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Death by 1000 cuts: Vocabulary in Introductory Biology

Brain in the form of the maze

I have read that the average number of new words of vocabulary in introductory biology textbooks exceeds that found in… a foreign language learning text. This can’t be well-considered; new words are the primary purpose of a foreign language course; they are a barrier to understanding in a Biology course

Some thoughts on how vocabulary in introductory biology is a horrific educational crime, and concrete proposals  about what can be done, as well as available tools, follow

Update: tools currently being built and posted; see ‘Further Explorations’ @ end

Surely it is madness to introduce a pile of new words to someone and then proceed to use those terms immediately in subsequent text or speech. But that’s the general issue most of us confront in teaching, discussion, and assigning reading. Theories on cognitive load are suggesting most of us can hold 4 plus-or-minus 2 ‘units’ in our heads at once. I’m not sure where ‘new words’ fits into that, but I’m certain we neither want them taking up that space, nor can afford to have them ‘dropped’ mid-lecture or mid-read. Open your biology textbook and take a look–in an informal test, I found highlighted vocabulary words per page of one text to be on the order of 7-13. If a student doesn’t have a meaningful understanding of these terms, then the most important part of the content is whizzing right over their heads. Sure, the definitions are provided in a glossary, and were carefully introduced 1-5 pages ago. But consider your own experience–does that count? Can you read challenging, new material for comprehension when the most critical ideas are always replaced by foreign words or nonsense? I happen to love words, and new ones best. But I would never claim to learn one new one per day, and judging by textbooks I have used (selected because they made an effort to alleviate this issue!), the unspoken expectation is that students will literally master 5+ new words every day of the semester… in my course alone… while encompassing the huge new concepts and conquering misconceptions these words are meant to be addressing.

Can we save vocabulary in introductory biology?

While words will always be with us–many of them exist for reasons of precision or because they refer to things that everyday vocab doesn’t. I believe we need to balance this against our goals in teaching introductory biology (surely the concepts are the bigger goal) and the fact that some are heinously anti-helpful. The smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum (named because of their microscopic appearance and ‘reticulate’ nature–the latter not a student-friendly word where I teach) are bad enough, as they aren’t the most closely related membrane compartments, name to the contrary. But then we find the Golgi apparatus! What clues does this term provide the biological apprentice? Unhelpful fact 1: discovered by some dude name Golgi. Unhelpful fact 2: who wasn’t sure what it did, so it’s an ‘apparatus’. It might feel silly, but if our purpose is teaching, would ‘bag of sugar-adding enzymes’ not actually better accomplish the goal of teaching how the cell is organized, the route of proteins to the outside of the cell, and why that route occurs as it does and what challenges it confronts?

I’ve divided my proposals for vocabulary in introductory biology into four areas: reduction, deep preparation, game-time preparation, and delivery


Image of apple being squeezed by tape measureThis one’s obvious. Be ruthless. I think the argument that “they’re going to need to understand those words to learn/work in field X” is a red herring. If students are exposed to sheaves of new words, let’s face it–they’re not ‘learning’ any of them. Further, if a certain vocabulary is useful in a given enterprise, our young charges will learn them there for the best reasons–constant, contextual exposure and need-to-know. In the meantime, let’s identify those that really constitute the essential core for our field–at an introductory level. Personally, I received a huge comeuppance in trying to select some ‘accessible’ papers for reading into an Introductory Biology Honors course. Despite having carefully selected papers I thought to be ‘readable’ and that introduced a ‘minimum’ of techniques, I found myself writing a page and a half of vocabulary explanations for each. At the end, it was hard to fool myself into thinking that most students were going to be consulting my hard-won explanations several times per paragraph, nor that those who did would be able to hold onto the ‘sense’ of their reading. And of course, one definition doth not a penetrating understanding create.

So, as with so many problems, the most effective solution is prevention wherever possible. My plea is that everyone make a sincere effort to assess and recognize the extent of the problem, as I believe it’s absolutely overwhelming in current practice.

Deep preparation

Sponge diver suitIn thinking about this a while ago, several things occurred to me about how we ‘teach’ vocabulary. Oddly, explicitly recognizing vocabulary seems to’ve gone out of style after elementary school, and in my own area, I’m not sure many of the young people were exposed to any vocabulary enrichment at all. Why do we expect them to magically know or master words when they’re older, despite the well-known (and therefore true?) observation that language acquisition is for the very young? Secondly, I think the ‘one definition/flash card’ approach to ‘learning’ words is completely misguided. In many cases, provided definitions are chock-full of even more vocabulary words at the same level. What’s more, if you ‘know’ the meaning of a word, you’re likely to give a different definition each time, consider it differently in different contexts, know how it fits to other related words. None of these aspects are reflected in simple memorization of ‘definitions.’

