Brophy English Department Chair Mr. John Damaso ’97 is not afraid to try new things in his classroom.
Mr. Damaso’s classes can be a laboratory for apps and new educational technology. While some experiments do not pan out, others can make a big impact and bring students—and in the case of Membean, vocabulary—to a whole new level.
Can you describe what Membean is and how you use it in your classroom? How has it been/will it be used across the English department?
Membean is a self-paced, online vocabulary trainer for students. After a brief online diagnostic, students begin learning level-appropriate words that Membean has identified as college preparatory lexical items important to university reading and writing expectations. Students learn the nuance and subtleties of English vocabulary through a “word page” that can display a video, a revelatory image, illustrative examples from quality publications, a “root tree” etymology, a “memory hook” (mnemonic device), sample passage, quiz question, and more. As students train, they see word pages alternated with quiz questions (fill in the blank and forced choice) about the vocabulary words and the root words and affixes. The “adaptive engine” will show more new words to a student making few mistakes and fewer words to a student making more mistakes. The goal for Membean is “durable learning,” not short-term “cramming.”
In Brophy English classes, students generally complete 10-20 minute training sessions a few times per week for a 45-60 minute/week total through the year. Level 1 students may encounter words like dubious, fortification, havoc; Level 3 students see glib, impunity, abject; Level 5 students face dilatory, ennui, internecine. (About a year ago Membean added a Level 6, partially in response to a few Brophy students who had already completed Levels 1 through 5 (~2,000 words). About once per month, students take a personalized quiz through their iPads to check for understanding. Teachers can glimpse class trends and individual performance to guide students, who are often working through different levels of vocabulary and at different paces. Last year, for example, one sophomore encountered 250 words while another faced 1,200 words. Students in all freshman, sophomore, and junior English classes in 2016-17 will have full-year licenses for Membean. Some students choose to continue their training in the summers in preparation for PSAT, SAT, and AP exams.
How did you find Membean and first implement it? You have had lots of conversations with Membean developers over the years, correct? What has come from those conversations?
In the summer of 2012, I believe, I was contemplating how to best help Brophy students uncover the polysemous nature of English vocabulary. Often English teachers use flashcards with one-to-one definitions for words (e.g., lugubrious = sad) to help students learn vocabulary, but I felt I was failing to help students internalize the many nuances of a word in context. I found myself Googling “English vocabulary learning tool” or something like that and stumbled upon a fledgling startup in Portland, OR, called Membean. I contacted the company and requested a pilot account. English Department Chair Scott Middlemist authorized a semester pilot in my Honors English 2 class in the fall and then a full-pilot with all of my classes in the spring. Polls of student feedback of Membean resulted in overwhelming support.
Along the way, I learned that we were an early adopter of Membean (one of its first five schools, I recall), and as my students and I used Membean and send feedback to the company, we started to create a relationship with CEO Ragav Satish and his small, dedicated staff of developers and content creators. Students would uncover bugs, typos, or erroneous information on word pages, and Membean would correct them, often in the same day. I appreciated giving the students an opportunity to serve as QA (quality assurance) analysts, and some students like Alex Bhatt ’17 have been publicly recognized by the company. Anthony Cardellini ’17, for example, discovered a formidable bug in Membean’s quizzing instrument, and for his honesty and incisiveness, was sent a limited edition Membean beanie.
I asked Ragav to reflect on his experience working with Brophy in 2014, and this is what he wrote in an email:
The teachers and students of Brophy, especially John, have been invaluable partners of Membean. Brophy was the 3rd school to use Membean. Three years later we have hundreds of schools using Membean across the world with half a billion word-questions answered. This would have been difficult without initial support from Brophy.
John in particular has been instrumental in brainstorming, suggesting and shaping a number of features of Membean. We’ve exchanged more emails with John than any other teacher across our schools. A number of FAQs on our support site were derived from exchanges with John.
A small sample of features and content that John and his students were directly or indirectly responsible for:
- New, simplified reports that allow teachers to quickly check if students met goals.
- Variable number of questions on assessments
- Keyboard shortcuts for advancing during training
- Reducing student stress by disabling question and assessment progress bars
- An undo for the “I Know This” option
- Make-up tests and retakes.
- Disabling iPad dictionary on assessments
- John was the first teacher to alert us to sandbagging during training. Since then we’ve put many features in place to detect and report this
In addition, John’s students (unfailingly polite) have suggested many edits and changes to Membean content.
Do you think Membean has changed how students work? How so? What have you seen as evidence that Membean is beneficial?
