Chapter 17: The Biology Taboo Wiktionary: a tool for improving student comprehension of key terminology in introductory biology courses – The Plugged-In Professor


The Biology Taboo Wiktionary: a tool for improving student comprehension of key terminology in introductory biology courses

Jeffrey T. Olimpo and Patricia A. Shields


Knowledge of terminology and understanding of processes and concepts is a key foundational requirement in many disciplines. Learning a new disciplinary “language” is often a challenge for novice students, yet a strong foundation is essential for success in the major. This activity utilizes an in-class version of the commercial game Taboo©, in which students must define disciplinary terms in their own words, and without obvious terms. The in-class game is followed by a collaborative wiki, which provides students with an interactive opportunity to review and describe new terminology, and concepts. The goal of these activities is not only to develop a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, the connections present between various biological processes, but to achieve a foundational understanding of the discipline. The wiki also serves as a resource to prepare for the final exam or to complete laboratory reports.

Key words

active learning


collaborative learning

interactive learning



Discipline/Academic areas addressed

Biology, but applicable to any discipline where understanding of terminology concepts and processes is an important foundation to success.

Instructional purpose

Introductory courses, including those in the sciences, are rife with terminology. This demand presents a challenge for novice students, many of whom will go on to major in the sciences and whose success in the discipline is predicated on their understanding of such terminology, concepts, and processes. To address this concern, we developed and implemented a Biology Taboo Wiktionary activity that provided students with an interactive opportunity to review and describe concepts encountered during their first semester in an introductory biology course. We modified the traditional game of Taboo to include only relevant terminology, such as cellular respiration, glucose, ATP, and restriction enzymes, among others. Much like the traditional Taboo game, students could not use obvious terms to define the main term during gameplay. Following the game, students were asked to work collaboratively to upload a definition for an assigned word to the course Wiktionary page. Post-activity survey results suggest that > 75% of the students found the activity engaging and that > 80% of students utilized the Wiktionary page frequently to refresh their understanding of key concepts and to prepare for in-class assignments.

Student learning outcomes

After completion of these activities, students will have

1. Gained a richer understanding of key biological terminology, concepts, and processes.

2. Developed a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, the connections present between various biological processes through active engagement in the Biology Taboo game and construction of the Wiktionary.

3. Achieved a foundational understanding of the discipline above and beyond the knowledge conveyed to them in lecture and in the text.

4. Made use of the Wiktionary in an engaging and resourceful manner, for instance, by using the Wiktionary to prepare for the final exam or to complete laboratory reports, etc.

Prerequisite skills and knowledge

No prerequisite skills or knowledge is necessary, though, from a technological standpoint, previous background in setting up and using Wikis would certainly be helpful. In “Step-by-step directions” we provide a handout for using the wiki tool in LMS (pertinent to our setup) and Web resources for setting up and using a wiki space on Wikispaces.

Step-by-step directions

Prior to the activity

1. Prepare decks of playing cards. In the commercial game of Taboo (© 1989, Hasbro), one key word is placed at the top of the card, and several (~ 4) forbidden words are placed below the main term. One individual leads gameplay and the other team members attempt to guess the key word on the card. The individual leading gameplay may not use any of the forbidden words in describing the key term to their peers. If such a word is used, the game leader must discard the current term and move to the next one. One point is awarded for each term that is guessed correctly.

2. For the Biology Wiktionary activity, each deck may contain different sets of words depending on the amount of terminology you wish to include, etc. A diverse array of terms, concepts, and biological processes should be included in each deck.

3. Prepare a handout for students regarding how to upload their definition to the wiki page following gameplay and how they will be evaluated for this activity. We have included our version of this handout below (at the end of “Step-by-step directions”).

Running the game (in class)

1. Organize students into groups of approximately 10–15 students each.

2. Distribute decks of playing cards to each student group, and select one individual to begin the game.

3. The remaining students in the group have 1 minute to guess as many terms as possible.

4. Graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants will monitor gameplay to ensure that the clue giver is not utilizing any forbidden words, and to enforce the 1-minute time limit. Alternatively, select one student in each group to monitor and maintain time for the group.

5. The clue giver may not immediately skip a term with which he or she is having difficulty. Terms may be skipped only after 20–30 seconds of gameplay has elapsed.

6. The role of game leader or clue giver is passed on to additional students as time permits.

Constructing the online Wiktionary

1. Immediately following gameplay, ensure that each student in the group has one card or term in their possession.

2. The instructor should inform students that they are to log on to the wiki space that you have established and upload a definition for the term that they possess. The time frame in which you allow them to complete this task is left to your discretion. Inform them also that they may use their textbooks and additional resources to complete this assignment and that forbidden words can now be used in defining their term. Specific instructions for students are provided below.

