Three activities that give students practice in generating operational definitions

  1. Exercise that asks students to provide operational definitions that will convert predictions into testable hypotheses.

  2. To help students learn how to generate operational definitions of hypothetical constructs, Dr. Steven Specht  (e-mail: created an in-class exercise he calls  “Bucket o’ constructs.” In the exercise, students work in pairs. Each pair grabs a slip of paper from a container (Steven calls his container “Bucket o’ constructs”). Each slip has the name of construct on it (Steven uses constructs such as "helpful," "nice," "shy," "angry," and "intelligence"). Each pair of students must generate a measure of their construct that is (a) behavioral  (self-report and physiological measures are not allowed), (b) objectively measurable, and  (c) quantifiable. Students are usually able to generate quantifiable definitions by choosing either frequency (number of) measures or duration measures. However, students often have to refine their definition to remove aspects that are not objectively measurable. After each pair presents their operational definition, the rest of the class guesses what construct the pair is trying to measure. The incorrect guesses can lead to discussions of (a) the need to use dictionaries and the thesaurus that accompanies Psychological Abstracts to know precisely what it is that the researcher wants to measure and what the researcher does not (as Steven points out, “nice,” “kind,” and “polite” are different constructs) and (b) the need for discriminant validity.




    Specht, S. M. (2004, October). “Bucket o’ constructs”: Introduction to operational definitions and 

           technical writing. Poster session presented at the Finding out: Best practices in teaching research 

          methods and psychology in psychology conference, Atlanta, GA.


  3. Have students generate operational definitions and outline a strategy for validating these operational definitions. You could start by having them develop operational definition of school-related concepts, such as "good advising," "good student," and "liberal arts education," and engaged (to see a commonly used measure of student engagement, click here).
For many fun examples, consult

Vandervort, L. R. (1988). Operational definitions made simple, lasting, and useful. In

Ware, M.E. & Brewer, C. L. (Eds.). Handbook for teaching statistics

and research methods, pp. 132-134, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum


Back to Chapter 5 Main Menu