May 2002 Issue
Vocabulary Development is the prerequisite skill
required for applying a rule to solve a problem
By Gary K. Probst
Before any rule can be used to solve a problem, it is
necessary to know the definition and be able to recognize examples of all of the
terms used in the rule. This will be illustrated by using a rule from
English and algebra.
English: When to use the nominative case
Rule: Use the nominative case when the pronoun or
noun is the object of the infinitive to
be and the infinitive has
In order to apply this rule and answer the following
question, it is necessary to know the definition and be able to recognize
examples of the following terms:
She was thought to be ____. (I or me)
In order to correctly answer this question on English
grammar, it is necessary to know which one of the two terms is an example of the
Algebra: Using the multiplication property of equality with a fraction
Rule: Get the variable
alone by multiplying both sides of the equation by the
reciprocal of the coefficient of the variable.
In order to apply this rule to solve the following
problem, the student must know to use the following term's definition to
recognize examples of them:
Solve: X/2 = 6
Then, in order to solve this equation for X, the student
must know how to make the coefficient of the variable a reciprocal.
To apply the rules given in a course to solve a problem first requires knowing
both the definition of the terms used in the rule and then being able to
recognize examples of these terms. If a student is unable to do this, he
or she will not be able to apply the information given in a course to solve a
Therefore, the most important learning skill required in
any college course is learning each new termís classification, and identifying
characteristic(s). Then, the student must know how to develop criterion
questions from the termís identifying characteristic(s) to determine if
something possesses the characteristic(s) required to identify it as an example
of the term.
Because of the importance of being able to solve problems
in any course, the following suggestions are given how the instructor can
prevent this learning problem from developing:
- Select a textbook that gives good definitions of the
new terms introduced.
- Give on the first day of class a test on the
prerequisite terms whose meanings must be known in order to learn the
material covered in the course. This would be a good time to stress it
is necessary to look up in the dictionary and learn the meaning of terms
whose meaning is not known.
- Never assign chapters in the middle or end of a
textbook at the beginning of a course without first checking to see if
prerequisite information is required for understanding the information given
in these chapters.
- Emphasize the learning of the new terms in the course
by informing the students the first day of class the number of new terms
introduced in the course.
- Demonstrate how it is impossible to use a rule to solve
a problem in the course unless the definition of the terms used in the rule
- Inform the students that a part of the tests given in
the class will require knowing the definition of terms introduced in the
course and being able to recognize example of these terms.
- Have a separate part of each test measure the
studentís knowledge of the definition of the terms introduced. If
this part is graded separately, student accountability is developed.
If a student has not learned the definition of the terms introduced in the
course, the instructor cannot be held responsible for the studentís lack
of success in the course.
- Have a section of each test that measures the
studentís ability to recognize an example of the terms introduced in the
course. So that the students do not complain that the test is unfair,
the students should be told the examples that will be given on the test will
not be the examples given in the textbook or lecture.
- During class suggest ways the students can learn the
new terms introduced in the course.
The learning center staff should do the following when a
student comes for assistance to determine what he or she needs to do in order to
pass a course:
- Determine if the studentís learning problem is the
result of not knowing the prerequisite terms required to learn the
information in the course.
- Determine if the student knows the terms currently
introduced in the course.
- Determine if the student knows how to use the
definition of a term to apply the rules introduced in the course to solve a
- Demonstrate ways to learn the new terms introduced in
- Explain how to use the identifying characteristic(s) of
a termís definition to recognize an example of a term.
The learning center staff can promote vocabulary awareness
by using the following attention getting techniques:
- Create a display containing the textbooks used in a
specific major in one semester. Above each textbook have the number of
new terms introduced in the textbook. Then give the total number of
new terms must be learned in one semester. Have a big sign that says,
ďWorriedÖAttend a study skills seminar!
- Through the college newsletters, email, etc. convey to
instructors they must stress the importance of learning the terms introduced
Please send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org
So what's next in this column?
articles are coming in the fall:
1. College Reading Tests -What do they really measure?
It is not college reading skills!
2. Developing outlining skills by using concept maps.
A traditional outline does not show relationships between concepts. Visio
by Microsoft is a great program to use to develop a concept map that shows the
relationships between concepts.
3. A test that measures the psychological attributes of
time competence and inner other direction that determine academic success.
These attributes are more important than reading skills.
Vocabulary Across the Curriculum. An online program that instructs a
college faculty member on how to teach the vocabulary terms in his or her