Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
For those of you that follow my blog closely you are likely not surprised that I'm writing a post on my distaste for worksheets, and for you I'll be preaching to the choir. Others may be thinking "ugh, another progressivist posting about how terrible worksheets are." I assure you, ditching worksheets is not a progressive move anymore. You might be neither of those people and are just curious about why worksheets may not be an optimal learning strategy and what some alternatives may be. I hope to provide some insight to all and some alternatives to worksheets.
I have used "worksheets" before and will continue to use them occasionally in my teaching career. However, I use them sparingly, and I use a specific style of worksheet. When I use the word "worksheet" in this post from now on, what I am referring to is that of the "drill" variety: pages or packets filled with the same questions over and over again, slightly modified, that have a right or wrong answer.
I'm going to tell you why I don't use worksheets, add some common excuses for assigning worksheets, and some possible worksheet alternatives. As you move into summer, reflect on your practices this year. Will you use worksheets next year?
Why I don't give my students worksheets:
1) I would be a hypocrite.
It's an integrity thing for me. I talk heavily about the benefits of experiential learning in this blog. If I were to say "yes" to drill worksheets, I wouldn't be practicing what I preach. I support and promote experiential learning because I have observed the benefits, and science supports it as an effective learning tool. The same can not be said for worksheets, at least not in isolation.
For more information about experiential learning check out this blog post -"What is Experiential Learning, Anyway?".
2) Worksheets do not accommodate all learning styles.
Worksheets are a one-size-fits-all approach, and learners are not one-size-fits-all. This can leave many students confused, frustrated, and deflated. Differentiation is a popular approach to accommodating many learning styles. At a minimum, then, leave worksheets as an option, but beware that students may not be choosing to do worksheets because they learn best that way. They are likely choosing worksheets because they offer concrete right or wrong answers. It's easier than having to problem-solve, work together as a team, reach out to community members as a resource, as some non-worksheet learning activities would require of students.
3) Drill worksheets do not have a place in life outside of school.
The only time I have ever done worksheets in my life was when I was in school. It would never come up in life; not to get a job, not to keep a job, not to plan for a family, not to plan a trip. Drill worksheets serve no purpose in life, so why do them? I'm short on time as it is. Adding busy work that serves no purpose is not something I'm going to do. Prospective employers are never going to ask students in an interview how well they can fill out a worksheet. They're going to want to know if the student has a thorough understanding of the content necessary to succeed in their field. They're going to want to know if the student can work well with others, control their impulses, critically and creatively think, work independently. These skills aren't gained by completing drill worksheets.
4) Worksheets "decontextualize" learning.
Drill worksheets are loaded with questions or problems in isolation from the whole. For example, I would get worksheets in high school chemistry that were filled with chemical equations to be solved. We would practice over and over solving these equations with specific formulas, yet I had no idea how those formulas applied to chemistry or what they really meant. I wasn't learning chemistry. I only learned how to regurgitate information that had little meaning.
I think the Alfie Kohn quote below is referring to "schooling" in general, but it applies to drill worksheets, which tend to be tasks isolated from a bigger picture. Worksheets perpetuate this problem. By hammering in discrete units, students are collecting piles of bricks but not building a functional home.
5) Worksheets do not ignite a passion for learning.
Worksheets are boring! Some may say, "who cares, students don't have to like it. That's the real-world. Life isn't always fun and games. Better to prepare them for that now." That is something I hear a lot and it's very frustrating to me. Students can quickly lose their passion for learning if worksheets are the norm. What I want for my students is to love learning. You will never have students seeking you out years down the line to thank you for your worksheets or to share with you the incredible impact those worksheets have had on their lives. They will thank you for building a relationship with them, creating opportunities for them to pursuit their interests, challenging them, and giving them autonomy and choice, because it's those things that make a real and important impact on their lives.
I assure you that the student comments above are not in reference to all of the worksheets she was given in school. She is talking about experiences she had. Worksheets are not life-altering. To hear more about this particular student's story, listen to my podcast interview. Link above.
6) Worksheets train students for careers of the past.
Drill style worksheets don't teach Important 21st-century skills such as tech literacy, creativity, social/emotional skills, collaboration, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and other skills employers of today desire. Rote memorization is no longer a skill worth spending a lot of time cultivating because information is so readily available. It wasn't 50 years ago, at which time worksheets made more sense. Now drill worksheets are an archaic practice.
I have talked to a lot of teachers and parents that defend drill worksheets. Below I have listed some common answers I get from parents and teachers when asked why they give out or support the use of drill worksheets. I have included some alternatives to satisfy those justifications:
1) " I assign worksheets to students as content review."
Many teachers give worksheets to students with the intention of hammering in an idea or concepts covered that day in class or in that unit.
What's the problem with that?
Unless that content is tied to life, the real-world, or something personally meaningful to the student, that content won't be remembered, regardless of how many times they repeat repeat repeat.
What to do instead:
If your purpose for using review worksheets is to help students memorize content, consider doing an activity that will leave a lasting impression. Then students will not only remember the content long enough to pass a test, but may remember it 20 years later, and say to themselves, "Hey! That's an example of commensalism! I remember that from that ecology vocab scavenger hunt we did in Ms. Segar's bio class! Remember that egret we saw sitting on that cow?" (scavenger hunt free in my store) As an experiential educator, I believe "leaving a lasting impression" requires that the learner be involved in some way. A scavenger hunt where students can observe and experience the ecology vocab in action is more memorable than copying definitions onto a worksheet. Even a combination of an activity and a worksheet would be more effective than a worksheet alone (if you insist that the worksheet is necessary).
