Are worksheets a waste of time?

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Philip Larkin – Toads

Many people (and many students) seem to expend considerable energy in attempting to use their wits to drive off the need to work. This provokes the ire of others (often teachers) who consider it character forming and good for them and I-had-to-do-it so-why-shouldn’t-you?

The ability to work hard and get on with difficult and onerous tasks is a terribly important life skill and I expend a fair bit of my energy in convincing children to pull their fingers out, wind their necks in and get on with it.

But what of worksheets? Surely the ‘umble worksheet is harmless enough? We’ve all used them: a sheet of paper with a series of exercises for students to get on with while we sharpen our pencils, slurp down our cooling coffee and catch up on our marking. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, let’s make an important distinction. A worksheet is not just an instruction written on a piece of paper. It’s a series of activities designed to give students work to do. The goal is to keep them busy and is not primarily concerned with whether they learn anything. My particular bête noir is the downloaded worksheet. I hate these with an unreasoning passion and have seen some truly awful lesson based on nonsense from Teachit or other similar sites.

I entered into a discussion recently about the merits (or otherwise) of the worksheet. I took the view that they’re a bad thing and was eventually confronted with the question “What part of the word ‘work’ don’t you understand?”

Now, being an English teacher, and a fairly loquacious one at that, I’m fairly sure I understand the entirety of the word; particularly the way ‘work’ and ‘learning’ are distinct concepts. But just in case I did a spot of digging. There’s an exhaustive list at dictionary.com but, restricting myself to just nouns, here’s what the word means:

1. exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil.
2. something on which exertion or labour is expended; a task or undertaking: The students finished their work in class
3. productive or operative activity.
4. employment, as in some form of industry, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood: to look for work.
5. materials, things, etc., on which one is working or is to work.
6. the result of exertion, labor, or activity; a deed or performance.

I think we can safely dismiss the other meanings as not pertinent to a discussion of worksheets.

So, which of these meanings suggest that worksheets are worthwhile? Let’s tackle them one at a time:

1. exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something – As I’ve said, I’m certainly not against students having to exert themselves. In fact, I think encouraging hard work is crucial to their success. My issue with the worksheet is that it is, more often than not, the very definition of low expectations. Filling is a worksheet is easy. Composing extended written answers is hard. I’ll warrant that few students sit back after completing their worksheets with anything like a sense of accomplishment. But I could be wrong.
2. something on which exertion or labour is expended – Yup. This certainly defines a worksheet. But the benefit? The point? Simply working for it’s own sake cannot be a reasonable expectation for students. Filling in worksheets is bland, meaningless busywork and everyone deserves better.
3. productive or operative activity – the worksheet is only productive in that it keeps students occupied and that they produce an untidy series of scrawls which are promptly binned. The key word here is ‘activity’; it’s no good making students active without any kind of end. The business of students is learning, not being active and not working. Activity and work are merely means to an end.
4. employment, as in some form of industry, especially as a means of earning one’s livelihood – there’s a can of worms right there. Work implies livelihood and whilst we could argue that class work and worksheets might result (eventually) in some sort of job, the problem with requiring someone to work is that it’s an agreement that normally results in some sort of quid pro quo. You’re not doing it for nowt, so why should they? Obviously I don’t suggest we should be paying them, but we ought to make it worth their while. What’s the point of that worksheet? Is it learning? No? Well, bin it before they fill it in and cut out the middle man.
5. materials, things, etc., on which one is working or is to work. Hmm. Quite.
the result of exertion, labor, or activity; a deed or performance – a that’s another problem with worksheets: there’s precious little to show for them.

Now, I suppose there must be well thought out, thought provoking worksheets that have a significant impact on learning but, quite frankly, if you’re going to invest all that effort into creating such an artefact you really should be spending your time more productively. I’d urge all those teachers slaving away at creating resources to spend more of their time marking books. This has much more impact on kids’ learning and, incidentally, generally makes them work a damn sight harder too.

