Friday, April 18, 2014

Do you have a boring worksheet that you want to make more interesting?

Yesterday, I shared a worksheet I was using in my math course for preservice elementary teachers on Twitter. It got enough of a positive response that I thought I would share it here with a bit more context. Here is the Tweet:

I made the point that this combined two worksheets. The original worksheet came from This one reminded a lot of the future teachers of worksheets they did in elementary school. Some of the teachers had bad memories about those times. I told them they were not alone. A lot of students become disenchanted with mathematics once they encounter the way we teach fractions - rules without reasons. 

We also talked about how pointless it seemed to do all the problems. How much practice did they really need? How much proof did the teacher need in order to know whether the kids could follow the procedure? I shared (confessions of a bad math teacher) that sometimes I might only assign the odds or evens. Still, the only choice I was offering students was the choice to do it or not do it. And many chose the latter.

Fortunately, I learned from Brian Cambourne the importance of providing learners with choice.
Learners need to make their own decisions about when, how, and what "bits" to learn in any learning task. Learners who lose the ability to make decisions are disempowered. p. 187
This lead me to begin altering my approach to assigning work, which is evident in the second worksheet. I began adding a line or two asking the learners to pick the problems they did or did not want to do and why.

There was nothing special about the first worksheet. It could be on just about any topic. But the extra instructions, the two sentences asking learners to make choices and explain those choice, seemed to make the task much more engaging. And not just for the learners. I found reading their rationale behind their selections much more interesting than simply checking their answers.

Finally, teachers could have fun with the extra instructions. A group of student teachers came up with the idea of asking their high school students, "What items would you assign your best friend? Your worst enemy? Why?" So what questions might you add and why?


  1. I remember Dr. Coffey making a similar suggestion to us back when I was in his methods class. It's a great and versatile idea, so I'm glad it's still around.

    On Twitter, Shawn Urban (@stefras) also recommended asking students what is similar about the questions or what is similar about the solutions. I think this is a great way to promote the eighth Standard for Mathematical Practice -- looking for and expressing regularity across the repeated reasoning that would go into completing an otherwise "boring worksheet."

  2. What an awesome idea to spice things up and to add in student choice! Student choice is SO SO SO powerful in your classroom. I guess I'll be stealing this for next week's lesson plans... :)

  3. Sam had mentioned my suggested questions to add to any worksheet. Ask students to find patterns: what changes and what remains constant; what is similar among the questions and what is similar among their solutions. These questions change a drill into an exploration. They give the task purpose and meaning, plus they target what we want our students to get out of the worksheet. I've seen too many students who can complete the worksheet, get 100% and have no idea what they were supposed to learn. My advice: give students a break; ask them what you want them to learn. The function of drill has nothing to do with the questions in the drills. It is all about the pattern. Why would you not ask what that pattern is?