Enough complaining–what’s to be done? My best answer is almost certainly ‘VocabuWary‘, a game for learning and mastering vocabulary. I’m in the process of re-writing it for more robust operation as well as (I hope) ability of guests to author games in the platform. Briefly, it works by presenting several aspects of vocabulary in a quick-response gaming environment. Why? Because real-life vocabulary occurs during reading or speaking/listening. If it takes you 15 seconds to recall the meaning of a word, you’re lost–the speaker is 3 sentences down the road. Even worse if you ‘have that written down somewhere and just need a moment.” And it’s still no good if you need to wrestle with the fact that the application of the term is not precisely the one anticipated by your rote-memorized definition. Real understanding of a term means you can use it yourself or ‘translate’ it without conscious thought–i.e. at game speed.

The other major feature of VocabuWary is that it offers great variety in terms of the presentation of even a single term. A given session can include multiple instances of:

  • Correct definition: a word is presented and the user must select the matching definition. Multiple definitions can be entered, so different efforts at the game may yield different selections
  • Correct word: the reverse of the above; a definition is presented and the matching word must be chosen. Again, variety is available for word and definitions
  • Either/or: A big problem in my own classes is words that are similar or that arise at different times: transcription/translation, ribosome/polymerase, base (pH)/base (part of nucleotide) etc. On these questions, a display is presented allowing the alternatives to be selected (and neither/both if desired), and a series of challenge cases are presented. Note that this can be a very ‘deep’ opportunity in that concepts about mechanism (for example) can be related–for mitosis/meiosis, “occurs in most cells” is not only definitional, it’s also conceptual. As with other formats, dozens of instances can be programmed in, and the user confronts only a subset in any given round of play.
  • Fill in the blanks: Currently, this is presented as a paragraph (what better test of a series of related vocabulary words than in a contextual setting?) and the user must click on correct terms in order. Again, variety in both the real and ‘distracter’ blank-filling terms is feasible
  • Usage example: An operational test; the word in question is shown highlighted in a sentence and the player must judge whether the displayed usage is correct or incorrect.

For several of the options above, images can substitute for terms (for example, an image of homologous chromosomes aligned would be an either-or of meiosis, not mitosis).

Overall, gameplay is time- and accuracy-based. There are large penalties for error (such that more than one per 15 or 20 correct items is pretty much lethal) and on each challenge, the suer starts with a positive score that quickly depletes as time elapses. While settings are currently all guesses on my part, with some practice students seem to have no difficulty scoring well above the thresholds I set for performance.

Intriguingly, of all the software and homework I have offered at the Introductory level, this deserves special notice as it has regularly generated positive commentary from students as a helpful  learning tool. What’s more, I have seen students achieve scores of 300% the required threshold, with zero reward for anything over 100%. Apparently, at least some of them consider this to truly be a ‘game’.

Game-time preparation

For talks, I’m not sure if a review of essential vocab before speaking is useful; see ‘Delivery’ below for more concrete ideas. For quizzes and similar tasks, it’s critical to reiterate newly introduced vocabulary. I’ve developed a ‘gamified’ fill-in-the-blank format where ‘important’ words in an important text are converted to letter boxes (like a crossword puzzle). To keep players engaged, if  the word isn’t correct on a first entry, letters begin to appear scrambled in a hint box, and slowly de-scramble over time. In this way, correct knowledge of a term or idea is rewarded, but those not yet locked in get a chance to see correct answers while (hopefully) actively engaging in extricating them.


I think it can be a huge help to be conscious of the challenge facing students in listening or reading when the word stream is filled with potholes. At least when I’m on my game, I try to remember to define new terms each of the first 3-4 times I introduce them in a lecture. Admittedly, this is not a standard I often achieve, but setting this goal for myself helps me remember the importance of words. A part of this is using spontaneous (or at least different) definitions. Too often I think students ‘learn’ new words by memorizing a word-string (or worse yet, a letter- or sound-string) that they are prepared to repeat on an exam. ‘Learning’ vocabulary must mean the ability to use or recognize a word in context, and that context must be broader than the white piece of paper on the final exam.

Further explorations

thinkBio’s ‘VocabuWary‘ tool: gamified vocabulary, with some concepts snuck in.

thinkBio’s ‘Fill-Blank‘ tool: while this is designed as a chapter summary, by using vocabulary in a textual way, they can reinforce it as well. Updated to new engine; organized by category.

One thought on “Death by 1000 cuts: Vocabulary in Introductory Biology

  1. Pingback: Talk different: delivering biology with meaning

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