cheesemonkey wonders

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Friday, July 7, 2017

Things That Work #1: Regular Vocab Quizzes in Geometry

One of the things that worked incredibly well last year—and which I want to extend this year—is regular vocab quizzes in Geometry.

Vocabulary is the gating factor for success in a problem-based, student-centered Geometry class. If you can't talk about geometry, you can't collaborate about geometry.

I learned the value of extremely routine-looking vocabulary quizzes when I taught 8th grade English with Alec MacKenzie, Linda Grady, and Kelly Starnes. At the beginning of the school year, the copy room delivered us each a giant stack of very basic matching quizzes: numbered terms in the left-hand column, lettered definitions on the right. Each student got a vocabulary workbook at the beginning of the school year. Every week we assigned a new chapter/list. Every week we gave a matching quiz. And then we would trade and grade them.

At some level, I recognize that this sounds stultifying. But at another level, it was incredibly empowering for the students. Everybody understood exactly what was being asked and expected. And everybody saw it as an opportunity to earn free points. Students gave each other encouraging written comments and cheered each other on. They saw their scores as information—not as judgment. They used what they knew to make flash cards or Quizlet stacks. They quizzed each other. They helped each other.

And nobody ever complained about the regularly scheduled vocab quiz. It was a ritual of our course.

Vocab quiz for initial unit on circles
In my first few years of teaching Geometry, I have noticed that the kids who make the effort to integrate and use the vocabulary and specialized terms tend to succeed. And the kids who don't use the language of geometry suffer. So I decided to use what I know to raise the number of kids who know and use the vocabulary by instituting regular vocabulary quizzes for the relevant lessons or chapters as we go.

Many of my discouraged math learners sprang to life when I assigned this task. They pulled out flash cards, folded sheets of binder paper in half lengthwise, and started organizing the information they wanted to integrate. In most of my classes, I noticed that the highest-status math students often seemed to get stuck while the weaker students knew EXACTLY where to start and what to do.

It was a revelation.

It also ensured that everybody spent a little quality time on the focus task of preparing for the vocab quiz on Thursday or Friday. And this, in turn, meant that everybody was a little more ready to use the correct and appropriate mathematical vocabulary in our work. They noticed more because the owned more.

Because these were "for a grade," kids put their shoulder into it. My colleagues in other departments commented about my students taking two or three available minutes during passing period to quiz each other.  It gave them hope.

Now I want to create a full set of vocab quizzes for my whole year. 

A few implementation notes:
  • I collect and shred/recycle all of the quizzes after I enter their scores so I can reuse the same quizzes from year to year. If I don't have your quiz, you can't get a score. I am strict about this.
  • Every new vocabulary term does not have to get quizzed, but lessons or units where there is a huge vocabulary burden that gets front-loaded deserves its own vocab quiz. I have been surprised to discover how many lessons are more vocabulary-intensive/language-intensive than I had realized.
  • Correct use of technical language is self-reinforcing. Once I introduce a new term, I mercilessly ask kids to remind each other of the definitions for 15 seconds in their table groups. Getting one kid to call out the correct definition to the whole class is not the point here. Getting 36 kids to all speak the definitions or the terms in their table groups is.
UPDATE: D'OH! I can't believe I forgot the most important implementation note I wanted to remind myself about!!!
  • There should be many more definitions in your right-hand list than there are terms in your left-hand list. Also definitions can be re-used. This way there isn't a zero-sum outcome if someone misses an answer.


  1. I've been thinking about something like this for my geometry class too, but then I started thinking if I'd want to expand the quizzes to include more than just vocabulary. What about a (small) number of theorems? What about some (basic) congruence/similarity diagrams?

    In college, there was an intro-level math course that asked students to commit about 30 proofs to memory. I didn't take this class (I was too scared about math) but I've always wish that I had.

    And I'm pretty sick of kids asking me what "isosceles" means in May.

    1. Michael, Don't do it. I know it is tempting, but you will lose the value of this if you don't keep it ruthlessly simple and focused. Keeping these to JUST vocabulary is the secret to making them work. You want this to be the most-routine-possible event. You don't want anything on the trade-and-grade sheet that needs to be explained. I just project it onto the document camera and that's it.

      Just my two cents based on having occasionally screwed it up in practice. The only person it becomes a PITA for was me.

      - Elizabeth

    2. Truth be told, I was really thinking of these decks of flashcards I have my younger (3rd/4th Grade) students practice with. More than the quiz, I was imagining asking them to make cards for a lot of the basic facts. I probably don't have time (45 min/period, 4 periods/week) to add *another* quiz to our weekly routine, but I've found "practice decks" a smooth part of the practice routine in my younger grades. That's more what I was thinking of, I think.

    3. Aha. This makes complete sense to me, especially given your context and the age of your younger students. I'd love to read more about "practice decks" (hint hint). ;)

    4. I believe that a good Idea would be to implements vocab. quizzes with the end of the chapter test. That way you can test them on terms that will help them out with problems given on the test. Knowing the terms not only means giving a one definition, somethings to explain a term or concept we need visuals, like a graphs. Therefor I think vocab quizzes for math are more than regular English vocab quizzes.

  2. What do you project- the quiz questions?

    1. When everybody is done, we trade papers & I project the answer key so kids can mark each other's answers. I usually scan in a copy of the quiz with my answers in a colored felt tipped pen (for clarity) or I use the document camera.

  3. I just found this post and love the idea. I'm realizing this will could my students immensely (I teach 6th grade science) and might be the missing piece of the vocab puzzle I've been looking for. What do you give your kids initially? A list with definitions? Or just the words?

  4. after the quizzes, do you see students communicating more in geometric terms when discussing math? Prior to this I have not considered vocabulary to be an important field in teaching geometry. How would know the terms of certain angles/ properties help them learn geometry?

  5. During my last semester I had a multivariable calculus GSI (graduate student instructor) who would always tell us "if you know the why the how will become much simpler." A lot of students tend to just memorize problems which lets them solve the how, but don't really understand the idea conceptually, do you think that math vocabulary allows the student to better understand the why?

  6. @Grace and Yaritza— What I have found is that when my students know the *names* of things, it is far easier for them to have conversations about them. And when they can have mathematical conversations, they feel much less inhibited about asking questions. Other teachers have also noticed that my students actually use the vocabulary and are much more communicative when they don't understand something.

    In addition, all of my students know how to learn vocabulary words, so learning the vocabulary gives them an access point or "on ramp" that they can easily take advantage of.

    Finally, I think it definitely goes to the "why" that Yaritza brings up because knowing what things are called — especially in geometry, where there is so much technical vocabulary — makes it possible to communicate about the why.

    Hope this is helpful. Thanks for the food for thought!

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)