So I discovered it all over again: when I give my students more choice in the way they learn, they do better. Duh, Mrs. Lo, as they would say.
First, I put the words into context – yes, the textbook doesn’t do that. I wrote a story using the 20 words in the unit, made it a little silly. Here’s an example. I introduce the story in f2f class, so students can hear the words pronounced and tie in what they may already know about some of the words. Since this is turning into a “to be continued” story, we are all enjoying the story part, and I think it helps students understand the words better. (Thanks to Lisa Chamberlin and Kay Lehmann, my professors in Creating Collaborative Communities in E-learning, who suggested this).
Second, I created a discussion forum for students to post what they know about the words, which I wrote about in http://adventuresonlineteaching.blogspot.com/2010/11/vocabulary-in-discussion-forum.html. While some students don’t remember to do it, most do the work every time, and some still post more than they are required to do.
The upshot: students who used to do poorly on the vocabulary tests because they didn’t study are consistently starting to do better. Making them do flashcards didn’t work, but giving them lots of different tools does (online flashcards, publisher podcasts, rich and funny resource in the discussion forum, words in context, even the not-that-interesting textbook exercises). Some kids make flashcards on their own because they’ve found that works for them.
But now since they choose how they learn it, they often choose to learn it.