In this video that students and I made about Membean, Tommy Zachar ’16 noted that the flexibility and portability of Membean allowed him to knock out a training session on his mobile device during those interstitial moments in a student’s day (waiting for a ride, before practice begins, during a FLEX period, at the tail-end of lunch, etc.). Other students note the multi-modal experience of Membean allows them to continue returning to a troublesome word from different vantages — an audio recording of the word in context, an exploration of the word’s origin, a sentence from the Wall Street Journal. Membean, in fact, Membean encourages students to examine different aspects of a word page upon each visit and spend less than a minute each time.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen students doing Membean on iPads in Brophy hallway, on cellphones in the Great Hall, at a picnic table on the front lawn. During classroom sessions, students are eager to pop in earbuds with their favorite tunes or listen to my Coffitiity app, which plays ambient coffeeshop sounds. In those moments, thirty students are learning English words suited to their particular vocabulary level at a pace of study that matches their individual learning style. Membean provides etymological podcasts called “rootcasts” that discuss the common derivations across multiple words with the same root (e.g., …). A relatively new feature will allow teachers to click a single button to see which words ALL students have in common; this way teachers can broaden the conversation and find unifying common ground for students. Currently, I try to bolster collective vocabulary study with occasional visits to the Oxford English Dictionary online (oed.com), where students can sift through illustrative sentences spanning back as far as each word itself.
When I review quiz scores, it’s clear that Membean effectively leads to “durable learning,” as their slogan goes. Frequently, students average 90%+ across all classes on Membean quizzes. In their writing, students are showing adequate to exemplary understanding of lexical nuance. Sometimes I require Membean words in a writing assignment and other times they seem to organically appear in student compositions. I’d say the most profound but perhaps hardest to decipher evidence of the product’s effectiveness is the invisible ease by which students navigate a difficult passage of reading because they understand words like bravado, fallacy, gamut, or incommunicado.
I know one of the benefits of Membean is access to lots of data. How has that been helpful for you as a teacher? What are some of the most important/meaningful/impressive numbers you have seen?
The data generated by the adaptive engine provide me with a holistic view of the department’s use of Membean. I can see if we have relative alignment across sections of the same course. I can see that 76% of Brophy students “leveled up” in an academic year and that the average school-wide quiz score is 94% while the average training accuracy is 76%. The average Brophy student encountered 365 new words last year.
At a glance, I can see that one student saw .3 questions per minute while another saw nearly 15 times that. This allows me to intervene and have a conversation with a struggling student. Teachers can quickly view student progress and data are available on demand. Even students themselves can generate reports on their own training. This includes a second-by-second snapshot of each training session.
From the beginning, Membean’s number one metric has been time. As long as a student spends authentic, concentrated time training three times per week for 15 minutes, Membean believes students can master the nuances of 300-350 words in a 36-week school year. By viewing training data, teachers can help ensure that students are indeed spending quality time with the software.
Has there been pushback from students at all? Are there other challenges that have come from using Membean?
In my experience, no edtech tool has a 100% customer satisfaction rating. Some students wish they were all studying the exact same words so they could increase the social aspect of vocabulary acquisition. Membean certainly errs on the side of a personalized education, and at times I lament the loss of in-class discussion of a word that all students are learning. Some students wish they could be evaluated by the accuracy of their training instead of the number of minutes trained (which is Brophy’s current metric for weekly assessment). I tend to view pushback as a positive challenge. Membean (and other edtech tools) can only improve with customer pushback. When students have a feature idea, I tell them to request it. Membean’s CEO has credited Brophy feedback for several of its newly implemented features over the life of the product.
As a teacher and chair, one consistent challenge I face is the necessity to ensure the integrity of the software’s use among students. The Membean Honor Code implores students to do their own work and to avoid undermining the software with cheats or shortcuts. Any self-paced program can suffer from users “sandbagging” or multi-tasking to avoid authentic learning, but Membean has created reporting tools for teachers, so we have the control to identify problem cases and intervene with students directly. Most students, the overwhelming majority, use Membean the way it was designed.
What is next on the edtech horizon for you and your students? What do imagine your class looks like 5 years down the road?
Having just left the annual International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Denver, I’m enthusiastic about innovations I can employ in my English classroom in the years to come. I can turn any webpage into an interactive reading comprehension exercise with DocentEDU. I imagine English teachers sharing the load of providing writing feedback to students with the help of a distributed network of undergraduate education majors through The Graide Network. CommonLit gives teachers free supplement fiction and non-fiction texts to integrate into their own thematic literature units. While Kahoot! has taken classrooms by storm with its addictive, competitive quiz-games, Quizlet Live and Quizizz are providing additional ways to make classes engage in cooperative competition. I like the tools that are promoting real-time collaboration — from the reliable Google Docs to the online recording studio Soundtrap.
In five years, tools like Grammarly, the Writing Reviser add-on, the Read&Write add-on, and Turnitin.com’s Revision Assistant might put the power of writing improvement exclusively into student hands. Teachers may then serve more as guides to develop the style, voice, and publication potential of each student.