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Defining
Key Terms

Defining Key Terms

Much misunderstanding in human communication results from people bringing different meanings to the words they use in speaking and writing. Effective researchers seek to avoid this difficulty by clearly explaining the meanings they assign to key terms in their investigations.If, early in the research process, you define precisely what you intend by words and phrases crucial to your project, (a) you help identify appropriate methods of gathering and interpreting data and (b) your advisors can judge at the outset how well they agree with your definitions, thereby saving you possible trouble during subsequent stages of your project.The terms key words and key phrases refer to concepts at the core of your study, concepts that must be unambiguous if you are to conduct your research with proper care and if the procedures and outcomes are to be properly understood by your reading audience. Among the most basic terms are those found in a project's title or topic question. To illustrate key words, in the following examples we have italicized each term that calls for a definition:

What is the comparative effectiveness of four ways to assess high school students' academic ability–(a) high school grades, (b) teachers' letters of rec ommendation, (c) multiple-choice aptitude tests, and (d) achievement tests that students answer in essay form?

What changes have occurred in the structure and functions of MexicanAmerican families during the twentieth century, and what trends do such changes reflect?

Which aspects of a political party and what interactions among those aspects adequately explain the party's success in local elections?

Different ways that researchers define key terms are those of (a) offering no definitions, (b) providing synonyms, (c) furnishing sentence descriptions, (d) citing shared experience or knowledge, and (e) defining by the operations used in conducting the research. Implications of using each of these methods can be demonstrated with examples of terms in the above questions

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No Definitions

It's probably apparent that neglecting to explain what is intended by politicalparty aspects or success is unacceptable, because those terms obviously can convey so many different meanings. But the need to specify what is intended by academic ability, high school students, and family structure may not be so obvious, since we often find individuals using those terms without any clarifying explanation, apparently on the assumption that the words mean the same to everybody.

First consider academic. Are mathematics, history, English literature, Spanish language, home economics, auto repair, guitar instruction, and floral arranging all equally academic"If not, then what distinction should be drawn among them"And what about ability"On what evidence should judgments of ability be based–intelligence test scores, grade point averages, teachers' judgments, or people's performance in such games as Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, and Monopoly?

How about high school students"If we are judging their academic ability, is it important to know who they are in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnic background, home language, parents' education, and whether they are in private schools or in public schools?

Now consider family. Is family supposed to mean only a pair of parents and their biological offspring"Or does it mean people living together, whether or not they are biologically related"Or does it encompass all of a person's legal relatives, no matter where they reside?

What is family structure"Is it the set of roles that different family members play"Is it the manner in which authority and power are distributed among family members"Or is it the pattern of communication among members?

In summary, we conclude that leaving key terms undefined is not acceptable in theses and dissertations.

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