Filling in worksheets is a waste of students’ time, creating worksheets is a waste of teachers’ time and copying worksheets is a waste of paper! The ultimate condemnation of the worksheet is where it ends up: the bin.

Maybe you disagree? Feel free to defend the merits of the worksheet below.

Alternatively, you could just complete this wordsearch:

Related posts:

49 Responses to Are worksheets a waste of time?

  1. Helen Wilson says:

    My only disagreement is that, sometimes, poor literacy skills prevent engagement with the ideas in a subject. Worksheets that allow students to get their thoughts down – following discussion – open up the recording of information to everyone. They can also be useful for practicing skills – for example, solving equations in maths, parsing verbs in mfl or wordbuilding in literacy.
    Ps – the wordsearches I’ve given out are blind (no word list – just an instruction eg find 15 words containing a sh sound) for low-literacy students to develop pattern-recognition skills to aid spelling and sight-reading. It’s not an easy activity but the students engage with it – especially when it is projected onto a board as a group task. And only for occasional use like anything else, you have to the choose an activity that builds on where your students are and allows them to get to where they need tobgo.

    • learningspy says:

      These are fair points Helen but still don’t answer the accusation that worksheets ask for very little. Everything you suggest can be done better by not using worksheets. And don’t get me started on word searches…

  2. Andrew Old says:

    Nope, I’m still lost as to why the place the task to be done is written down (i.e. on a sheet of paper) makes a blind bit of difference to the benefits of the task.

    Why can’t the instructions for “an extended written task” be on a sheet of paper? If you are not against all work it just seems impossible to be against all worksheets.

    • learningspy says:

      If you’re going to describe a worksheet as just the place where instruction a written down then I’d agree. I have no problems with this beyond the waste of paper. Except that is not what a worksheet is. A worksheet is a series of activities designed to keep children occupied.

      • Richard says:

        By whose authority, these semantics? Why is it necessary for a worksheet to not result in solid practice to be called a “worksheet”. It seems assumptive to me to decide right out that no learning can take place in a worksheet and if it does take place, well clearly the argument stands because this simply wasn’t a worksheet….Seems a bit circular doesn’t it?

  3. David Fawcett says:

    Hi David

    Out of all of your posts, this is the one that I have the most emotion towards. When I started at my school, our department used nothing but worksheets and files to teach the theory component of our course. As you would guess, there was lots of shallow learning, little interest or engagement and a culture of just filling in the missing words. At times I questioned the need for a teacher as I could (but didn’t) have just given the worksheet and text book and left them too it. My duties would would then have been to manage behaviour as students lost interest and became disengaged.

    We’ve really taken a leap into the teaching and learning world over the last few years and have incorporated Blooms, the Accelerated Learning Cycle and elements of SOLO. The difference in learning is unquestionable. Challenge is higher, an element of choice is in every lesson, independent learning is up, collaborative learning is developing, understanding has increased…….the list goes on.

    I do see that at the minimum, a worksheet ensures you have all of the information on a sheet which you can refer back to when you need. But, I think the actual learning of a subject and creating links and connections that goes with it is more beneficial. I totally agree that with a little thought and structure in place, you can think of far more interesting ways to get students to learn than using a worksheet. As PE teachers who weren’t specifically trained to teach in a classroom, we managed to do it. Just need to think outside the box.

  4. Julia Skinner says:

    As a young trainee teacher I well remember the HOURS spent creating worksheets using banda sheets. If you wanted them in colour add another day! As for the children & learning – they usually rattled through the tasks & binned the paper! That put me off using them so a good lesson learned!

  5. Andrew Old says:

    “A worksheet is a series of activities designed to keep children occupied.”

    So part of your definition of “worksheet” is that it is designed to occupy, not to educate? Begging the question somewhat?

    Personally I think that is a better description of a lot of activity based learning: http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2000/sewall.cfm

    • learningspy says:

      Look. For anyone who’s unclear about this, a straw man logical fallacy is where an argument misrepresents the position of the opposing side in such a way that the opposing position seems silly. I am often guilty of doing this. For instance where I suggest that teachers use worksheets because they’re lazy is obviously false. I’m caricaturing a particular type of teacher and then generalising about all teachers for comic effect.

