Yes, No, Maybe So!

The other day, I was skimming through some tweets, and I happened to see this one by William Chamberlain: a teacher from Noel, Missouri.


He was having a discussion with a Keely Shannon, a teacher from Florida, and I just had to chime in. You see, if you spoke to me on Monday, I would tell you that I hate worksheets. (And I know that hate is a strong word, and it’s one that I rarely use, but I really felt this passionately against using worksheets.) I speak in the past tense here because as our conversation evolved, my thinking did as well.

The problem is that I have images that come to mind every time that I hear the word “worksheet.”

  • It’s a blackline master.
  • There is no thinking involved.
  • It often involves fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice questions.
  • It’s a closed task.
  • It’s very low-level work.
  • There is no differentiation.
  • It’s rarely engaging.
  • There’s probably going to be some colouring involved. (As you can probably tell, I taught primary for 11 years, and I have images of the seasonal worksheets with the colour-by-number options or the huge graphs in one of the corners.)

When I read William’s tweet, it was these thoughts that had me replying with a barrage of tweets highlighting my many concerns with worksheets. I still have all of these concerns, and you will never find me photocopying class sets of worksheets, but it was one of William’s final tweets that really had me thinking.


Students need to practice skills. There are many ways to do so. I think that inquiry can allow students to practice skills, but in a meaningful context. As they explore more, read more, and ask more questions, they also learn more. Even in math, a real world problem can have students practising skills, but also thinking and applying what they learned. I did this almost every day last year with my Grade 5’s, and as the year progressed and I learned more from others, I got better at making this happen. Much of what we did last year didn’t require a worksheet for practice, but sometimes it did (or at least for some students).

And then, I think about my students with autism. Every day, I broke down all of their learning into sets of task analysis. This was not a blackline master worksheet, but I guess that it was a worksheet of sorts. It explained, step-by-step, what they had to do. They checked off the steps as they went along. The activities were tailored specifically for them and their needs. There were always elements of choice. Sometimes this work was independent, and sometimes it was for group work, but the worksheet allowed them to take control of their own learning and meet with success. I would use this kind of worksheet again.

I won’t use the fill-in-the-blanks worksheets. I won’t use the colour-by-number ones. For almost all students, I won’t use the worksheets with reams of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and/or division questions spread out on them, but maybe for those few students that need to review these skills, I would give a few to parents — even if only as an option for at-home use. And it’s with this thinking that I realize that using worksheets may not be a clear-cut yes/no problem. Maybe we need to ask these questions instead:

  • Why are we using these worksheets?
  • How are these worksheets benefitting students?
  • Do these worksheets meet the needs of all students? If not, how might this impact on how we use them?
  • Do these worksheets address all levels of the achievement chart (something that is important when it comes to the Ontario Curriculum)? If not, how are we ensuring that we address all levels of the achievement chart?
  • If we’re not using worksheets, what could we use instead? Why?

Maybe it’s not a matter of just jumping on or jumping off the worksheet bandwagon, but instead, thinking carefully about our choices and realizing that sometimes worksheets might be good for some and not for all, and sometimes, we can just save the paper and explore a different option. I think that it’s also important to remember that not all worksheets are created equally, and our thinking may change depending on the quality of the worksheet and the opportunities for student choice and higher-level thinking. How do you decide when to use worksheets? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks you see in doing so? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hot topic!


14 thoughts on “Yes, No, Maybe So!

  1. I find it interesting that many people use the “answer to all students” argument when throwing worksheets into the “no good” pile. Now, don’t jump all over me because I’m not a photocopy-and-go teacher, but I do think they have a place in my classroom. As you said, not all worksheets are created equally and even well-crafted worksheets are not all bad. As you said, it is the thought process that takes place before pressing “copy” that is most important. But, I digress. Back to the “all students” comment. I loved math worksheets as a student. I used them to challenge myself: Can I do this faster? Can I find a new way to get this answer? Can I beat my dad? Mad Minutes (the horrid Mad Minutes!) were a ray of sunshine for me on otherwise pretty awful school days. As I teacher, I recognize these kids in my classroom. Sometimes what these kids need are worksheets. Maybe not for the skill or outcome the worksheet itself is aiming to practice, but for other reasons. So, I guess what I’m getting at is that teaching is not black and white. It is not an all or nothing business. Just like most other methods, programs, resources, etc. I believe that worksheets, too, have a time and place in a well-thought out teaching plan.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jamie! You make a very interesting point here. Worksheet or not, I would question if we should ever be having all students doing the same thing. If their needs are different, shouldn’t our program vary (even if only slightly) to meet these needs? Sometimes the elements of choice can do this as well (in a similar worksheet and/or assignment).

      I know that when I started the school year last year, I had many students that loved worksheets. They also loved textbooks (something I never used). This is what they were used to though. As the year progressed and students got used to a different approach, their thoughts on worksheets and textbooks changed. These thoughts can even be seen and heard in the guest blog posts that they wrote for this blog. So I wonder, if students say that they like worksheets is this because that’s what they’re used to? Would their opinions change if our approaches changed? When are worksheets good to use and when should they be reconsidered? Why? These questions are ones that have me thinking!


