Saturday, November 03, 2007

vocabulary project

I thought I'd get down a record of my version of this, a project we in EAP1 did as part of a unit on stress, health, effects of stress on one's life, stress management, etc. We'd gotten to talking of the TOEFL and how stressful it was, and I'd mentioned to them that I'd noticed after years of giving vocabulary quizzes alongside oral presentations, that students' vocabulary scores dipped on days of their own oral presentations.

I was thinking in terms of the fact that whatever words I'd sent them home with, they had to brush up on them before the quiz; that, in many cases, their ability to use short-term memory was therefore upset to some degree by the high stress of the oral presentation. In EAP1 we weren't studying vocabulary discreetly; there was too much to do. Instead, we assumed that they had a high level of reading and were taking care of it themselves. Part of it is this assumption I carry along from my communicative days: that exposure is really enough; that students will figure it out, if given enough exposure and use. I will deal with this hypothesis below. One side of me never quite believed this. Nevertheless, EAP1 is very busy with reading reaction journals, unit exams, article presentations, and a number of other things, so I just hadn't overloaded them with vocabulary quizzes which, by the way, students invariably spend a lot of time studying for, and never complain about their inherent value. I figured it would be a good opportunity to discuss how (and if) they were actually acquiring these words; it would be a good review of the term's concepts; and, we could study if stress actually interfered with short-term memory.

I set up a simple system that turned out to be not quite as easy to explain as I'd hoped. I made two batches of 40 words, and divided them each into two. I divided the students into two groups- the Odds-Evens and the Evens-Odds. First, I gave the odds 1-40 to the Odds-evens on TUE.; the evens 1-40 to the Evens-Odds. On WED. I gave 41-80 odds to the Odds-evens and 41-80 evens to the Evens-odds. Notice that in the first two days I'm giving the Odds-evens ALL the odds and the Evens-odds ALL the evens. I used the results of these two days to take ALL the odds and make two equally difficult tests from them, and did the same with the evens. In other words, the Evens-odds group normalized the evens words, so that I could make two equally difficult tests for the Odds-evens, and the odds-evens did the same for the 40 odd words, so that I could make two equally difficult tests for the Evens-odds. Both groups took supposedly equally difficult quizzes on THU and FRI, the two days that counted; FRI would be a high-stress day, having a unit test, and supposedly the high stress of FRI would show up in scores being slightly lower on FRI, where stress had presumably interfered with their short-term memory.

The quizzes took place in week six, toward the end of unit 2, but most of the words came from unit 1 and the first part of the class, weeks 1-3, so for the most part were not part of what they were studying for the unit 2 exam that Friday. They were given lists of twenty words each night, MON, TUE, WED, & THUR. and told to study them for the following day. They were also told to study each list the same amount of time, and in the same way. They were also told that the scores would not count as part of their class grade, except as participation points, since their studying was being controlled. They were, however, told that the vocabulary was useful; that they should know it; and that, in general, their ability to pick up and hold the vocabulary was a crucial skill. The quizzes asked only for the meaning; it did not test grammatical knowledge or ability to use the words. The distractors were simple and were not intended to confuse anyone. The two groups of students also were intended to be equally divided, by reading score, with the intention of splitting up language groups as evenly as possible also, so that each group would have roughly equal numbers of each language group. With only fifteen students, one group had eight while the other had seven.

One clear variable among the 80 words was exposure; words were distributed also so that words from chapter one, for example, went into both even and odd words; and so that, in general, words that they had seen five weeks ago were equally distributed, as were words they had seen four weeks ago, and a few words they had never seen, to my knowledge. I knew that they had three other classes besides mine, and made no attempt to find out which words had been covered or even tested in those; at the same time, I figured that as a cohesive class each member of the class at least probably had roughly the same exposure to each word as each other member. There were words on there that were repeated frequently in my own class, like risks and likely; words that appeared in only one reading and were most likely never seen again, like ergonomics. I tried to distribute these evenly between the even and odd lists.

So we took the quizzes, and noticed, in the process, that several things surprised us. Our scores came out like this:

Odds-Evens (first two scores are TUE/WED, then THU/FRI
A 17/17. 20/11
B 7/5, 9/10
C 11/13, 10/19
D 6/15, 9/9
E 3/3, 4/7
F 19/17, 18/19
G 16/16, 16/15
H 4/8, 5/9

J 7/5, 12/12
K 11/13, 14/10
L 14/8, 5/3
M 18/19, 9/5
N 18/19, 15/20
O 16/17, 16/18
P 13/13, 11/16

In the process of taking the quiz we noticed that for a variety of unrelated reasons WED. was a very highly stressful day for the class also. The stressful days did not seem to lower their collective scores much, however, except in isolated cases like students A and L. One student, N, had maintained that stress would make scores go up, and it did make hers go up. One, G, got scores that I would have expected in an ideal trial, which showed a drop on the last day, due to an entirely new word or two being not learned well, because the stress of the unit exam interfered. We had concluded, from our reading, that stress could not make us unlearn something we had successfully committed to memory already; it could, however, interfere with the process of committing routine things to memory. And we had further learned that deep, traumatic, unexpected stress was far more likely to do this than the expected, normal stress of a difficult but normal reading exam. Looking closely at the numbers, however, we had to conclude that our hypothesis, that stress would interfere with memory, had not really panned out very well or very clearly.