      An example of one of your straw buddies is where you attack my position that worksheets are a waste of time by asserting that everything written down on paper is a worksheet. I have clearly explained that this is not my definition but you continue to act as if it is, misrepresenting my position and attempting to make me look foolish. This is unworthy of you and intellectually dishonest.

      By all means attack my terms and disagree with my conclusions but don’t conflate written instructions with my definition of worksheets and then claim I don’t know what a straw man is.

  6. EC says:

    “I’d urge all those teachers slaving away at creating resources to spend more of their time marking books.”

    Well, this line from your very thought provoking post, implies that the students have worked on something (be it an exercise from a book or completing a worksheet etc) which then needs to be MARKED. To have work to be marked, the worksheet/exercise/quiz/activity – call it what you will – has to be created first so the pupils/students can work on it and then the teacher can mark it.

    However, there are very few teachers who have only one small class to mark work. They tend to have 4, 5, 6 or more classes. To take an average class size of 20 (as mine was)x by 6, that is a lot of work to mark for each lesson (I had 3 lessons per class per week).

    So, many teachers will resort to the “worksheet” for a variety of reasons. The merits or demerits of the “worksheet” really depends on what the end purpose is of the worksheet in that specific lesson.

    Is it simply to give the students something “to do” to keep them quiet? If so, then this is not really a valid reason to set a worksheet.

    Is it to consolidate or to test what has been learnt? To expand on what has been learnt? To encourage independence of personal learning? Etc etc

    I suspect that the pressure of the sheer amount of work that teachers have (lesson planning, resource creation, admin, personal tutorials, staff meetings, marking etc etc), worksheets in their worst form (which I assume are the ones you are thinking of) are the default resource because it is quick to create (download of the internet in many cases) and can be “marked” by the students themselves.

    I teach IT (not just ICT!) to train students to go into the IT world itself. There is a lot of technical terms that have to be learnt – and not just IT specific terms, but ones that are related to the business world that relies on IT. Students have to understand how that business world works and how IT fits in. There are also a huge number of acronyms that must be learnt and understood.

    Wordsearches can be a good option for learning that kind of vocabulary and acronyms in my subject. In my case, I often set the students the task of creating the wordsearch on a given topic area in IT. This, on its own is simple. It is made a little more challenging when each student has to create a “clue” (like for a crossword) for each word in the word search. The task is all online through one of the excellent wordsearch creator programs and the students really like this kind of task. They really feel they are learning something of relevance and feel they can have this proved fairly quickly when one of the other students has to complete the wordsearch without any help.

    I don’t just rely on wordsearches. I have created quizzes and brought in an element of competition. One I created was based on the old “Blockbusters” TV program. And again, my students loved it. In that case I created the questions myself.

    Other “worksheets” (again online) use more searching questions and require higher level thinking and for these, the students have to log into a website and answer questions that I have written. They get immediate feedback from the system and I get reports on each student and can compare results across the class and other classes. I design those questions with the topic area, and the class level in mind. It means I can differentiate amongst my students.

    In all of these I have limited my marking so I can focus on marking the formal assessments where required, and preparing an informative and interesting lesson. The students have immediate feedback which can be built on in class discussions. This is particularly important in one IT unit I taught as it was very heavily based on case studies once we got past the initial technical terms.

    “Worksheets” in an of themselves are no different to any other kind of “task”. Even exams are really a form of worksheet.

    What is important is what the worksheet is doing – helping students to learn new or additional knowledge? Applying existing knowledge to prove understanding?

    Or is it just a filler activity to keep them quiet for 10 minutes? If so, then this will be picked up by students instantly and they won’t be particularly happy about it and have an absolute right to complain bitterly about it.

