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5 Reasons Why Math Worksheets Don’t Work
Have you ever noticed how many K-12 math content websites are all about math worksheets? There seems to be an increase in websites that cater to desperate teachers and parents by offering “quick and free generation of worksheets”, “10 free fractions worksheets”, etc.
Now, as a former teacher, I’m not saying never use math worksheets; however, I believe that many teachers use a very superficial teaching method that relies too heavily on low-level math worksheets and hands-off teaching approaches. Worksheet lessons range from reading instructions aloud, solving sample problems in a group, completing the worksheet independently (or at home with parents), day after day.
Teaching should be more than handing out worksheets. Whether you are a teacher, pedagogical specialist or parent, the methods you use have a significant impact on the level of understanding achieved by your students.
Here are five reasons why math worksheets don’t work if you want students to understand math, love math, and think mathematically.
1. Math worksheets are not engaging.
Numerous research studies have shown that when students are actively engaged with content, they have a much better chance of understanding and remembering what they have learned. Unfortunately, math worksheets tend to bore most students, especially those who need math help the most.
Engagement involves much more than rote repetition of a procedure. Math worksheets tend to present very similar types of problems over and over, leading to mundane practice of disjointed skills. For students who understand the material and pass an assignment, another worksheet becomes meaningless. On the other hand, for students who do not understand the material, an alternative method of teaching is what is needed. Another worksheet simply adds to the student’s frustration, or worse, contributes to the belief that “I’ll never understand math.” A cute picture or a “fill in the blanks” puzzle does nothing to increase engagement or learning (and let’s face it, those puzzles aren’t funny!). 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 don’t promote critical thinking
Math worksheets rarely ask students to think critically or creatively. They usually present several examples of the same type of problem in the hope of reinforcing a skill or procedure. They do not challenge students to use higher-order thinking skills such as comparison, analysis, deduction, and synthesis. These skills are developed 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 issues in different ways sparks interest and promotes critical thinking.
3. Math worksheets do not promote communication and collaboration
Math worksheets are often assigned as an independent activity, but research indicates that communication and discourse are necessary to gain a deep understanding of math topics. Students need opportunities to explore mathematical ideas in different ways and to make their own connections. It involves communicating their ideas, listening to others’ ideas, arguing a point of view, describing and explaining. Math worksheets are rarely used as conversation starters. Instead of assigning worksheets, find activities that encourage talk, such as “digital chats” or collaborative group work. During the session, be sure to require students to explain their thinking and to listen to the strategies and thinking of their peers.
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 have students work together to find solutions. Then ask them to come to the board to demonstrate their solutions to the class. Nowadays many examples of how to teach math concepts on an interactive whiteboard can be found online in 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 be unable to grasp pencils, control their movements in the limited spaces provided on the sheet, or simply stabilize their paper while writing. Other students, including those for whom English is not the primary language or who have difficulty reading, struggle to read 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 content. Most math worksheets do not provide information in multiple formats, so they are inaccessible to students with a wide variety of learning styles and abilities.
Well-designed technology can provide these students with access to great content. For example, these fraction tools and supplemental programs enable students with physical disabilities to access fraction content using a variety of assistive technology devices. Instructions, prompts and feedback can be read aloud, while visual patterns, cues combined with sounds support a wide range of learning styles and abilities.
5. Math Worksheets Don’t Provide Immediate Feedback
Most teachers are familiar with the long delay between when students complete a worksheet and when they get to the correct page. Most don’t get anything back until the next day or the following week. In the meantime, the students continue to practice incorrectly. Not surprisingly, immediate feedback has been shown to increase student performance and diligence. Unfortunately, math worksheets have no mechanism to prevent a student from moving on to the next problem until they have demonstrated understanding.
Good curriculum software can solve this problem by giving students instant answers and strategic feedback. Using visual cues and auditory feedback helps students quickly recognize fraction errors and self-correct. This just-in-time feedback system eliminates incorrect practices, while promoting self-correction and independence.
Bottom Line: Math Worksheets Don’t Teach, Teachers Teach
Of course, there is a place for math worksheets. After some instruction, math worksheets can provide extended practice and support fluency development, provided the teacher is engaged with students as they work. Teachers who are effective at grouping students can use math worksheets as a springboard for discussion, discovery, and communication.
So the next time you’re researching teaching 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, foster discussion, and build a genuine understanding of the purpose and joy of learning math.
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