2) "I sometimes give out worksheets as a formative assessments."
Sometimes teachers just want to see if students know the material that they've been taught. I do understand why teachers would do this. It's quick, it's easy, it's cut and dry.
What is the problem with that?
The problem is that drills are typically in isolation from the whole. It's difficult to see how drill problems connect with the an overarching concept. You often miss misconceptions that students have developed, and you wouldn't necessarily know if students understand the concepts or if they are just great at memorization.
What to do instead:
Try other versions of formative assessments. I get a lot of mine from the book "Science Formative Assessment" by Page Kelly. It gives a ton of quick, easy formative assessment strategies that are designed to reveal where students are having trouble or forming misconceptions. There are so many creative formative assessment strategies out there. Do a simple Google search or head to Pinterest. You can even simply ask students to write a reflection, which is what I do with my students, as reflection is an important part of experiential learning.
3) "Worksheets give students practice."
I hear this one a lot, and understand why someone might think this. A drill worksheet likely does give students practice, but what is it that they're practicing exactly, and is it something we want them practicing?
What is the problem with that?
What students are practicing is memorization for the purpose of passing a test. This just isn't necessary anymore. They have access to information all of the time. The internet is not going away. I would argue that using worksheets to "practice" is doing more harm than good. If students are doing drills for practice, and they are doing the drills incorrectly or don't understand the material, the "practice" is just reinforcing misconceptions and confusions.
What to do instead:
Again, if the purpose for drilling is to get students to memorize the information, try making it experiential. Get your students involved. Not only are they more likely to remember the concepts, but they will have a clearer understanding of it. There are so many great ways to do this like inviting speakers to talk about their research, taking students on field trips, collaborating with the community, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, STEM, STEAM, maker education and more. These are all effective strategies for practicing and understanding content, while providing opportunities for students to build important life skills. For student-directed problem-based learning, project-based learning, maker, and inquiry resources, check out my store, Experiential Learning Depot.
This is much easier said than done for some teachers. I have math teachers in mind here. For math teachers, check out a previous post here written by Tony Geraci. He is a high school math teacher that incorporates 21st-century skills into his curriculum. Check it out here.
The series of photos above illustrates a STEM project where students worked cooperatively to build a treehouse for LEGO people as an extension of a book we read on citizenship. Not only did students learn about citizenship, practice team building, and work with their hands, they also learned math and physics concepts. They are more likely to remember and understand those concepts, as they had to actually apply them to be successful.
4) "Sometimes kids have to do things they don't want to do. That's life."
I hear this one a lot, "That's life", as if drills prepare students for life. I myself have said this before, especially when I'm frustrated with my students and their lack of productivity.
What's the problem with this?
I have to take a step back and remember that life is hard as it is, especially for teenagers. My students have experienced a lot in their short lives. They are tougher and more responsible than they should have to be at 16-years-old. Worksheets are also not a real-world reality. Students will never encounter a job in which they have to sit at a desk and fill out worksheets for the purpose of rote memorization.
What to do instead:
There are many things that our students do in life that they don't like. You don't need worksheets to teach them about hardship or work ethic. Encourage students to prepare for the real-world by getting a job or starting a business. Facilitate learning experiences that are student-directed so they can practice desired career skills. Problem-based learning is a great example activity. Promote community relationships with your students such as starting a mentorship program or organizing service learning experiences.
Want to toughen kids up and help them understand the value of hard work? Have them spend nine days working on an off-grid chicken farm in the middle of the mountains. Everything takes effort. I never heard "that's doing too much" from one of my students because saying that wasn't an option. I understand that these experiences aren't realistic for all. Consider then bringing the challenge to the classroom. Use the community to make your point.
5) "Worksheets are quick and easy to plan and implement. Sometimes I just need a break from rigorous lesson planning."
This is completely understandable. Teacher burnout is real and powerful. Sometimes teachers just need a breather. There is no problem with that.
What to do instead?
Like I said, I get it. If you must give out worksheets to give yourself a break, try to do it sparingly. There are other ways to take breaks that are better for everyone:
Put on a movie! I know this can be frowned upon, but there are so many educational movies out there. There are documentaries galore about any subject you can think of! I love throwing on news series for students because they are relevant and promote citizenship. Check out my Vice News episode activities. Note: I call these resources "worksheets" in my store only because I don't know what else to call them. I assure you, they are not drill worksheets.
Find resources that are quick and easy to plan that are applicable to life. For example, rather than giving students a drill worksheet on basic math principles, ask them to write a travel budget. Rather than giving students a vocabulary worksheet where they copy down definitions, have them create a slideshow with vocab definitions along with a photo that represents the definition. One of my coworkers used to do this with her students. It helps students make real connections with the words in a more interesting and effective way.
One final method of limiting intense lesson planning is to incorporate student-directed learning activities into your curriculum. Your students direct the learning experience while you facilitate. No lesson planning. Check out my store for student-directed learning resources AND refer back to blog posts from my student-directed learning series for guidance.
As you drift into summer, reflect on your year. What did you do well? What could have gone better? What changes do you want to make? What kind of people do you want your students to become? How do you want your students to perceive learning? Does your current approach support your teaching goals? Are drill worksheets working for you, and more importantly, are your students getting anything out of them?
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.