Worksheets Aren’t ALL Bad: 5 Tips for Improving Their Practice

Let’s face it, we can’t all do projects 100% of the time, and we shouldn’t do them 100% of the time. Sometimes there is basic skill acquisition needed so that students can do a better job with project work. Worksheets have gotten a bad rap as of late, but I don’t believe they are all evil.  The way worksheets are used will determine if students will learn at the highest level.

Here are a few problems with worksheets in math (ahem…all of which I did at the beginning of my teaching career…ahem), and some possible solutions:

imgresProblem: Every student gets the same one, despite the fact that the sheet is too easy for some, and too hard for others.

Differentiation isn’t a buzz word, or a new thing coming to education. It is the BEST thing. We all know it, we all know how hard it is, and we all feel guilty if we can’t quite figure out how to do it for every lesson.

imgres-1Solution:  It will take some pre-planning, but you could write 2 to 3 problems on your Smartboard or easel for advanced students? For example: Perhaps your learning target asks students to compare numbers to the tens place. The worksheet may be full of what “on level” students should be able to do. They might be asked to order numbers like: 34; 54; 35 on the worksheet that came with the book.

A few problems for that challenge group could look like this:

Order the numbers:

1,000; 1,001; 1,100; 1010      or      3.54; 3.45; 3.544

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Problem: The worksheets have 30 problems or more.  

Think about something that is really easy for you to do. Maybe it is adding numbers like 113 + 21.  Now, imagine if someone asked you to add those same types of numbers 30 times. (Boring right? Are you learning at the highest level?) If it is too easy for you, there is no reason why you should have to do it 30 times.

Now, if someone asked you to do a problem that was so hard for you, one that you don’t have the skills for, should you do it 30 times as well?  When you ask students who are struggling to do something 30 times, they might be cementing the wrong way to do it in their mind, making it harder to intervene when you need to.

Sometimes people worry that if they don’t give students 30 problems, it won’t sink in, and they won’t have enough practice.  That is what a daily math review is for. You can also embed those same skills into problem solving and other parts of your day. Maybe there is a morning message where you ask them to perform that skill once again.  It is our job as the teacher to continually bring those skills back.

imgres-1Solution: Alter the worksheet by cutting it in half.  You could also ask students to only do even or odd numbers. The pro to this, is that it’s so much easier on you in terms of teacher time.  You aren’t having to correct a student’s thinking who did it wrong 30 times, you don’t have to correct 900 problems (if you have a class of 30 students), and you can spend that valuable time pulling small groups over to re-teach or enrich.

imgresProblem: You correct the worksheet and hand it back at the end of the week.

There are two parts to this problem. First, if you correct it and put in the right answers, who is doing the learning? The student will have no motivation to learn if we put the answers for them.  Second, if you wait to hand it back a day, 2 days or even 3 or more…the true thinking that needed to be done on the spot is gone.

imgres-1Solution:  Correct those sheets as you walk around, as the students are working. Catch the errors immediately and re-teach.  Consider pulling back small groups of students to have them correct their own work and find their mistakes. Allow them to look at their own work and do an error analysis, as learning from our mistakes is very powerful.  If correcting on the spot cannot be done, consider returning the worksheet the next day and going over tricky problems as part of your daily review.

imgresProblem: Worksheets are graded, or add up in some way to count toward a grade.

I know right now that if someone told me that I had to learn how to carve wood, and that each day I’d be getting a grade on how I’m doing, I’d fail miserably at the start.  I’ve never carved anything out of wood in my life! Should how I perform at the start, before I have any experience or a chance to practice be the reason why I get a lower grade? Instead, I’d rather have the chance to practice wood carving, hone my skills, and show off my thinking at a certain point in time.

imgres-1Solution: Use worksheets as formative assessments. Form small groups based on what students need and what you see.  Talk to your co-workers and set up dates where you think students should have mastered a certain skill. Test on those days to see if they have reached the benchmark.  We MUST give them a chance to practice.  The parents in my third grade classroom LOVED it when I made the switch.

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Problem: Worksheets are the only way students show their learning, every day.

Plain and simple, using only worksheets every day is just bad teaching. I don’t think many of us are still using worksheets exclusively. I know that growing up, that was what we did, and for some teachers it’s all we know.

imgres-1Solution: Beg for some professional development.  Along with worksheets introduce projects, problem solving, daily math reviews, mental math, games, flashcards, number lines, online activities and manipulatives. Blend them together and give the students a chance to learn the concepts in a variety of ways.

If you haven’t tried these tips, introduce yourself to them gently. You will notice a big change in how students learn.  If you have other tips, please feel free to comment below. I am always looking for ways to make things better, and we can all benefit from each other’s thinking!

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2 thoughts on “Worksheets Aren’t ALL Bad: 5 Tips for Improving Their Practice

  1. I love the idea of correcting it as you walk around. I feel like most students get their paper back at the end of the week and really don’t CARE what they got wrong. If they’re still engaged in the activity they are more likely to correct mistakes. Smart idea.

    • I have found that this works best if recess is right after their time to work, so that way those that rush and make silly mistakes are much more careful! But, we can’t always control the schedule. 🙂

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