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5 Reasons Why Math Worksheets Don’t Work
Have you ever noticed how many K-12 math content websites are devoted to math worksheets? There seems to be a rise in websites catering to desperate teachers and parents offering “worksheet generation”, “free 10 fractions worksheets”, etc.
Now, as a former teacher I’m not saying you should never use math worksheets; however, I believe that many teachers are using a very shallow teaching method that relies too much on low-level math worksheets and hands-off instructional approaches. Worksheet lessons go from reading the instructions aloud, to doing sample problems in groups, to completing the worksheet independently (or at home with parents), day after day.
Teaching must be more than handing out cards. Whether you are the classroom teacher, instructional specialist, or parent, the methods you use greatly affect the level of understanding your students achieve.
Here are five reasons why math worksheets don’t work if you want students to understand math, enjoy math, and think mathematically.
1. Math worksheets are not attractive.
Numerous research studies have found that when students are actively engaged with the content, they are much more likely to understand and remember what they have learned. Unfortunately, math worksheets tend to bore most students, especially those who need the most help in math.
Commitment involves much more than rote repetition of a procedure. Math worksheets tend to present very similar types of problems over and over again, resulting in mundane practice of dissociated skills. For students who understand the material and successfully complete an assignment, another worksheet is pointless. On the other hand, for students who do not understand the material, an alternative teaching method is needed. Another worksheet simply adds to the student’s frustration, or worse, contributes to the belief that “I’ll never understand math.” A pretty picture or a “fill in the blanks” riddle does nothing to increase engagement or learning (and let’s face it, these puzzles are no fun!). Instead, teachers should increase engagement by providing students with exercises in which they discover patterns and relationships, solve problems, or think creatively about mathematical relationships.
2. Math worksheets do not encourage critical thinking
Math worksheets rarely ask students to think critically or creatively. They usually present multiple examples of the same type of problem in hopes of reinforcing a skill or procedure. They do not challenge students to use higher-order thinking skills such as comparing, analyzing, deducing, and synthesizing. These skills are built through activities in which students discover concepts, explore ideas, test a hypothesis, solve a problem, and discuss their thinking with their peers. Exploring concepts and problems in many different ways generates interest and promotes critical thinking.
3. Math worksheets do not encourage communication and collaboration
Math worksheets are often assigned as an independent activity, but research indicates that communication and discourse are necessary to build a deep understanding of math topics. Students need opportunities to explore mathematical ideas in different ways and to build their own connections. This involves communicating your ideas, listening to the ideas of others, arguing a point of view, describing and explaining. Math worksheets are rarely used as a catalyst for conversation. Instead of assigning worksheets, look for activities that encourage discourse, such as “number talks” or collaborative group work. During the session, be sure to ask students to share their thinking and listen to their peers’ strategies and thinking.
If you are lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard in your classroom, using it with interactive math software creates many opportunities for group discussion and student engagement. Teachers can begin by posing problems and modeling approaches, then ask students to work together to find solutions. Then have them come to the board to demonstrate their solutions to the class. Today, many examples of how to teach math concepts on an interactive whiteboard can be found online on the various whiteboard community sites, educational sites, YouTube, etc.
4. Math worksheets are not accessible
Some students can’t access tools that many of us take for granted when trying to complete worksheets. They may not be able to hold their pencils, control their movements within the limited spaces provided on the paper, or simply be able to stabilize the paper while writing. Other students, including those for whom English is not their primary language or who struggle with reading, have difficulty reading the instructions, words, and math terminology on the worksheets. Still other students need different visual representations or methods of engagement to gain an understanding of the content. Most math worksheets do not provide information in multiple formats, making them inaccessible to students with a wide variety of learning styles and abilities.
Well-designed technology can provide these students with access to excellent content. For example, these fractions tools and supplemental curriculum allow students with physical disabilities to access fractions content through a variety of assistive technology devices. Instructions, directions and feedback can be read aloud, while visual models, cues combined with sounds support a wide range of learning styles and abilities.
5. Math worksheets do not provide immediate feedback
Most teachers are familiar with the long delay between when students complete a worksheet and when they receive the correct page. Most don’t get anything until the next day or the following week. Meanwhile, students continue to practice incorrectly. Not surprisingly, immediate feedback has been shown to increase student achievement and diligence. Unfortunately, math worksheets have no mechanism to prevent a student from moving on to the next problem until they demonstrate understanding.
Good curriculum software can solve this problem by giving students instant feedback and strategic feedback. Using visual cues and auditory feedback helps students quickly recognize their fraction errors and correct themselves. This just-in-time feedback system eliminates incorrect practice, while promoting self-correction and independence.
Bottom line: math worksheets don’t teach, teachers do
Of course, there is a place for math worksheets. After some instruction has been produced, math worksheets can provide extended practice and support fluency development, as long as the teacher engages with students as they work. Teachers who are effective at grouping students together can use math worksheets as a springboard for discussion, discovery, and communication.
So the next time you’re searching for curriculum materials, skip the worksheets. Instead, consider resources that provide interactive experiences or consider sites that provide students with challenging problems. These sites are more likely to engage students, encourage discussion, and create a true understanding of the purpose and joy of learning mathematics.
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