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The Epic Failure of Worksheets

One of my favorite teaching memes depicts a bright-eyed child with the words, “I love worksheets! Said no kid, ever.” The contrast of the child’s happy face with what the meme communicates really hits home. I doubt very many of us would argue that worksheets have encouraged higher-order thinking in student learning processes. Still, we keep them in the rotation, probably owing at least in part to ease of use. After all, we don’t have to worry quite so much about putting our content out there if we just hand it to kids on a one-sheet document. Still, there are better ways to check for understanding than a worksheet. Here are a few:

Create a culture of inquiry.

Instead of using worksheets to determine what students know, place the responsibility of asking questions on them. Early in my teaching career, I remember a student complaining to me about class discussions. “It’s always the same,” he said. “We read something, and then we look at a handout about the pages and discuss it.” His feedback illuminated the need to foster more curiosity about learning. Every time I taught a concept after that, I would try to facilitate open-ended question processes, which had the added benefit of upping language production. For instance, students might sit in a circle with index cards, write a thoughtful question about the content on the card (a question that could not be answered with “yes” or “no”), and throw it into the middle of the circle. When students picked up someone else’s question, they had to share it and we explored answers together. Strategies that place ownership for questioning the learning process on students results in higher engagement as well as classrooms that are safe spaces for healthy inquiry.

Provide meaning through discourse.

Instead of asking students to share their knowledge with a worksheet, get them talking so that their thinking is visible. One of my favorite teachers to observe has a classroom that appears chaotic, but if I listen to the conversations, students are focused on class topics. One day, students took turns impersonating notable historical figures while their partners interviewed them and recorded their responses. It was such an engaging way to see what each student knew about their assigned person of note, and the classroom was alight with enthusiasm. When I conduct class observations, chief among my typical recommendations is to include more discourse into planning with intention, rather than waiting for conversations (not the same as discourse) to occur haphazardly. Worksheets have the effect of shutting down student conversation, not encouraging it. Discourse that reflects equitable sharing and doesn’t put students on the spot is ideal.

Learn through narrative.

The power of storytelling is significant, and connects people to ideas on a level that is profound. One all-time student favorite text is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, which is a series of stories about his childhood in South Africa during apartheid. Rather than give students a handout about the book, I ask them to tell their own stories from childhood that connect to themes from Noah’s book. That way, they engage with the reading on a personal level, and the words come alive even more, as does their understanding of the text. Instead of giving students a handout, engage them in the inductive and connective process of narrative.

Let students take over.

Why should adults get to create all the materials that determine student understanding? Let them take control of the process. A student once approached me and asked if, instead of the assigned project on memoir, she could create a graphic novel-esque depiction of her own experiences (complete with thematic components) that highlighted her skills as an artist. Her project was stellar, coming from a place of passion. Her language use and the skills she demonstrated were exactly in line with what the assessment standards indicated. In my experience, letting students decide how they want to make meaning of their learning almost always results in gains that cannot be met with more rigid structures. The truth is, teachers are inventive, but we don’t harness all the creativity. When we let students work with us to make learning happen, the whole classroom community benefits.

Are worksheets ever necessary? Maybe, but it’s doubtful. Think about how they are typically used: to get a class focused (which is about managing behavior, not learning), to demonstrate understanding, or to be efficient. Then, think about how engaging worksheets are, and whether some of the strategies above might be a better option. When we let go of controlling every detail of how we see our course content, even a little bit, the results can be rewarding in the long term, ultimately creating a classroom climate of mutual respect and trust.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS