President's Teaching Scholars Program

Elaine Cheesman

Assistant Professor
University of Colorado Colorado Springs
College of Education
Department of Special Education
Biochemistry and Biophysics
1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway
Colorado Springs, C0 80918
(719) 313-6428

Sonja Braun-Sand

Assistant Professor
University of Colorado Colorado Springs
College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
Chemistry and Biochemistry
Biochemistry and Biophysics
1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway
Colorado Springs, C0 80918
(719) 255-3442

Teaching Domain-Specific Vocabulary in Science and Education Courses

What is the central question, issue, or problem you plan to explore in your proposed work?
Does the level of understanding of domain-specific vocabulary predict comprehension of course content?

Why is your central question, issue, or problem important to you and to others who might benefit from or build on your findings?
Anecdotal conversations with other professors suggest that poor understanding of domain-specific vocabulary appears to affect students’ ability to understand and apply course content. The consensus is that students with a good understanding of domain-specific vocabulary appear to understand course content far better than those who have a poor grasp of important vocabulary. This appears to be the case for students without regard for course content (i.e. science or education courses) or level (i.e., graduate or undergraduate).

Thus, vocabulary knowledge appears to be central to comprehending complex information. Although professors generally define key vocabulary in course lectures and/or reading assignments, few take the time teach it specifically using research-validated methods. If this investigation reveals (1) a positive relationship between domain-specific vocabulary and understanding of course content and (2) explicit instruction in domain-specific vocabulary increases understanding of course content, then the results might benefit other professors in science and education courses. Results may also be generalized to other fields.

How do you plan to conduct your investigation? What sources of evidence do you plan to examine? What methods might you employ to gather and make sense of this evidence?
We plan to conduct our investigation in this way. We have selected five courses in which domain-specific vocabulary is key to understanding course content. Three are within the College of Education, Department of Special Education are cross-listed for undergraduate and graduate students—SPED 4010 / 5010, Multisensory Structured Language Education, SPED 4011 / 5011, Assessment and Instructional Monitoring, and SPED 4012 / 5012, Differentiated Instruction. Two are within the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and are cross listed with the Department of Biology and for undergraduate and graduate students—BIOL/CHEM 4810/5810 and BIOL/CHEM 4820/5820, Biochemestery I and II.

We plan to assess students’ depth of understanding of ten domain-specific vocabulary words for each course on the first day of classes and at the end of the semester. We will use the same, two-part method to assess vocabulary in all classes:

Rate the extent of your knowledge of each the following words using the following scale:
Are unfamiliar with the word.
Have heard the word before and can understand it, but cannot use it.
Know the word well; can explain it and use it.
For each word rated (c) above, please (1) explain the word’s meaning and (2) use it within an appropriate context.
Responses to item (2) will be rated on a three-point scale: 0 = poor or incorrect understanding, 1 = partial knowledge (knows the general, but imprecise, meaning), 2 = in-depth knowledge (understands a full and precise meaning). Towards the end of the semester, we will re-assess students’ understanding of the same vocabulary words using the same two questions. We will also give a final objective assessment on the course’s content as part of the conventional course assessment.

During the semester, we will do two activities that have been shown by research to improve vocabulary acquisition—provide (1) explicit instruction and (2) multiple opportunities to use and apply research. We will explicitly teach 10 important, domain-specific vocabulary words using instructional methods validated by research to help students gain a high level of word knowledge. We will provide opportunities to practice and apply the new vocabulary through multiple choice questions using classroom response systems (a.k.a. “clickers”).

To analyze the data, we will examine the (1) improvement of vocabulary knowledge from pre- to post-test and (2) the relationship between domain-specific vocabulary knowledge at post-test and comprehension of course content (percentage correct) on the final course assessment.

What literature have you reviewed on your topic?
University education requires rapid acquisition of unfamiliar terminology, or domain-specific vocabulary. Having in-depth understanding of key vocabulary plays a critical role in comprehending course content. Research shows that reading comprehension ability and vocabulary size are closely related (Stanovich, Cunningham, & Feeman, 1984), but a causal link between increasing vocabulary and increasing reading comprehension—increasing students’ vocabularies makes them better comprehenders—has been difficult to demonstrate (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Besides vocabulary knowledge, many complex factors affect text comprehension, including background knowledge, language structures, verbal reasoning, and text structures. Educators have traditionally relied on students’ learning vocabulary from context, yet a combination of explicit vocabulary instruction and learning vocabulary from context has been shown to improve both vocabulary and comprehension (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) (McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Perfetti, 1983).

