Definitions of Variables Martin Kozloff a definition is a statement that tells what a word a name

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Definitions of Variables
Martin Kozloff

A definition is a statement that tells what a word (a name for a variable, or concept) means, or signifies, or points to.

“Democracy”  (signifies, means, is defined by)  The things over there.
If a definition clearly tells what a variable means, then you can more easily think of how to measure the variable--measure the events that it points to. For example, if fluency (a variable) means performance that is both accurate and rapid, then to measure fluency you must measure how accurately and rapidly a person does something.

Sadly, words don’t tell you what they mean. Human beings invent definitions. There are two kinds of definitions: (1) conceptual (abstract nouns and verbs) and (2) operational (sensory—concrete nouns and verbs). A variable that is defined conceptually is, you guessed it (!) a conceptual variable. A variable that is defined operationally is, can you guess (?), and operational variable. Use conceptual variables to help define variables operationally. The conceptual definition tells you where to look and what KINDS of things to look for. Once you are looking at the right KINDS of things, the operational definition is a statement of exactly what range of EXAMPLES you see.

Conceptual definitions. Conceptual definitions are broad. They are like search lights that shine on a general area. A conceptual definition of fluency might be:

Fluency is a feature of performance: accuracy and speed.

So, we know that we are talking about something in the larger class of performance—something that involves accuracy and speed of DOING something.

Here is a conceptual (general) definition of decoding.

Decoding is a routine that involves translating written words into speech, using knowledge of the alphabetic principle (letters have sounds).

Notice that the conceptual definition of fluency directs your attention to two aspects of performance (accuracy and speed) and NOT to other aspects of performance, such as how independently persons performs a task, or how easily persons generalize knowledge of the performance to new situations.

Likewise, the definition of decoding directs your attention to what students do when they read words, and away from things that aren’t part of decoding, such as guessing.

Operational definitions. Conceptual definitions aren’t precise enough. To create actual ways of measuring a variable, you need definitions that say EXACTLY what you would see or hear. For instance, an operational definition of fluent reading in grade 1 (DERIVED from and CONSISTENT with the conceptual definition) might be:

By the end of grade 1, the student reads grade level connected text at the rate of 60 correct words per minute.

Notice that this operational definition DOES include accuracy and speed. But it is more precise than the conceptual definition. It is so precise that you can think of exactly how to measure fluency…

Vague image of thing/  Sharpen with  Be more concrete  Develop ways to

variable/factor conceptual with operational observe and note
definition definition (describe, count)--
Measuring fluency with grade 1 level connected text.

1. Present sample text.

2. The child reads the text.

3. The observer marks each error when child (a) says different word, (b)adds or omits

a sound, (c) says nothing, (d) correctly says word but takes more than 5 seconds.

4. The child reads for one minute. The observer counts the number of errors

and subtracts this from the total number of words read.

Now that you have written the method of measurement, you can write up a PROTOCOL to be used by observers so that they will measure the same thing the same way---that is, provide accurate (what they count is what happened) and reliable (they got the same count). Validity of measurement (process)  data (produced by measurement)  findings  and conclusions all depends on accuracy and reliability of measurement.

Likewise, here is a possible operational definition of decoding. First go back and read the conceptual (abstract) definition. Now, please…. So,

Decoding is (defined as) a routine that consists of saying the sounds in a word, from left to right, producing a recognizable word.

Let’s line up the pairs of definitions.

Conceptual Operational

Fluency is a feature of performance: By the end of grade 1,

The combination of accuracy and speed. the student reads grade level

connected text at the rate of 60 correct words per minute.

Decoding is a routine that involves Decoding is a routine that consists

translating written words into speech, of saying the sounds in a word,

using knowledge of the alphabetic from left to right, producing a

principle (letters have sounds). recognizable word.

Do you see that the operational definitions say the same thing as the conceptual definitions, but are more precise? For instance, the conceptual definition says “translating written words into speech,” but the operational definition says “saying the sounds in a word, from left to right…” (a more precise way of saying “translating”). This is precise enough that you can measure it.