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks EC. This really is much more thoughtful than my post. I agree that teachers ‘resort’ to worksheets for all sorts of reasons. This is a bad thing and says more about the problems inherent in the school system than the efficacy of worksheets.

      Obviously, much of this is personal prejudice and should not be seen as an exhaustive line of reasoning.

  7. Andrew Old says:

    “An example of one of your straw buddies is where you attack my position that worksheets are a waste of time by asserting that everything written down on paper is a worksheet.”

    I have not attributed that position to you.

    In fact I have repeatedly acknowledged that your position is that “A worksheet is a series of activities designed to keep children occupied”.

  8. Lindsay says:

    In defence of the worksheet

    Every single one of my Y9 lessons starts with a literacy worksheet. I make no apologies. I don’t do it out of laziness, and can justify this decision for the following reasons:

    The behaviour of the group is very challenging.
    The routine really helps them to settle. I don’t need to give lots of instructions at the start of lessons and that leaves time to sort out all the other issues they might bring to the lesson – and there are plenty of those!

    The group has very low self-esteem.
    The worksheets are designed so that the students can start the lesson being successful. That doesn’t mean they get all the answers right, but it is deliberately pitched so they get high scores. It is also competitive. We have a league where the first three to finish, and make their own corrections, score points. They eagerly discuss the chart on the wall on the way in, out of (and quite often part way through) a lesson.

    The end of KS3 targets for my group range from Level 2b to Level 3a.
    This means the options for doing extended pieces of writing are somewhat limited. Their basic literacy skills have to be a focus and worksheets are very helpful. Breaking down tasks into simple, manageable chunks has seen the amount they are writing improve considerably and, more importantly, the quality. One thing to focus on at a time really helps. We then try to link the worksheet into the main part of the lesson as our key literacy objective, regardless of what that might be.

    I have one hearing impaired student (and several others who can’t listen to instructions!).
    Having a series of tasks, questions and activities planned and written down means individuals can work at their own pace. Whole class teaching is extremely difficult with this group. It also ensures that instructions and questions are clear, which allows for those who can’t (or choose not to) hear.

    Several in the group have difficulty with handwriting.
    The secondary focus is always handwriting. They have to sit the words on the line. It has made a big difference. They now have a sense of pride in their work that they didn’t have in September. They are also able to find their own errors more easily. One student, used to having an LSA write for him, dictated all his answers at the start of the year. Soon, he started to complete every other answer himself. Recently, he did it all himself -what a huge move towards independence for him. I firmly believe the familiarity and security of the routine is largely responsible for this. It is easier to have this secondary focus when they are not putting all their energy into being creative or trying to understand more complex ideas.

    The worksheets have built in AfL which allows the students to make their own corrections and targets.
    With my worksheets, the word search, crossword, snail puzzle, or secret code is AfL. They have to do the task first and then check their answer with the puzzles. They can only do the puzzle if they get the right answers. Then they can make their own corrections and set targets. This is where I stole the idea from:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Grammar-Puzzles-Games-Kids-Resist/dp/0439077567/ref=sr_1_fkmr3_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333536136&sr=1-1-fkmr3

    They really like them.
    I am amazed at how much they like doing these worksheets. I have laminated them and they check the answers with removable marker pens. They have also started ‘helping’ each other when they have finished. They do find this very difficult to do without telling the answers, but they are learning. And not just the skills on the worksheets.

    It seems to me that the method of delivery isn’t the problem. It is the content. If a worksheet is poorly designed, has no challenge and is not followed up, then it is a waste of time. The same can be said of powerpoints, questioning, discussion, essay writing, model making and any other method of delivery.

    And I’m not just advocating worksheets for SEN groups. I have also found Zigzag publications extremely well written and great for both independent study tasks and generating discussions in lessons at A level. The Hamlet one links specifically to the requirements of the AQA Language and Literature B Specification, which is great as most of the stuff out there seems geared to Literature only. Can’t be all bad either as our students ALWAYS out-perform those at similar centres by some considerable margin on this unit. Again, though, worksheets are only part of the varied diet our students receive.

