20 ways to ditch those worksheets

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Tuesday, December 15, 2015

20 ways to ditch those worksheets

If we're not careful, a day of worksheets can leave kids feeling overworked without much academic gain. Here are some ways to ditch those worksheets and engage students. (Wikimedia / Pedroaraez198)

If we’re not careful, a day of worksheets can leave kids feeling overworked without much academic gain. Here are some ways to ditch those worksheets and engage students. (Wikimedia / Pedroaraez198)

In the first few years of my teaching career, I relied on worksheets a lot. In fact, when I switched professions to become a teacher, creating my own worksheets kind of excited me.

After those first few years and lots of lessons with worksheets, workbooks and end-of-chapter questions, I came to a scary realization.

The students in my high school Spanish classes couldn’t speak Spanish.

Plus, they were so bored with my lessons that I wasn’t making any sort of connection with them. Nor was my content.

Something had to change.

I realized that I had to break myself of my worksheet addiction. When done poorly, worksheets are drill-and-kill tools of boredom, frustration and shallow learning.

We can do better, and sometimes, doing better doesn’t take much extra effort — if any at all.

If you want to break the habit, assign fewer worksheets and engage students like never before, check out these ideas to ditch those worksheets (and please add your own ideas in the comments below!):

1. Use manipulatives instead — Some cut-out sheets of paper, blocks or something else students can touch can engage the brain in different ways than a sheet of paper.

2. Go deep with one question — So many worksheets repeat the same activity over and over and over again (i.e. addition problems, verb conjugation). A deeper explanation of the answer or concept with one question may be more worthwhile than lots of lower-level questions.

3. Draw on paper — There’s power in making concepts visual. Our brain processes pictures differently than words. A simple piece of printer paper can let students see the idea instead of envisioning the idea. (And sometimes, envisioning an abstract concept can be harder than we as teachers think it should!)

4. Draw on Paper — When I draw, I love to use the Paper app. It’s an iPad/iPhone app by FiftyThree. You can use lots of tools (fountain pen, watercolor paintbrush, marker, etc.). My art looks much better when I draw on the Paper app.

5. Screencast videos — Recording audio and video of students explaining a new concept may take just as long as filling in blanks in a worksheet. Tools like Snagit (Google Chrome), Screencast-O-Matic (web) and Educreations (iTunes: free) get students recording in no time.

6. Record answers via AudioBoom — Explanation or reflection might be easiest if students can just talk through it. AudioBoom lets students record to a channel (much like a YouTube channel) and share with others (including the teacher!). Students could record solo or record a conversation with another student.

7. Call in to Google Voice — If students don’t have tablets/laptops/Chromebooks/etc. or an Internet connection, they probably have access to a phone. When you create a free Google Voice account, it gives you a phone number. That number lets students (among other things) leave digital voice mail. You can listen to student responses in the Google Voice inbox, which manages those voice mails simply — much like email.

8. Create a video — Use a smart phone or a tablet. Or use the upload button on YouTube to record with your laptop/Chromebook’s embedded camera. It can be a talking head video or something more elaborate, like a skit or a news program.

9. Annotate a PDF or webpage on Diigo — If you must do worksheets, doing them differently or more efficiently with digital means may be a better option. Annotating (writing on top of) a PDF document is one option with an app like Notability. So is saving a webpage to a list on Diigo and sharing it with students so they can annotate on it as a group. (Students can save to their own Diigo lists and annotate if you prefer.) Be careful not to go digital here just for the sake of going digital! As Alice Keeler says in this post, “Annotating PDFs is a Bad Lesson Plan,” “Technology allows us to do things differently, so we do things differently.”

10. Create a digital game like Kahoot! or Quizizz — If you want to ask lots of questions and see how students perform, a game show-style site does the same thing in a much more engaging format. With both Kahoot! and Quizizz, you can write your own questions and choose the correct answers (so the site grades it for you!). Plus, both sites will let you view and download results for each question for each student.

