Drilling for Knowledge

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Here’s the thing: Worksheets are definitely a dirty word in modern education classes. We no longer drill students. They no longer remember what they learned last year, either. These facts are not unconnected.

Snapshot from ISAT prep in the spring of 2011: We are doing a math review to get ready for the state test, plodding through earlier material. I had a real epiphany one afternoon when we were plotting points on a coordinate graph. I’d done my best to get my points across when we first covered this material in the fall, even going so far as to jump up and squat down when showing what the x’s and y’s do. I had them jump. I showed them the helpful posters on the wall which they could use to remember how to plot points on the ISATs. We had spent some time on the topic and they’d all done pretty well on the quiz and test.

Six months later, many of them had forgotten what to do.

“We did this,” I said. “You knew this.”

“That was a long time ago,” one girl answered and the class chimed in their agreement.

The idea slammed home to me that I had obviously not given them enough homework. That information on points had never made the journey to long-term memory. They knew the information for weeks. The test was some weeks after the quiz. But by spring, the steps to putting a point on paper had been lost by a fair number of students.

I blame myself. But I also blame current pedagogical practices. Teachers are taught to avoid the lowly worksheet. They are taught to avoid boring, repetitive material. Worksheets are so out of fashion, so associated with a time when children sat in rows. Those children read, did the questions at the back of the chapters, and then started the next chapter. I grew up in that time.

I’d like to observe that the literature suggests that our children learned more during that time and maybe not all the difference in learning can be explained by demographic changes. Worksheets are not fun. Worksheets do work, however. They are especially effective for visual learners with good reading skills. They also often improve reading skills.

I should have given that class more worksheets. If they needed to plot 2,000 points to remember how to plot points, they should have plotted those points. I had cheated those students who regularly did the homework by not giving them enough homework. Those students with sketchier homework performance would also have benefited, even if they only plotted 500 or 1,000 of their points.

I have heard many math teachers complain how little their incoming students know. “How come they can’t add fractions?” They ask. A principal once told me that he thought the elementary teachers were not teaching the material. But I’ve talked to elementary teachers who tell me all about the fun ways they have found to teach fractions. A lot of these methods involve eating candy, pizza and pastries.  I’m sure the kids love “fractions.”

I’m also sure that many students enter seventh grade where I work having forgotten how to actually add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions. In the short term, they learned what to do, but that material did not transfer over into long-term memory. The idea of a fraction crossed over into their memory, but the actual methods needed to manipulate the numbers disappeared.

I’d like to put in a strong vote for more worksheets, despite all the literature that favors fun, hands-on activities instead. My fourth grade teacher handed worksheets out like the candy we hand out now. Every day he handed out problems that filled the page. My math class was pretty dull compared to math in 2011. But almost everyone in that class entered fifth grade knowing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions.

Fun can get out of hand. Many students require more repetition to remember a new idea than they actually receive. Liberal use of worksheets could help address this problem. As it stands, we reteach and reteach and reteach. Why not do it right the first time?