    My belief is variety is the key to creating flexible, motivated and successful learners and that includes finding a place in your repertoire for the (challenging / thought- provoking / appropriately targeted) worksheet. If worksheets are all students do that is awful, but if all they do is discuss, write essays, read, or watch videos, that’s awful too.

    • learningspy says:

      Lindsay, this is impassioned stuff! I guess I really don’t have a problem with what you’re describing: it’s more that I don’t want to teach like this myself. This is probably a highly personal aversion and I don’t mean to criticise anyone who thoughtfully and judiciously uses worksheets as part of their practice. Please feel free to ignore my witterings.

  9. Mary says:

    I run one of these resources websites which you implicitly criticise in your post (in fact, as an aside, we’re locally based to your school so I have a suspicion about what prompted your recent conversation).

    The resources on my site are written to engage students with their learning; they’re all adaptable and I wouldn’t expect any teacher to merely download them and hand them out to students without meaningful discussion about and around the task.

    Are you really expecting teachers to think up, from scratch, every idea, question, point and activity for all their lessons every day, week, term and year without looking at what others have to say on the subject? Where do new ideas come from if not from researching, considering and adapting information we share as professionals? You are advertising your own book down the side of this webpage which does this too, I presume, or are teachers supposed to read that and not take anything useful away from it?

    Finally, I was at your school recently when my son was in the primary schools’ Spelling Bee and perhaps should just remind you that as a warm up activity the children were given, you may remember, wordsearches.

    • learningspy says:

      Mary,

      A few points:
      1) I have no knowledge of your resource website and can’t guess what your suspicions might be. My comments are in no way an attack on you or yours. They are merely my opinions and, if your read through the comment thread, they are not even representative of widely held opinions. I seem to be in minority on this one which hopefully bodes well for your site.
      2) Of course I’m not expecting teachers to think up “every idea, question, point and activity for all their lessons every day, week, term and year without looking at what others have to say on the subject”. Neither am I advocating resource websites or worksheets. Looking at what others have to say on a subject is great: it’s why I blog and why I use Twitter.
      3) My book, I’m pleased to say doesn’t contain any worksheets. It’s full of ideas and I very much hope teachers will take something useful from it. Most of these ideas are not new and come, as you say, from researching, considering and adapting information from many sources. How is this in any way similar to downloading pre-prepared worksheets?
      4) Teachers in my faculty organised the spelling bee so I will admit, with some chagrin, responsibility for the use of word searches. I don’t agree with them but that is only my opinion. I’m not presenting it as fact and I’m not insisting that others agree or follow my advice. I would hazard that nobody at the spelling bee learned anything from them. This being the case I can only apologise.

      Hope that helps, David

  10. Mary says:

    Hi

    Ah, it’s my mistake about what prompted your conversation: I apologise. The reason I presumed it was because we recently sent out to local schools pens and post-its with an accompanying letter about free access to the website. I didn’t think you were attacking my website either: I just wanted to give my viewpoint about what they can provide.

    I realise your book doesn’t contain worksheets but you’ve conflated resources websites and downloadable, prepared, and pointless, activities when in fact they can have a variety of useful and adaptable tasks. I’m trying to make the point that you can’t assume just because you see a resources website it’s going to be full of wordsearches and other aimless ‘time-fillers’. Your book is ‘full of ideas’ but surely some of these need to be presented to students via an IWB or even a printed piece of paper? As a previous poster wrote, variety is important and it’s been recognised for a long time that students learn in different ways. I will be buying your book because I’m sure it is useful and I would hope that, in future, you would have a look around a resources website before you assume that we’ve all got a stack of dull and worthless ‘sheets of work’ for your students to complete before you sweep them into the bin.

    The point about the Spelling Bee was meant in jest but in all seriousness my son loved participating and it was a great confidence boost for him. Whilst he probably didn’t learn anything from the wordsearch as such, it gave him a few moments to get over his nerves. You don’t have to apologise for the activity: it was the perfect task to remind the students of some of the words and to forget what was, to many of them, rather intimidating surroundings.

