Is it time to ban worksheets?

Printed worksheets are bad for the environment and they can affect students' literacy skills, says Emily Buckle

Emily Buckle

Is it time for teachers to get rid of worksheets?

Worksheets are a classroom staple, an excellent tool to support learning that can be personalised and modified to support or stretch. But using them has become difficult in the Covid-safe classroom: handing out resources to students can be a logistical nightmare, or even off the cards altogether. 

And it’s made me realise that we should use them as little as possible.

The first and most obvious reason to reduce the number of worksheets is the environmental impact. If I use one sheet per student for every lesson that I teach in a week, I would use more than an entire ream of paper (500 sheets). If everyone in my department did that, we would go through 24 reams of paper a week. There is also the ink, power and plastic associated with printing to consider, as well as the departmental budget.

A reliance on sheets could also be doing a disservice to students’ literacy skills. Even simple things like how to present paragraphs could be brushed over or not developed if a teacher is overly reliant on worksheets.

Worksheets for teaching: do we still need them?

And students may feel less ownership over their work, with less individuality being displayed in a book full of worksheets. I would much rather see a student’s thought process as they write their independent responses (even if it could be neater or has a few mistakes) than just see them fill in gaps on a sheet.

It is also worth mentioning the impact on planning time. How many times have you adapted a worksheet that you have used in the past or that has been passed on by a colleague, and spent ages reformatting, adjusting questions or adding support, before realising that it would have been quicker to have started from scratch? 

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How many times have you transferred questions from a worksheet to a slideshow so that you can model answers or questioning techniques for students on the board (doubling the workload)? For me, this uses up hours that I could have spent planning my verbal questioning or rehearsing practical activities.

Alternatives to worksheets

So I have taken purposeful steps to drastically reduce the number of worksheets I use with my students, as well as trialling the following alternatives:

1. Displayed questions

I adapt my displayed resources (slideshow or notebook) to show the questions I want students to answer. This could be a snip of an exam question, or some short-answer questions or even calculations.

2. Increased chunking

Rather than handing out a worksheet that summarises all of the content of the lesson, for students to complete independently towards the end, I chunk different sections of learning and get students to answer questions independently in their books. 

For example, instead of getting students to answer lots of questions on current and potential differences in circuits, I will ask questions on current, then potential difference, then some interleaved questions, with incorporated feedback time in between.

3. Interactive resources

I have transferred some techniques from remote learning (when worksheets weren’t an option) such as Microsoft Forms, Kahoot!, and Quizziz.

4.  Non-book work

I make a conscious effort to work out of books for a lesson sometimes. That means lots of questioning, lots of mini-whiteboard practice, lots of discussion and modelling. Students respond positively to this and it provides lots of opportunities for assessment and feedback.

5. Considered printing

In the cases where printing is an absolute must, such as where I have wanted students to analyse the context of an exam question, I have ensured that I have printed these resources considerately. 

I take steps such as removing answer lines and having students use a question sheet between pairs and write their answers in their books. 

Or I will change the margins on the page of exam questions to print two to a sheet, which can have a huge impact on the volume of sheets that are being printed. 

By taking these steps, I am supporting my students in their independent work and helping to make our classes more environmentally friendly. 

Emily Buckle is a science lead teacher in West Yorkshire

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