How to Write Your Definitions


Posted October 23, 2018

Once you have decided on the key terms to define for your study, you will then of course need to define them in your “Definition of Terms” section. The idea of defining the key terms and major concepts of your study is to provide the reader with precise meanings of how you will be using them. This blog provides a few tips for defining your key terms and includes a few pitfalls to avoid.

For your definitions, concision is key. Be brief and precise. Start your definitions with language such as, self-efficacy is… or self-efficacy refers to… This kind of sentence construction is expected and provides consistency among entries. Then, define the term, not generally, but as you will be using it in your study. If they are precise, definitions can be a sentence or two long. Usually, that is all you need.

Ideally, you should support definitions with citations from recent peer-reviewed sources. This lets the reader know that the term and its definition are not arbitrary or general but specific to and recognized in the literature.

Avoid circular logic and using the term you are defining in the definition. Example: “Student retention refers to retaining students in school.” With such a construction, we end where we started and have no better idea of what retention really means as it pertains to your study. If we do not know what retention means, then using essentially the same word retaining is not going to help.

Avoid using quotations in definitions, which is a good rule of thumb in academic writing generally. Paraphrasing is preferred. In something as short as a definition entry, there is no need to use quotes.

Lastly, do not just say that the term or concept is important without defining it. This is a common mistake. Peoples sometimes say, self-efficacy is used to understand… or student retention is important because… but do not actually define the term. Your definitions are not the place to establish the importance of your concepts, and such sentences can be seen as filler. So, make sure you actually state what the term means while leaving out extraneous information.


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