11. Let students create a Kahoot! or Quizizz — Creating questions with plausible incorrect answers is much higher-order thinking than just answering questions. When students create questions and try to stump their peers, they’re using more brain power.

12. Play a physical game — Review games have been one of the highlights of my classes during my teaching career. One of my students’ favorites is trashketball. Students are in groups and answer questions. When they get it correct, they can shoot a ball into an empty trashcan from lines with various point values. (Over time, our rules have gotten more and more complex and crazy, like bouncing the ball in for double points or having “life lines” like a re-shoot or taking a step!)

13. Stop the video and talk — The “do this worksheet while/after watching a video” is such a common practice. Processing a video can be pretty cognitively taxing, especially when the words or ideas are brand new to you. Writing answers to a worksheet while watching a video can cause students to miss important concepts. Instead of showing comprehension of a video with a worksheet, stopping the video to reinforce, explain or reflect may be a better option.

14. Do independent research on the web — Students know their way around a Google search very well. Instead of having them fill in blanks from a chapter in a book, let them do some search engine digging and find additional facts. They may find something more interesting or relevant that way!

15. Use a backchannel — In classes I’ve observed over the last couple years, I’ve started to notice how little students get to share their opinions, views or takeaways. A backchannel like TodaysMeet gives students a text-based place to discuss, almost like a private chat room for your class. Many students are used to this kind of communication from texting and commenting/posting on social media. Bring those skills into the classroom with a backchannel discussion! (Here’s a post with 20 ways to use backchannel in the classroom.)

16. Ask quick assessment questions online — So many options are available here. My favorite right now is Formative (goformative.com), which lets you create fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice and true-false questions. Students can even draw their answers in a “show your work” question. Teachers can see student responses instantly and share comments and grades, which students can see instantly.

17. Let students choose — You might be surprised at what students suggest if you ask them how they’d like to demonstrate their learning. Some ideas aren’t the best and are far from pedagogically sound, but students bring a fresh perspective when given the opportunity.

18. Write a song — Some of the most memorable student activities from my teaching career have been connected to music. Students can create their own songs, write lyrics to familiar tunes or even write parodies of their favorite songs. I always think of two girls who were crazy about their choir class who wrote a song in Spanish about going to the mall! (I still have the CD somewhere. If I find it, I’ll try to post the song!)

19. Create an ad campaign — Advertising professionals must persuade buyers in their work. They need all the facts and need to make a quick, easily understood and compelling pitch. Transferring those skills to the classroom lets students show their understanding in a fun way.

20. Create an ebook — This isn’t as hard as you might think! I’ve done this with a very simple-to-use tool — Google Slides! Change the dimensions of the slide to the standard 8.5″x11″. Design each page and then click File > Download as … > PDF. Voila — your students have created a PDF ebook that they can share with others!

[reminder]What other ways can you ditch worksheets to engage students? [/reminder]

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  • John Bennett says:

    Great list, especially, for me, ‘giving students’ control’. Of course, that doesn’t mean no teacher input. The efforts must connect with standards being addressed and must be organized by the students such that they include and understand the links to their effective learning aligned with the standards. This is the teacher’s facilitating responsibility.

    Along the same thinking, I’m against traditional homework – even if not graded. My belief is in terms of what I call Work for Home or W4H. Again student-controlled, each learner self-assesses their own learning in terms of what’s going well and what’s not going so well. Then with additional meaningful and understandable feedback from teachers, the student can consult with the teacher as to what ‘work for home’ makes sense – ironically, maybe, including worksheets.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Lots of things I like about this comment, John. You’re totally right that student control doesn’t mean lack of teacher input. The best student control options include guidance from the teacher. Work for Home is a great concept, too. Often the students who will do homework imposed on them are the ones who would do optional Work for Home if they were struggling. Those who would skip homework regardless will probably still skip Work for Home (but might not if they felt they had agency … funny how giving freedom sometimes gets you what you initially wanted as a teacher).

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