#Flipclass with Membean: A Vocabulary System that Works

18 Jul

I would tell you how I incorporate vocabulary in my English classes, but I’m betting you already know. Chances are we pretty much do the same thing. This spring I did something different. Flipping a classroom is not really about turning lectures into videos, it’s about freeing up class time for more one-on-one interaction with students. Here’s one way I’ve done this.

Replacing a whole class vocabulary list with Membean.com was the most successful experiment of the school year. My students learned at least twice as many words, and they learned these words more effectively. I saw the language appear in their writing and speaking with more frequency and accuracy, and the students felt more prepared for standardized tests. I loved the free trial so much, I convinced my colleagues to use it, and next year we will pay for a school-wide subscription, which will cost us a little less than last year’s workbooks.

Membean is an engaging, self-paced online learning environment that allows for multiple modes of learning. It gives students more control over and accountability for their learning, and it provides teachers rich data that more accurately gauges mastery than any weekly vocabulary quiz ever could.

I know, I know…I sounds like they are paying me, but they’re not. I just know this product works really, really well, and I want a bumper new crop of logophiles out there.

Here’s Membean’s explanation of their system:

Membean Educator from Membean on Vimeo.

Why I like Membean:

  • Membean is better at gauging long-term memory than I am. Membean’s “adaptive reinforcement engine” monitors how often a student forgets a word and reinforces it at optimal times to help put the word deeper into long-term memory. In other words, it does something that I simply can’t do: it tunes practice to each individual student’s needs.
  • Membean allows for differentiation with little effort on the teacher’s part. Students first calibrate the system and are placed on a level from 1-5. Most of my students were at a one and a few students placed as high as three. Depending on the level, the individual students see different words. Also, based on their success throughout the week, they are introduced to new words at a pace that fits them best.
  • Membean eliminates the grading of weekly quizzes. Quizzes were easy to render with a few clicks of the mouse (took about 10 seconds), and each quiz was suitably customized. More importantly, the quizzes were instantly marked by the computer, which saved me two to three hours every weekend. Even better, I started to believe the folks at Membean that the whole idea of a weekly quiz is rather arcane and unnecessary. As every interaction with a word is a formative assessment, the feedback reports available via the dashboard offer more than enough information for teachers to evaluate students’ mastery of the material. Next year I plan on eliminating the weekly quiz.
  • Students learn the words in context. It drives me nuts when students “study” a word simply by repeatedly looking over a list of words and definitions. Flashcards aren’t natural. Understanding language is more nuanced, and Membean’s tutorials account for this subtlety, presenting the word in varied contexts and modes. One of my students joked, “I hate Membean. It actually makes you learn the word!” While he could sometimes find wiggle room in a weekly quiz he could not “work around” the various exercises he encountered in daily Membean sessions.
  • Students are able to create their own Mnemonic devices. In the future, I’m sure Membean will have even more customizable features. I would run quickly away from any approach that makes students passive in their learning. I’m keenly interested in developing students’ metacognition and helping (forcing) them to be more proactive in their study habits. While Membean “gives” students many different ways of learning a word (context clues, video clips, images, root trees, a visual thesaurus), it does not dictate which mode students use. They have to decide what works, and when they forget a word, Membean instantly brings back the word page, forcing the students to explore it even deeper.
  • The vocabulary grade in my grade book began to emphasize process over product. Weekly vocabulary quizzes are too easy to “game.” It’s no surprise that many students cram for such a quiz and then quickly forget over half the words. I have always incorporated a variety of vocabulary study techniques into my courses (and still will), as well as emphasized that small, short bursts of studying are much more effective than longer but sporadic study sessions. My assessments, however, did not tell me ANYTHING specific about my students’ study habits. Now, I have a much more complete picture of their daily habits, and the majority of the points they earn in the grade book come from hitting weekly time targets (50 minutes per week) while the quiz scores are secondary.
  • Membean is always evolving. They are a smaller company, so they are very quick to respond to suggestions and upgrade requests. If Membean doesn’t do something you wish it would, chances are an email and a bit of patience will produce that must-have feature.