Some students admitted to not studying equally all four nights. Others did so poorly on all tests that I had to question whether they had in fact ever read anything, much less study the four lists of words. How could you sit in this class for six weeks, I asked them in my mind, and not know words like threaten or exceed? They had no good reason to subvert the project, yet some students, most notably E, H, D and possibly L did so poorly as to make me question whether they were able to read or understand the distractors, let alone the words. It was, in fact, possible that they couldn't. More common, though, were students like F, G, N, O and P, who were fairly good at picking up words all along, and missed some for somewhat random reasons, unrelated to the stress of WED & FRI's papers and exams.

The students stared at their results in order to write quantitative analysis reports that included hypothesis, method, results and conclusion; we will never see these, since they didn't make it onto the weblogs. They did, however, comment a little on the process of studying vocabulary and on what happened during the project. Those comments I list below.

A related question that I reallly was curious about was to what degree certain amounts of exposure would ensure their knowing certain words, absent any kind of quizzes or recycling efforts on my part, short of a single list appearing a night before a quiz. Various practitioners have maintained that exposure alone is enough; if that were the case, I would not have to even give them the lists on the night before, and they should get reasonably good scores on a quiz that asks only to choose the word with the right meaning. I studied the scores for the words themselves and didn't find much of a pattern. They did well on words like obesity and aroused that seemed intensely personal; they did poorly on words like stoic, ergonomics and posture, that very likely weren't seen much outside of the particular readings they were in. For a subculture of the class, exposure didn't matter; they clearly hadn't acquired much of anything, and their results, if anything, threw off the validity of any statistics I could have mustered.

It's ironic that you could get exposure only to words, without ever enrolling in an intensive language program, and if this were enough, presumably you would then not need classes, because, having acquired everything directly, grammar, style, idioms etc. would fall into place. In other words our students pay for the stress of regular well-made tests/quizzes and the feedback that comes with them, and thus are signing up for the voluntary stress of not only the unit exam, but the vocabulary quizzes or whatever other evaluative task I put in front of them. Overall, I did not see anything that would lend me to change my basic approach to vocabulary, which is as follows:

-Vocabulary is extremely important, as a base of all the skills; without vocabulary, for example, its pointless for a student to work on reading skills. Vocabulary is also the single best measurement of overall success. It is well borne out by experience, that students like F, N and O do better on the TOEFL than their counterparts who have simply not bothered to pick up the vocabulary from the units.
-Most students, though not all, need a system to actively commit words and their meanings to memory. Those systems in my experience are of several kinds (besides the student with essentially no system)- marking native language on the textbook, above the new word; putting the word and its translation on a separate piece of paper; putting the word, Eng. definition & Eng. sentence on paper (this is the system I recommend); and, marking up one's bilingual dictionary. There may be other systems that I am not aware of. Students whose TOEFL scores stagnate at about 420-450 (paper-based, institutional) very frequently have no system or a very rudimentary system. They also frequently translate every word, run out of time on the reading section, and trip up on word forms in the grammar section, due to living in their native language and not clearly having and English-use, English-sense of sentences. A student's vocabulary system should teach the student how NOT to translate, how to stay in English and use the word in its English environment.
-Exposure is crucial to learning, as our minds are inherently utilitarian, and each student is more likely to remember anything that he/she is convinced he/she will need repeatedly. One student one time told me that he learned vocabulary by looking up words in a bilingual dictionary, but marking the word every time he did; therefore, when a word got enough marks, he'd get mad and finally determine within himself to learn it. After years of stewing over that suggestion, I've noticed that it seems to have worked for several reasons, one being that a student has to build a personal relationship almost, with each word, determining to learn all parts of it, its grammar, its sound, its meaning, the environments one is likely to see it in. And that personal relationship can start with its relationship to the corresponding word in one's native language; we all know that L1 and L2 words don't always correspond exactly, semantically or grammatically, and that's part of the problem. But for a student who already understands the world through L1, it's hard to avoid funnelling knowledge through it, at least at first. The trick is successful weaning oneself away from L1- I always ask the student: how are you doing that? Is it working? Are you mastering these words successfully, in terms of being able to use them successfully when you need to?

Thus the book closes on Vocabulary project, 075, CESL EAP1.

Related posts (from EAP1 students, during 075):

Trouble with learning vocabulary (Corina)
This makes it difficult for you to remember (Renzhi)
Studying vocabulary (Herve)
Learning Vocabulary! (Patrick)
The best way to study vocabulary (Corina)
The best way to study vocabulary (Jasim)
The best way to study vocabulary (Renzhi)
Studying vocabulary from shows (Yalanda)
Fluency Ex. #4 (Tez)
Fluency Ex. #4 (Mohammed A.)
Fluency Ex. #4 (David)
Fluency Ex. #4 (Moon)
Fluency Ex. #4 (Mohammed R.)

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