3. Inform students that you will be monitoring the wiki for accuracy and plagiarism. An accurate definition should resemble one that the student would find in a textbook, but it must be written in the student’s own words. The Wiktionary page should be monitored biweekly as terms are uploaded, and inaccuracies/plagiarized entries should be flagged and reported to the responsible student(s) as appropriate. Note to instructors: If you are concerned about the volume of entries, you might also have students print their definition and submit it to you in class. We have found that this ensures a thorough review of all definitions and allows you [the instructor] to accurately attribute a particular definition to a particular student. This also facilitates the grading process by removing any ambiguity regarding who submitted what definition. Alternatively, if you utilize the LMS/Blackboard learning system, you can look at the revision history for each entry by clicking on the “history” link on the wiki main page (other wiki resources have this capability as well).

4. Once it is apparent that all students have contributed to the wiki page, remind students that they may access this page at any time during the course of the semester, and encourage them to use this as an online reference.

Instructions to students for completing the online Wiktionary assignment

1. Log on to

    [insert your Web page here], and click on the “Biology Wiktionary” link in the main menu.

2. Click on the “Add New Page” link on the right side of the main window.

3. You should input your term as the title of the page and create that page under the main wiki home page.

4. Once you have done this, you should (a) see a link to your page on the right-hand side of the home page and (b) currently be looking at the page you created.

5. To edit your page, click the “Edit” link immediately to the right of where your page title is posted. Please input only text. You may now use the taboo words in your definition, and you may reference any websites or textbooks necessary to help you construct the definition. However, your definition must be in your own words! Students found plagiarizing will be sent to the honor court!

6. Once you are finished entering your definition, click the “Save & Exit” button at the bottom of the page. Your definition should now be uploaded.

7. If, at any point, you need to edit your definition, you may return to your page and simply follow steps 6 and 7 above.

See “Supplemental materials” for more detail regarding student and faculty guidelines for self-evaluation (Appendix A) and monitoring and evaluating student posts (Appendix B).

Approximate time required

This activity requires approximately 20–30 minutes of in-class time. As students are tasked independently with creating their definitions on the online wiki space, the time it takes for entry into the system will vary.

Required resources

In previous iterations of this activity, we have made use of the university’s online course delivery system (Blackboard) and would highly recommend the use of a similar system, if available at your institution. Furthermore, the use of these systems allows for the creation of a wiki in an already existent course space, which simplifies the process. However, we recommend the following sites in the event that you do not have such a system available to you:

1. Wikispaces (

2. PBworks (

3. Google Docs (Note: This may be the least ideal of these options, but it still provides the collaborative workspace necessary to perform the activity.)

We have chosen to make these recommendations based on the ease with which the resources can be used.

Variations on the basic theme

The project, as described, can be modified in many ways. Several suggestions include modifying the activity to either encompass more or less class time, as appropriate; dividing students into smaller groups (perhaps in a discussion setting); and providing specific additional activities, such as worksheets, that could be used in conjunction with the online activity. In addition, the online Wiktionary can be established for virtually any course and can be maintained either for the immediate semester or made public for future semesters as well.

Observations and advice

Introductory courses in the sciences, much as is the case in other domains, are traditionally content and terminology dense. This caveat presents challenges for both students, who must master the vocabulary, and instructors, who must convey appropriate information to their students. The Biology Taboo Wiktionary provides a time-efficient, engaging, and cost-effective way to give students autonomy in mastering the language of science. We have personally found the activity to be highly rewarding for students, several of whom stated that constructing and utilizing the wiki “not only helped them do better in class but also made the concepts make sense.” This observation was confirmed by survey data in which > 75% of students self-reported that their understanding of the terminology was enhanced “above and beyond what they learned from lecture and the textbook alone”, as well as monitoring of the wiki page, which indicated that students had defined more than 200 key terms and had collectively referenced these terms anywhere between 50 and 250 times.

With specific regard to the in-class portion of the activity, two things are noteworthy. The first is that it takes substantial time to design the playing decks for this activity. We had the distinct advantage of having several graduate teaching assistants who were willing to help in this regard. Certainly, running the activity in smaller classes would mitigate this concern. However, for situations in which this is not possible, we suggest limiting the amount of terms used during gameplay to reduce time spent constructing the playing decks. Second, though we organized groups of about ten students, not all students were seen to be engaged in the activity. To remedy this situation, we recommend either extending gameplay or having students present key words in pairs (i.e., have pairs of students lead the game).