You can tell I love this tool. Here’s what’s more surprising. My students do, too. I initially asked them to try it for two weeks, and then I l left it to a democratic vote as to whether or not we would continue the experiment. The students ended up spending more time with Membean (at least 50 minutes a week) than with traditional methods, but all of them voted to stick with the extra work…because it felt less like work. Also, they, like me, were excited by the results they saw.

Student comments:

“At first, my 11th grade English class was reluctant to switch from our familiar vocabulary books to this new way of learning vocabulary. We decided to do a trial run for two weeks, and after the first week we did not look back. Membean is an incredibly efficient tool that has improved the once dreadful weekly vocabulary chore. Learning vocabulary is generally something that is crammed into a person’s short-term memory, but with Membean there is a fast-track to a person’s long-term memory. I have been using vocab books all my life and have retained less than 25% of material. With Membean I am able to recite nearly all of the words that I have seen.”

“Membean really helped me prepare for the SAT and ACT. I always had a fun time learning new words!”

“I really enjoyed how you were able to choose the duration of your session. Also, I found it really helpful that during each session words from previous sessions were seen again. This was effective and made it so I was really able to remember the words while learning new ones simultaneously. In addition, the roots were a good way to be able to understand where the word derives from and helped me remember the word as a whole. This will be particularly helpful on the SAT.”

“Membean is about ten times as effective as traditional vocabulary learning!”

“I really liked using Membean. All the different ways Membean gives you to learn a word are really useful. It also helps you figure out the ways you like to learn the best.”

“Before Membean my 10th grade English class used a boring vocab book which took forever, and I wouldn’t even learn the words. With Membean I learned a ton of vocab words and found myself using them when I talked to my friends.”

“Membean was a lot more efficient then using a standard vocab book, especially the pictures. Having a visual representation helps a lot.”

“I was apprehensive at first about whether or not Membean would truly hold up to its claim to improve my vocabulary. After using the software for a couple of weeks, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the site to accurately gauge which words I already learned and which words I needed to review. Overall, I enjoyed using Membean. Not only was it much preferred to the traditional vocabulary book lessons, it was generally just a superior method in learning vocabulary.”

6 Responses to “#Flipclass with Membean: A Vocabulary System that Works”

  1. Jennifer October 24, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

    I am also using Membean in my classroom, but I’ve noticed that students rarely move up to the next level, even my AP students! What success have you had with students moving from one level to the next?

    • rbneal October 30, 2013 at 8:33 am #

      I have had students move to the next level, but it has been based on completing the words at a level, not a percentage of mastery achieved. I can point out the “IKT” tab, though. I students already know the new word, they should just click on “IKT.” That one step sped up students’ advancement and reduced any frustration they might have felt over getting “easy” words. Honestly, though, I have not really encountered many students who have felt improperly placed or frustrated by the level of vocabulary they encounter.

      One last thought…the Membean team is very responsive to suggestions. I bet a quick email to support might result in some modifications or improvements.


  1. A Typical Day in a 1:1 Classroom (PART ONE) « Robin Neal - February 2, 2013

    […] – 9:00             Students begin class with an online vocabulary quiz via Membean and then work on their “Civil Disobedience” […]

  2. A “Typical” Day in a 1:1 Classroom (Part Two) « Robin Neal - February 6, 2013

    […] in my sophomore classes, I began this class with a vocabulary quiz via Membean (explained in part one […]

  3. Quizlet: Crowdsourcing Vocabulary | Robin Neal - November 7, 2013

    […] am currently enamored with Membean (an online vocabulary system.) This post, however, is about an older love: […]

  4. Recap: 2013 | Robin Neal - January 2, 2014

    […] 1. #Flipclass with Membean: A Vocabulary System that Works […]

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