Are Worksheets Effective Teaching Tools?

effective teaching Nov 07, 2019
If you've followed me for awhile, you probably know I'm not a fan of worksheets most of the time.

I'm going to jump all the way into the deep end here and offend quite a few people on BOTH sides of the issue. Guess what?! I'm here to tell you the truth, not be popular.

So here goes...

There are a few instances in which worksheets are effective. However, most of the time, relying on worksheets on a regular basis in all subjects is a way we mask problems and struggles in our teaching. 

Please know...

I do not jump on bandwagons, and I try very hard to NOT throw out great resources and teaching practices when trying something new. So, I have to say sometimes worksheets, when used correctly, ARE appropriate. I know that's not the current rhetoric in education, but it's true. When we think of worksheets as supports or guideposts we can put into place to help students become independent (and not need them), they are very appropriate. 

Here are some appropriate uses of worksheets, handouts and printable pages in the classroom:
  • Exit tickets. Ask a question and students answer by showing their thinking (not checking boxes, filling in blanks, etc.) so we know their level of understanding.
  • Occasional take home practice for Math, Spelling or something similar. Please, NO packets of homework or pages and pages of worksheets each week! That's just busywork.
  • When you're teaching the steps or process for something that is a bit complicated, a series of scaffolded worksheets can help set students up for success. This is supporting students in learning a process as they use the process in their learning. We slowly back off and have students do more of the process themselves as they gain confidence.
  • Rubrics. I know there will be teachers who will say those aren't worksheets, but in my opinion they are. When used correctly, they aren't just a grading form. Students use them to guide their learning and stretch themselves to go deeper or do more than the basics.  
  • Cutting and scissor work for Kindergarten and First Grade done with a project for something else they are learning about. (developing muscle memory and small motor training)
  • Scaffolded printing practice and handwriting practice. (developing muscle memory and patterning the brain)
  • Students with all kinds of special needs or learning challenges may need the support of a worksheet, printed directions or guideposts depending on the activity. 
  • Quick, short quizzes to check for understanding and solidify learning. We know from brain research that SHORT, frequent quizzes help us recall information and get new learning into long-term memory. 
  • When writing down "all the things" would take students so much time it leaves little time for the most important part of the lesson - the actual learning activity. 
  • Directions and/or timeline for a project that will need to be referred to. While not really a worksheet, it can be for simple decisions that need to be made in order to model for students how to break the project down into manageable chunks. Essentially, you're teaching a life skill - breaking something big and overwhelming into do-able parts and scheduling work time for those tasks and their deadlines. 
Please Note: 

If your students are simply filling in blanks, adding in a word or two, finishing sentences that are already started for them or checking boxes, that worksheet is probably a waste of their precious learning time. 

Thoughtfully Evaluate

Don't feel like you have to jump on the "throw out all the worksheets " bandwagon. In fact, DON'T. Just take the time to think about WHY you are giving students a worksheet or printed page, HOW it will further their knowledge and help them remember WHAT they are learning long-term.

There is so much we've learned in the last 5 years alone about how the brain works and what is actually helpful in retention of knowledge. If you're not sure if something is worthwhile, ask another teacher, do a search for alternatives or take a minute to think if there's another way you could teach that lesson more effectively without the worksheet. You may find that the worksheet you have planned IS the best solution. That's ok. Just be thoughtful with each one. 




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