Recommended reading

Cole, M. Using wiki technology to support student engagement: Lessons from the trenches. Computers & Education. 2009; 52(1):141–146.

Cress, U., Kimmerle, J. A systemic and cognitive view on collaborative knowledge building with wikis. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. 2008; 3(2):105–122.

Forte, A., Bruckman, A., Constructing text: Wiki as a toolkit for (collaborative?) learning. Proceedings of the 2007 International Symposium on Wikis 2007; 31–41 Available from

Jacobson, A., Kosinski-Collins, M. Using news and views articles, lab reports, and wiki entries to teach students how to read and write for diverse scientific audiences in an introductory biology laboratory course. Journal of Studies in Education. 2012; 2(2):1–9.

Karasavvidis, I. Wiki use in higher education: Exploring barriers to successful implementation. Interactive Learning Environments. 2010; 18(3):219–231.

Marintcheva, B. Motivating students to learn biology vocabulary with Wikipedia. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. 2012; 13(1):65–66.

Olimpo, J., Davis, S., Lagman, S., Parekh, R., Shields, P. Learning can be all fun and games: Constructing and utilizing a biology Taboo Wiktionary to enhance student learning in an introductory biology course. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education. 2010; 11(2):164–165.

Ortega-Valiente, J., Reinoso, A., Murioz-Mansilla, R. Analysis of the benefits of wiki platforms in university education. International Association for Development of the Information Society International Conference e-Society. 2012; 447–450.

Parker, K., Chao, J. Wiki as a teaching tool. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects. 2007; 3:57–72.

Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P., Wheeler, D. The good, the bad, and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning. British Journal of Educational Technology. 2008; 39(6):987–995.

Supplemental materials

Students, note that your participation will be monitored by both GTAs and UTAs, as well as by your instructor as your group engages in gameplay. They will utilize the criteria in Appendices A and B to evaluate your performance during the in-class Taboo activity.

Appendix A

Table 17.1

Student rubric – monitoring and evaluating Wiktionary activity

Appendix B Faculty guidelines for evaluating student posts

A grade of “A” is awarded to a student who …

 Attended class on the day the in-class Taboo game was played and demonstrated a high level of engagement during gameplay, as evidenced by their willingness to guess terms, serve as team leader, etc. and

 Whose Wiktionary post demonstrated mastery in understanding the target term or phenomena assigned to them (see example in Figure 17.1) and contained few, if any, grammatical or content errors:

Figure 17.1 Screenshot of Biology Taboo Wiktionary page Source: Olimpo et al. (2010)

A grade of “B” is awarded to a student who …

 Attended class on the day the in-class Taboo game was played and demonstrated a high level of engagement during gameplay, as evidenced by their willingness to guess terms, serve as team leader, etc. and

 Whose Wiktionary post demonstrated above average understanding of the target term or phenomena assigned to them and contained few, if any, grammatical or content errors. In following with the example above, such a post might have concluded at the end of the sentence reading “The molecule then undergoes decarboxylation … production of a CO2 molecule” and shown a diagram of the process but without much interpretation/description.

A grade of “C” is awarded to a student who …

 Attended class on the day the in-class Taboo game was played and demonstrated a moderate level of engagement during gameplay, as evidenced by their willingness to occasionally guess terms and follow classroom norms and

 Whose Wiktionary post demonstrated adequate understanding of the target term or phenomena assigned to them (i.e., a definition that is nearly equivalent to a textbook definition) or

    Whose Wiktionary post demonstrated above average comprehension of the target term or phenomena but which contained numerous grammatical errors, making it difficult for both other students and the instructor to understand.

A grade of “D” is awarded to a student who …

 Attended and participated in the Taboo in-class game, but failed to contribute to the Wiktionary page, as evidenced by their lack of a posting on the page or

 Attended and participated in the Taboo in-class game but was only weakly engaged in gameplay, as evidenced by lack of attentiveness to other team players and failure to comply with classroom norms and/or whose Wiktionary post demonstrated only a cursory understanding of the target term or phenomena. For instance, stating that “Acetyl CoA is the product of the oxidation of a pyruvate molecule and is created during the transition step between glycolysis and the Kreb’s Cycle” would be awarded a grade of “D”.

A grade of “F” is awarded to a student who …

 Failed to attend class during the Taboo game activity or

 Attended class but did not, in any way, participate in gameplay (as evidenced either by routine absences from the classroom during gameplay, preoccupation with laptop/phone, etc.) or

 Plagiarized their Wiktionary entry.