    I look forward to reading your book when it’s published and considering and adapting some of your suggestions.

    • learningspy says:

      That’s very kind Mary and I look forward to receiving my post-its and pens! What’s your website called? I’m not really against such sites per se, it’s just that I’ve observed too many unimaginative lessons derived from dubious preprepared activities. Also, I’m not against stuff on paper or projected onto a screen – I’ve just drawn (a somewhat arbitrary perhaps) distinction between what I mean by worksheet (printed linear activities which children work through with minimum intervention from teacher) and visual presentations of ideas either on paper or anything else.

      That said, there’s a blog on PowerPoints brewing…

  11. Alison says:

    I have found this discussion fascinating, for several reasons.

    Firstly, I have written and used worksheets with my students. Some of them exist out there in the ether on resources sites. All of them were written to hellp my students in some way: perhaps as a stimulus for a task, perhaps to guide them or challenge them, or to avoid them having to copy out screeds of “stuff” that they needed to have in their books. For some classes, I have made a variety of sheets for the same lesson so that the different students get what they need. I can say, hand on heart, that I have never made a worksheet simply to shut them up as a piece of busywork.
    I also resent the suggestion, that in doing this, I might have neglected my marking – my books are always marked in a detailed and formative way, which I agree is vital. My planner might not be filled in in the amount of detail that some members of SLT would like, but that’s a different matter!

    Secondly, the department in which I work does not have much in the way of resources. Some class texts are in such short supply that they can’t have one each and certainly can’t take them home. Worksheets mean that they can all have something to take away with them if needs be.

    Thirdly, the Head is of the opinion that worksheets are the bees knees. He’s pressing forward with the idea that, rather than READING the class novel with students, they should read it at home and “do worksheets” etc in lessons. I can’t agree with this, and will not be indulging in worksheet overload, but he seems to believe that students benefit from printed sheets.

    Finally, I work with people who don’t use worksheets, ever. They pride themselves on this fact. Does this mean that there is no “busywork” in their rooms? No. One teacher uses an inordinate amount of videos, to the point that the people in the room next door comment on it. I’m sure that some of this is valid. I am also sure that some of it is making time for the teacher to do other things. I have other colleagues who use worksheets all the time. They don’t make them themselves, and they don’t differentiate them; they simply print them, hand them out, and that’s it. In this case, I can see that there is very little of value going on – but this teacher’s books are marked up to date!

    I work extensively with trainee teachers in a range of subjects, and one of the things that I often talk to them about is the value of adapting things that already exist, and providing a focus for activities. If they’re watching an experiment being demoed in Science or a practical in Food, then a worksheet which begins with a simple gap fill and then into more challenging work can be a good thing.

    Not all worksheets are created equal.

    • learningspy says:

      Very true Alison and I bow to your superior quality worksheets. My issue (and maybe I should have articulated it more clearly) is with your colleague who “who uses worksheets all the time. They don’t make them themselves, and they don’t differentiate them; they simply print them, hand them out, and that’s it. In this case, I can see that there is very little of value going on.”

      I’m not suggesting that anyone who spends time creating worksheets is neglecting their marking, but I do notice that that most teachers seem to put more time into preparing lesson rather than marking. I think this is the wrong way round. If you’re not marking your books then there’s little point to all those fabulous resources. And conversely, if your marking formatively your lessons tend to prepare themselves!