      • I really like the idea of thinking about worksheets as a written document. You bring up some excellent points about asking questions about the document before you press “copy”. Personally, I rarely if ever find a reason to use fill in the blanks worksheets or other passive documents. With older students, I prefer to use google docs. I find this type of document more interactive. Students can receive immediate feedback from their peers and me. We also save paper since it is not always necessary to print everything. Using google docs also allows more room for differentiation. Students can choose to draw or record. It is important to use tech alternatives carefully. Some apps are merely “electronic” worksheets. I started working with younger students in grades 1-2 and found that notebooks, student made charts, drawings, building models, etc. were more beneficial.

        • Thanks for your comment, Elena! I definitely think that different students and different grades have different needs, and we always need to think about the students first. You make a great point about technology as well. If we are just creating electronic worksheets, how are they better? Always so much to consider …


  2. The bias against worksheets is very similar to the bias for technology. It is an easy and popular thing to say but there is a lot of nuance there. I can even see a time when homework would be valuable and I hate homework.

    • I think you make an important point here, William. This is not just a one size fits all solution. But our discussion helped me think that we need to ask these hard questions of ourselves more often, and that’s a good thing. Thank you!


  3. I think so much in education is balance and the ubiquitous questions: What is the purpose and is this the best way for the student to learn. Giving up on absolutes, I think.

    • I agree, Faige! To me, asking these questions means that we’re thinking about our students and their needs. I probably won’t use worksheets many times this year (and I haven’t used them often in the past), but for some students, in some situations, they work best. It’s up to us to determine when, which students, which worksheets, and why we’re using them.


  4. Hi all.
    Great conversation.
    As with every decision we make minute by minute throughout the day, we need to continue to ask ourselves these two pivotal questions:
    1. What is the purpose of this task/activity/provocation (including worksheet)?
    2. What was the impact on student thinking/learning/development?
    The answers to these are important, not the absolute dictates that seem to have fed the ‘best practice/high yield strategy’ monster of the last many years.
    This is why we are called Professionals and not Technicians….we don’t blindly follow ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’….we reflect, analyze and determine whether optimal impact has occurred for all students.
    I guess our next step is for someone to offer up an actual example of a worksheet so that we can engage in a fulsome debate :)……any takers?
    Take care.

    • Thanks for your comment! I think that your two questions actually sum up the many that I asked in this post (I really appreciate that). Having a look at worksheets and engaging in some debate around them makes sense to me, but in addition to the worksheets, I think that we also need to look at the students using them. There were times last year that I used certain worksheets/activities with a few students that I would never consider using with others. These activities helped scaffold the learning for the students that needed it, and allowed them to dig deeper into the concepts later. I do think that it’s hard to debate the merits of a worksheet without also looking closely at the “kid factor.”

      That being said, here is a link that I shared with William Chamberlain during our initial discussion: I think that the first few activities shared here are more worksheet like, and I actually prefer the last three or four. I think that they’re more open-ended, address more levels of the achievement chart, and meet more diverse needs of students. I’m not sure that I’d call them worksheets though, but maybe this all comes down to individual definitions. (These are also homework activities, and the debate over the value of “homework” is probably a whole other blog post. 🙂 ) I’d be curious to hear what others think of these activities, and if they have some of their own to share.


  5. Aviva,
    I have been TA ing first year University Physics courses for over 8 years. courses. The final examination consists of all multiple choice questions. Student work is not considered by the scantron. So how they arrive at final answer A,B,C,D depends on the students if he really know how to solve these complex multi step, multi concepts based problems or use a lottery system to do so. In spite of that, I have seen students making an honest effort to get to the correct answer. If worksheets consists of multiple choice, yet though provoking questions, the students will still put forward their best efforts in answering them.

    • I agree with you here, Sandhya, but is this the best option? What if students make a small error in calculation, but understand what they need to do? How will this be reflected in the worksheet? How does this worksheet take into consideration students with different learning needs and/or special needs? Maybe this is less of an issue given the type of course that this is, but as an elementary teacher, this is of big concern to me. It’s just like the many students that enjoy worksheets: why do they enjoy them? Does this make them good? Even if they meet with success, is this the best option? Why? Are all levels of the achievement chart really reflected through this worksheet? How? So many questions to consider with this topic …

      Thanks for weighing in!

      • Aviva,
        Thanks for your reply. In my course, students are assessed through quizzes and reports throughout the year so a multiple choice on final exam seems to be justified.I feel some elementary students are not there yet so that they can answer though provoking questions/complete collaborative projects .Even if they can answer orally ,they are unable to produce written output matching the provincial standards. So it is for them, we need a balanced approach and provide them a lot of opportunity to learn through repetition in worksheets.

        • I see your points, Sandhya, but is the answer to the problem more repetition through worksheets? Does this create better thinkers and/or writers? If their written output isn’t as strong, why not provide more small group instruction on specific skills that are lacking? Why not look at mini-lesson ideas that focus on writing skills and thinking? My experience has been that many teachers feel comfortable using worksheets. Many teachers use them regularly. Student skills aren’t necessarily improving though. Does this mean that we need more of the same or a change in approach? I tend to lean towards the latter, but I would be curious to hear what others have to say.

          Thanks for extending the discussion!

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