Here are examples of conceptual definitions. Think of operational definitions for each one. Remember, the operational definition has to say the say the same thing as the conceptual definition, but it is more precise; it gives examples. Also, operational definitions depend on the situation. For example, part of an operational definition of aggression might be hitting, but NOT if you are talking about the sport of boxing!

Conceptual definition Operational definition

Aggression is behavior that is Aggression [on an elementary

Intended to cause injury school playground] is

Reading fluency Second grade reading fluency

Fluency is a feature of


The combination of

accuracy and speed.

Proficient instruction is You want a hint?

instruction that is carefully

designed and delivered and

contains features that gain and

sustain student attention and


When you evaluate the definitions used in research, ask:

1. Did the writer provide conceptual definitions? For example, if a writer says that “teachers were trained,” what does that mean? What counts as training? Any interaction? Trained to do what? What skills?

2. Were conceptual definitions derived from or consistent with scientific research? For example, reading might be TOO NARROWLY defined as

The process of constructing meaning from text.

Is that ALL that reading is? Comprehension alone? Scientific research shows that reading ALSO includes knowledge of the sounds that are associated with letters (phonics); using knowledge of letter-sounds to sound out words (decoding); hearing the separate sounds in words (phonemic awareness), and vocabulary (knowing the definitions of words). So, the above conceptual definition is narrow. It does not include enough of what is meant by reading in the scientific community. Any curriculum materials, instructional methods, and assessments/measures of reading based on this NARROW definition will be INVALID.

3. Did the writer provide operational definitions? For example, did the writer state how teachers were trained, how their learning was measured, how successful and unsuccessful performance was defined and measured? If not, then maybe different teachers were trained differently, and with different results. In other words, without operational definitions, the word “trained” means nothing.

4. Do the definitions consist of words with clear meaning?

You saw the theory of learning in the doc on theory. The words are clear. Examples, compare, contrast, gain attention, etc. Here is another definition of learning. What do you think? Are the words clear?

"From this perspective, learning is a constructive building process of meaning-making that results in reflective abstractions, producing symbols within a medium." (Fosnot, C.T. (Ed.) (1996). Constructivism: theory, perspectives, and practice. New York : Teachers College Press. Fosnot, 1996, p. 27).

"Reflective abstraction is the driving force of learning." (Fosnot, C.T. (Ed.) (1996). Constructivism : theory, perspectives, and practice. New York : Teachers College Press.Fosnot, 1996, p. 29).

Do you know what Fosnot is talking about? Do you know what a “constructive building process of meaning-making that results in reflective abstractions, producing symbols within a medium” looks like? If you don’t, how could you determine whether Fosnot’s data have anything to do with her theory? Why would a person NOT write more clearly? Maybe they can’t think straight? Maybe they want to bamboozle you? Here are lines from campaign speeches of a leading national political candidate?

And he who in this people sympathizes with the poorest of its citizens, who in this people sees in every individual a valuable member of the whole community, and who recognizes that this community can flourish only when it is formed not of rulers and oppressed but when all according to their capacities fulfill their duty to their country and the community of the people and are valued accordingly, he who seeks to preserve the native vigor, the strength, and the youthful energy of the millions of working men, and who above all is concerned that our precious possession, our youth, shouldn’t before its time be used up in unhealthy harmful work - he isn’t merely a Democrat, but he is also a leader in the highest sense of that word.

So we have come together on this day to prove symbolically that we are more than a collection of individuals striving one against another, that none of us is too proud, none of us too high, none is too rich, and none too poor, to stand together before the face of the Lord and of the world in this indissoluble, sworn community. And this united nation, we have need of it. When was a leadership at any time faced with a heavier task than our nation’s leadership?... What have we? One thing only; we have our people…. On it alone can we count. On it alone can we build. Everything that we have created up to the present we owe solely to its goodness of heart, its capacity, its loyalty, its decency, its industry… And with this people we must and shall succeed in achieving also the tasks that are still to come.

What we want lies clear before us: not war and not strife. Just as we have established peace within our own people, so we want nothing else than peace with the world.

Sounds great, huh?

You just elected Adolph Hitler.

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