      Thanks, David

  12. Alison says:

    I agree with your point about the proportion of time spent planning vs marking. I reckon that marking a class set of books takes me anywhere between 4 and 6 hours (I have mad sized classes and teach English!). With 12 groups a week, that’s an incredible amount of marking (although I confess that the ones I only see once a week don’t get marked every week), and that is always my priority. When I think about the handouts I have made recently, they have been in response to my marking: sample essays based on work they have done, with annotation and mark scheme extracts; lists of “top tips” which would be a time waster as a “copy off the board activity; sets of sample questions. I know these are not the kinds of things you’re talking about though. I don’t claim that they are perfect, but my classes benefit from them, and if other people would too, then they are welcome to them.
    Obviously, it would help other students if they were differentiated for them… but in my school, that would never happen. No-one shares anything, but there are plenty of people happy to take my resources from the shared area and just hand them out. It’s infuriating, and for that reason, I do agree with you that they’re a paper wasting bin filler and nothing more – for those classes.
    I think the crux of the matter is that there are lazy teachers and not lazy teachers. Not lazy teachers are the ones who are making these worksheets for their students and sharing them with others. The other breed are simply printing them out, and demanding resource website membership so that they can do so without needing to think about it (yes, I do work with someone who does exactly that)
    Resource websites are a great idea, in my opinion, because they allow the easy sharing of materials and ideas. It’s not the sites that are the issue; it’s the way in which people blithely press print and then hand stuff out without actually engaging with it themselves. As I said, I use resource websites and contribute to them, but it’s a rare thing for me to just print something without doing something with it first, even if it was mine in the first place.
    As for PowerPoints…. I wish someone would teach SLT how to use them effectively!

  13. […] posts Are worksheets a waste of time? The Interactive White Elephant in the Room (by Tom Bennet) Post a Comment    […]

  14. […] with much but if instead we try to solve some arithmetic or a crossword (or even, dare I say it, a wordsearch!), the part of our mind that usually overrides with ‘sensible’ suggestions is […]

  15. Debra Hansen says:

    I have been reading a lot about worksheets lately and have noticed that while many teachers believe worksheets are not appropriate for teaching, they often make an exception for math, usually saying “worksheets are ok to verify number facts”. Teachers: There are other ways to confirm that children know their number facts. Worksheets can verify that children have memorized, it cannot verify they have learned, and this is true even for number facts. A hand or two of playing Who’s Counting™ will tell you more clearly whether the students have learned their number facts, not just memorized them.

  16. Andrew Old says:

    Debra, I cannot work out what you mean. The difference between learning a fact and memorising it escapes me.

  17. Debra Hansen says:

    Of course. When you learn a number fact, you understand what happens conceptually. So, I can memorize that it is correct to say or write 3 x 2 = 6, but I haven’t learned the number fact until I understand the concept of a composite number and that 6 is one. When I understand that 6 is composed of two sets of three or three sets of two. I am convinced that most children can memorize number facts, but when they do not learn their number facts, they will be unsuccessful in future mathematical learning. Memorization ultimately breaks down as a mechanism for learning math.

    Hope that helps.

  18. Andrew Old says:

    Are you seriously suggesting that there is a problem (made worse by use of worksheets) of children learning their times tables without knowing what multiplying means?

  19. Liz k says:

    I agree some worksheets are time consuming to photocopy and undemanding. I try to put tasks on IWB – saves time and can be used again. I do use worksheets for extension at A level (good ones which stretch and can be self or peer marked), ditto Gcse. Surely the truth is that worksheets are not inherently good or bad? Though my definition of worksheet is something I have to photocopy, so I do avoid using them for the whole class for that reason

  20. Debra Hansen says:

    That is exactly what I am saying. The standard is not for them to memorize the times tables, but to understand how to multiply two single digit numbers.

  21. Andrew Old says:

    “That is exactly what I am saying.”

    But isn’t that ridiculous? Who would ever try to teach kids multiplication tables without explaining multiplication first?

  22. learningspy says:

    Does this in fact have anything to do with worksheets?

    No, I thought not. Stop it.

