data. I think most college graduates recognize the benefit of staying up-to-date in their chosen subject area, but doing so on your own is quite difficult. Enter the MOOC and higher education. On every campus in the country, there are professors updating their lectures every year to incorporate the latest research in their field (at least, we hope they are). If the institutions gave the professors additional class release to also teach a MOOC on just the updated material (for a nominal fee), they could provide a great service to their alumni (who would, of course, get it for a discount) and give a super-fun experience to the professor (who would get to teach a bunch of super-motivated students for a change).

Cultural Enrichment Layer: Let’s face it, no matter how hard colleges try, some of them are just not very culturally diverse. To have students experience the perspectives of those from other backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic standings, MOOC providers should consider providing short 4-week courses that add a layer on top of commonly taught courses (like survey psychology, sociology, biology, or nutrition). Students from all over the world could participate together in the 4-week MOOCs with their classmates on campus and gain the perspectives they may not easily have access to otherwise.  I don’t think a small fee (maybe $10) would be unreasonable for students to participate. Kudos to the MOOC providers if they can kick out some of the enrolled student data back to the home-campus professors. That would be worth the $10pp cost to be able to track this participation for a grade contribution.

Subject Area Deep Dive: Professors that teach survey courses (like Majors or Non-Majors Biology) may often wish they had more time to really go in depth on the couple topics that they know students are really interested in, for example: maybe that’s nanotechnology or genetic modification. Deep dives into topics of interest may spark interest (and majors) from students who might not otherwise see the relevance, but alas, there is no time in these courses. Again, I see this as an opportunity for MOOC providers to jump in at opportune times in the school year with “layered on” MOOCs. Perhaps students in the campus-based course could choose from one of three topics to “add-on” during the semester, and get credit in the course for their participation. Again, this requires a data-passback and a sign-up method that connects the student to the right course, but I’ll assume that this is a minor obstacle, especially if it comes with a small fee to participate attached.

Giving students a guided experience in a MOOC (with the social aspect of their on-campus experience) may help to graduate students who are more likely to participate in lifelong learning with MOOCs after college. I think that everyone wins if this is the case.

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Canvas Guides for Math and Chemistry

For those of you gearing up for the Fall Semester, I want to make sure that you know that (1) Canvas upgraded the math editor recently and there is a lot of new functionality available and (2) there are print-friendly guides for using the Canvas Equation Editor. You can include these in your syllabus or as handouts if you are planning to do some intensive Canvas stuff with equations in the fall.

Basic Equation Tips (simple 1-page PDF)

Advanced Equation Tips (for using the new LaTeX feature to do matrices, tables of values, piecewise functions, and more)

Chemistry Tips (writing formulas, scientific notation, and chemical equations/reactions)

You can always find these links on the top of the How do I use the Math Editor? Canvas Guide.

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