Measuring incremental changes in word knowledge: experimental validation and implications for learning and assessment

Behav Res Methods. 2008 Nov;40(4):907-25. doi: 10.3758/BRM.40.4.907.


The goal of this study was to test a new technique for assessing vocabulary development. This technique is based on an algorithm for scoring the accuracy of word definitions using a continuous scale (Collins-Thompson & Callan, 2007). In an experiment with adult learners, target words were presented in six different sentence contexts, and the number of informative versus misleading contexts was systematically manipulated. Participants generated a target definition after each sentence, and the definition-scoring algorithm was used to assess the degree of accuracy on each trial. We observed incremental improvements in definition accuracy across trials. Moreover, learning curves were sensitive to the proportion of misleading contexts, the use of spaced versus massed practice, and individual differences, demonstrating the utility of this procedure for capturing specific experimental effects on the trajectory of word learning. We discuss the implications of these results for measurement of meaning, vocabulary assessment, and instructional design.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Algorithms
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Verbal Learning*
  • Vocabulary*