The results of the Great Vocabulary Test of 2010 are in. Two weeks ago, in this thread, after announcing my surprise that no student in any of my classes knew the word virile, it was suggested to see how anemic student vocabulary was.
I decided to add an extra credit section to my next exam, awarding students points for correct definitions of common, but non-trivial, words. Examples of trivial words: car, run. The words themselves were given by reader AJK, who took them from a standardized test.
The instructions verbatim:
Write the definition of each word. For each word you correctly define, you will receive 1 point. But, for each incorrect definition, you will lose 1 point. Leaving an answer blank incurs no penalty. Be careful! You could end up with negative points here. Nobody is forcing you to try the extra credit.
This was followed by the words, themselves followed by blank spaces. The definition had to be written, not chosen from a list. Here are the results in percentages (out of 160 students).
There were no discernible differences between classes, so I grouped all answers.
I was generous with definitions; anything in the ballpark was enough to earn the point. One kid demonstrated that assuage rearranged was sausage, which happens to be my favorite food, so he got the point, even though he didn’t know what assuage meant. However, his result was coded as “Unanswered.”
Another calculus student created the mini-flip-book movie “Ninja Wars” in the bottom corner of his blue book (one Ninja, after a daring leap, dispatched another through the gut with a sword) so he received a couple of points.
The most common incorrect definition was for feign, which several students mistook for fiend: “He was a coffee feign” wrote one. Most students decided feign meant fake, which I accepted.
Most correct definitions of corporal used the military rank interpretation. One mistook the word for incorporate, and two thought it a set of rules which, when broken, bring punishment. These mistakes were coded as errors.
The results for banal were interesting. All the correct definitions came from one class, from a passel of students seated next to one another. This needn’t have been a nefarious coincidence: the students did know each other; several roomed together. But one was a roommate of another student who had taken the exam the night before. Banal was the last word on the list, and the only one these kids attempted to answer. If the answers were the result of anything but prior knowledge, at least nine students now know this useful word.
One student asked, “What does this list have to do with statistics?” and another, a Chinese student, said, “It’s not fair. Everybody else speaks English.” I asked her, “How much English should you know to be enrolled in college?” Her answer: “It’s not fair.” Whether or not you agree with her, the practical results of the extra credit were negligible: the median number of points awarded was 0. As is obvious from the table, most kids did not attempt to answer and risk negative points (two students lost one point).
My reply to the first student, and to those of you who think the extra credit unfair, is this: which of these words do you think a college student need not know? The extra credit should have been found money, not an occasion for angst or modern whining about “fairness.”
We might be able to explain that 97% of students did not know venerate because they live in a (now) secular culture. But how saddened should we be that 95% of college students do not know the meaning of erudite?
How general these results are is anybody’s guess. I encourage others to conduct similar experiments in their classes. If you do so, please submit your results to me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The meaning appears obvious: students aren’t confident in their knowledge of what, at least at one time were, common words. The cause is likely prosaic: lack of reading.
Next to come: history. Last week, a student mentioned that another lived in a certain apartment on “Appian Way”, a local road. She asked, “Do you know where Appian Way is?” I said, in an attempt at humor, “Rome.” Silence. After I explained my punch line, another student complained, “You’re always expecting us to know things!”