One reason that vocabulary instruction often fails to produce measurable gains in reading comprehension is that traditional instruction fails to produce sufficient depth of word knowledge. Facilitating in-depth understanding of a word’s meaning involves much more than reading the definition in a dictionary or text glossary. Two factors have been found to increase understanding of new vocabulary: (1) the frequency of word encounters and (2) the instructional techniques used by the teacher. Explicit instruction of vocabulary has been found to be highly effective (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Learning an in-depth meaning of a word requires multiple experiences; adults commonly have only a partial understanding of a word’s meaning because encounters have been limited. Definitions provided in dictionaries or text glossaries are truncated to conserve space. The ability to provide a precise definition is frequently the result of a deep understanding of the word’s meaning.

The goal of explicit instruction is to help students provide a complete and elaborate definition of a domain-specific word, to deepen and enrich partial knowledge, and be able to use the word within an appropriate context. Beck and her colleagues (2002) developed an instructional approach of “robust” vocabulary instruction that involves words used across a range of contexts. Some research suggests that this robust vocabulary instruction can produce gains in both vocabulary and comprehension when delivered as a teacher-led whole class instruction (McKeown, et al., 1983). This approach involves explicit, teacher-directed instruction and provides opportunities for practice and application. Explicit vocabulary domain-specific vocabulary instruction (1) activates prior knowledge, (2) uncovers interconnected relationships among course concepts and ideas, (3) compares and contrasts new concepts, and (4) helps students generate the meaning of new vocabulary (Alexander-Shea, 2011).

Although no evidence of this approach being used in university classrooms can be found in the existing literature, the goal of this proposed project is to provide preliminary evidence that explicit, domain-specific vocabulary instruction will have a positive effect on undergraduate and graduate student understanding of course content.

Alexander-Shea, A. (2011). Redefining vocabulary: The new learning strategy for social studies. Social Studies, 102(3), 95-103.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., Omanson, R. C., & Perfetti, C. A. (1983). The effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on reading comprehension: A replication. Journal of Reading Behavior, 15(1), 3-18.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Stanovich, K. E., Cunningham, A. E., & Feeman, D. J. (1984). Intelligence, cognitive skills, and early reading progress. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 278-303.

What is your record of innovation in teaching and/or the assessment of learning?
Cheesman: I have used classroom response systems (clickers) for several years for teaching evidence-based reading instruction for students with dyslexia. I have found no other evidence using this technology for preparing teachers in reading-related content in the literature. I use this technology to assess student learning informally within course lectures. I have developed a bank of weekly quiz questions to accompany the text I use, and have put all of these question banks onto BlackBoard. Last fall, I learned to develop SmartBoard templates, and created about ten new applications, which I used in my courses. SmartBoards are widely used in K-12 classrooms, and it is my goal to model and prepare teachers to use technology. This year, I also began incorporating iPad technology within class lectures and activities. I have published several papers that assess teacher knowledge in the area of scientifically based reading instruction.

Braun-Sand: I put great effort into using technology in effective ways. For example, I use iClickers in the classroom to facilitate student engagement and to judge how well they understand the course content. In addition, I use lecture capture and post the lectures on iTunesU for each class. The use of lecture capture allows me to teach online sections of my General Biochemistry I (Biol/Chem 4810) course, if needed. In addition, I recently implemented Sapling online homework in the course. I compared the effectiveness of the online homework to traditional, paper homework. This was funded by a previous PTLC grant, and I am in the process of evaluating the results in preparation for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. Previously, my assessment of these methodologies up until now has been mostly anecdotal, either from comments on FCQs or from discussions with students. The majority of the feedback has been that students like using these technologies, especially iTunesU. In addition, as part of a Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program grant, I developed a “Research Methods” course that gave students opportunities to do research in biology and chemistry laboratories. The manuscript describing this course is currently under review by the Journal of Chemical Education.

Are you able to attend the required meetings as specified in the sections titled, “What are the Benefits?” and “What commitments are expected of participants?”
Yes, we are both prepared to attend all meetings. Cheesman is the UCCS Campus Director for the PTLC. Braun-Sand attended all campus and Denver meetings during the 2011 – 2012 year.

Please provide the name and email address for your coach/mentor. Are you willing to set each coach/mentor meeting twice each semester?
Dr. Barbara Gaddis, Director of the Excel Centers and Director of Student Retention,, has agreed to be our mentor. Yes, we are willing to meet twice each semester with our mentor.

If your project is selected, are you willing to serve as a coach/mentor in PTLC in a future year?
Cheesman has a previous record of serving the PTLC as a coach / mentor and Campus Director. Braun-Sand is willing to do so.