  23. […] Are worksheets a waste of time? […]

  24. […] What happens if we tie all these ideas together? It seems fairly obvious to me that I should be trying to encourage my students to create art. To do something meaningful, that they can be proud of, that could make a difference. What is it? I’m not sure yet, but I know absolutely, deep in my soul, that it’s got nothing to do with wordsearches! […]

  25. Chipperfield says:

    My principal says no worksheets, which is a silly position to take, because it depends what is on the worksheet. You could argue that a workbook from the Singapore Maths is just a series of worksheets made into a booklet, and as a result would be frowned upon greatly at my school. I just hate these categorical condemnations of perfectly useful means of getting children to put pencil to,paper, which often increase substantially the amount of practice you want children to have. The underlying criticism at my school is that hands on activity, whatever it might be, is intrinsically better than writng something, and worksheets are judged as being not hands on, not active, not working collàboratively, and not being student centred. Grrrr!

  26. David Didau says:

    Hang on, wait – “hands on activity, whatever it might be, is intrinsically better than writing something”. That can’t be true for writing, can it?

  27. […] with much but if instead we try to solve some arithmetic or a crossword (or even, dare I say it, a wordsearch!), the part of our mind that usually overrides with ‘sensible’ suggestions is […]

  28. kim says:

    I completely agree with this article. Worksheets are an insult to intelligence. I have never known anyone who reflects on their education and thinks “I remember all of the awesome worksheets we used to do.” We remember what is REAL – experiments, projects, field trips, hands-on learning, even videos….but not worksheets. So many trees could be spared. 🙂

  29. […] Planning lesson: lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught Are worksheets a waste of time? […]

  30. […] English teacher at The Learning Spy had this to say about worksheets – “My particular bête noir is the downloaded […]

  31. Vince says:

    I love the discussion on this. The back and forth here is eye-opening. I understand why my principal says worksheets are bad. Worksheets are easy for everyone involved. Easy(ish) for the teacher to make & print, easy for the students to complete, easy to turn in, easy to grade. Also easy for the kids to throw away and never look at again. That’s not to say that you can’t have worksheets with higher order thinking questions that are effective in getting students to think critically, but that’s the point! A “no worksheets” policy makes you question whether or not your worksheets are being used the right way, and it makes you think, “Is there something better I can be doing besides this?” That’s exactly what every principal wants every teacher to think. I think it’s more about getting teachers to increase the rigor of their class than it is about the paper itself.

    Plus it also saves trees.

  32. Marzella Brown says:

    This topic is extremely interesting. I am an administrator who works in an inner city school. I have also taught primary grade children for many of years. I am appalled at how so many teachers misuse worksheets. They at at the copy machine making work packets which are passed out to occupy time. The new common core standards require students to be creative, higher level thinkers, and show proof of their answers. With 32 to 33 children in a classroom sometimes it becomes necessary to give students work to do while you work in small groups or differentiate instruction. I think the point Mr. Didau is trying to make is that there should be a purpose for the worksheet- cloze reading, getting further information or knowledge, practice specific skills, etc. Teachers should ask themselves– Can my students learn this information in another way or working in pairs? Is it really necessary for 33 students to be completing the same worksheet at the same time? I think I will write a book entitled, “How to get 100 uses out of a worksheet?”

    • Beth says:

      I teach Functional Skills maths and English to vocational learners that want to be anywhere else but in a functional skills lesson. I have also supported in many classes in which learners are given worksheet upon worksheet to sit and complete for an hour! I have made it my mission this year to teach both classes without worksheets and it has transformed the motivation of the learners. Lessons are actually fun! It makes for more prep and an even bigger bag for all of my alternative resources but its worth it. I tend to have a ‘1 worksheet rule’ this will generally be a one side of A4 of scaffolded activities just to check learning towards the end of the session. However, I got to the end of a lesson the other day and realised that we hadn’t even used it – Eureka!!!

      Learners are not silly, my 13 year old son was complaining about a lesson the other day

      “We just get given worksheets, I am not actually being taught anything!”

  33. […] Planning the ‘perfect’ lesson Work scrutiny: what’s the point in marking books? Are worksheets a waste of time? […]

  34. […] fool. As an example of the kind of arguments we used to enjoy, take a look at the comment thread on this blog post. I decided early on, that since Andrew wasn’t a fool, he must just be ignorant. Clearly he […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: