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Love them or hate them, worksheets have long been a staple of the classroom diet. Every teacher cooks up their favorites and students gobble them up, either because they enjoy the taste or just want to get to dessert. But just like carbohydrates, worksheets have fallen out of favor in recent years, especially after the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released its landmark study on quality. Some education experts want teachers to forego worksheets and focus only on activities that incorporate higher-order thinking skills within real-world contexts. But as any teacher knows, there’s a time and place for everything—especially worksheets, which come in all different sizes and shapes. (Most experts are railing against one specific type: the repetition sheets that force kids to practice one skill over and over.)

Worksheets are Classroom Essentials

If used to supplement a solid lesson, worksheets provide essential practice of new concepts for students. To help encode vocabulary, concept map worksheets might fit best. As their understanding grows, students might work on graphic organizers, timelines or quizzes. At each stage of a curriculum unit, worksheets (AKA activities) can be a part of the instructional scaffolding necessary to support student progression toward the ultimate goal of higher-order cognition.

Used for Formative Assessment

Worksheets serve another key purpose during a curriculum unit: formative assessment. When deployed as structured low-stakes activities, worksheets capture important data on each student’s progress. Feedback on individual achievement levels is vital to providing differentiated instruction for each student.

Making Worksheets for the 21st-Century Learner

Since we can all agree that worksheets are a critical tool for teachers to employ in the service of student achievement, what should be considered when creating worksheets so that they consistently hit their target and engage the 21st-century student? How can we spiral learning upwards through increasingly complex activities?

Use Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to Evaluate Worksheet Activities

When designing or choosing worksheets to use as part of a lesson plan, it’s important to evaluate each activity. By combining Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, you will gain insight into both the type of learning activity and its cognitive demand on the student.

Once you understand the demands of a subject or activity, you’ll know where in a unit’s progression plan your worksheet belongs.

If you’d like more subject-specific DOK rubrics, please visit Dr. Karin Hess’ website. She’s a thought leader when it comes to cognitive rigor and performance assessment, and has spent her time carefully crafting DOK rubrics for teachers like you!

Problem-Based Learning Activities Paired with Worksheets

Though worksheets on paper tend to fall exclusively in tiers 1–3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. As we said earlier, there’s a time and place for everything. Providing strong foundations and scaffolding on which students can build their knowledge is important for their long-term success. And by combining worksheets with student-centered interactive models typically found in problem-based learning (PBL) instructional practices, worksheets can climb up the hierarchy and transform into more demanding 21st Century tasks.

Try pairing worksheets with these activities to engage students in higher-order thinking:

  1. Cooperative Learning – Have students work together in small groups to complete a worksheet.
  2. Discussion Groups – Have students complete worksheets on their own and then come together in groups to communicate about and refine their work.
  3. Presentation Mode – Have individuals or groups use a worksheet activity as a springboard for multimedia or oral presentations.
  4. Q & A – Have individual students show their work and let other class members ask them questions about how they arrived at their answers.
  5. Workshop It – Have students collaborate to make another worksheet based on the first handout.

If you’d like even more ideas, you’ll want to visit veteran educator, author, and podcaster Angela Watson’s blog for additional inspiration… and validation.