6+ Ways to Use Word Clouds in Online Courses

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A word cloud is a collage of words, often displayed in interesting shapes, colors, and fonts. (The image on the right side of this article is an example of a word cloud.)

To create a word cloud, simply type (or copy and paste) some text into a word cloud generator, such as Wordle. Whichever words are repeated most frequently within the text will be displayed larger and more prominently within the word cloud.

In recent years, educators have come up with numerous ways to use word clouds within their lesson plans.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Improve student writing by helping students recognize which words or adjectives they tend to overuse in their papers. Ask students to copy and paste their essays into a word cloud generator and notice which words appear the largest, due to their frequency of use.

    For example, here is a word cloud generated from the text of this article. Notice that the most frequently used words include: “word” “words” “students” “cloud” “example” and “lesson.”
    Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 10.39.29 PM

  2. Find out which words and concepts were emphasized in famous historical speeches.

    For example, Ben Rimes suggests comparing President Obama’s state of the union address with an address given over in 1930 by Herbert Hoover, in order to “compare in what direction the country is headed, or rather what is consuming our collective thoughts.” He found that Obama’s address emphasized common words like “American” “new” and “people” whereas Hoover’s address included more formal words like “Congress” “construction” and “employment.”

    Similarly, Kev at Edgalaxy suggests generating a word cloud from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, to see which words were stressed the most (ex. “freedom” “dream” “nation” and “together”).

  3. Take a class poll, and display the results in a word cloud. The most popular poll answers will appear the largest in the image.

    (To gather student responses in an online setting, use online tools like Etherpad or Write With Me or Google Forms.)

  4. Make a word cloud in advance of a lesson, to see what students already know about the topic and what words they associate with it.

    For example, before teaching about magnetism, Tony Borash asked his class: “When you think of ‘magnetism,’ what comes to mind?” Before the lesson, students provided basic answers like “magnets” “attract” “opposites” and “metals.” After lesson, students provided more informed answers such as “current” “wire” “coils” and “fibers.”

  5. Ask students to create an “All About Me” word cloud at the beginning of the semester, containing whatever words or phrases students want to use to describe themselves and their goals. This assignment is an effective way to help students get acquainted with each other and more connected, especially in an online course where face-to-face interactions are limited or non-existent.
  6. Create a word cloud based on your course outline at the beginning of the semester, so that students can get a sense of what they’ll be learning about in the upcoming months.

For more great ideas for how to use word clouds in science, language arts, social studies, math, art, music, and foreign language studies, see 108 Ways to Use Word Clouds in the Classroom by Michael Gorman.

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