Drill and Kill Worksheets

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Teachers are no different than most people. They say one thing, but often do another. Most teachers (I certainly will include myself) have at one point in their teaching careers derided the use of drill and kill worksheets as a waste of valuable instructional time. We have slandered rote memorization and isolated skills instruction. We have rolled our eyes and whispered derogatory comments in the staff room about lazy and uncreative Mr. Worksheet. Isn’t it time for him to retire?

However, if you google “grammar worksheets,” you get 2,970,000 hits; if you google “vocabulary worksheets,” you get 8,250,000. Clearly more teachers other than Mr. Worksheet like their worksheets and see the value of deliberate, targeted, independent practice. Thought I’d dig into the educational research a bit to see whether what teachers say or what teachers do makes more sense.

In a 2016 article titled “Practice for Knowledge Acquisition (Not Drill and Kill)” for the American Psychological Association, researchers present the case for deliberate practice: “It doesn’t matter what subject you teach, differences in students performance are affected by how much they engage in deliberate practice… Deliberate practice is not the same as rote repetition. Rote repetition — simply repeating a task — will not by itself improve performance. Deliberate practice involves attention, rehearsal and repetition and leads to new knowledge or skills that can later be developed into more complex knowledge and skills. Although other factors such as intelligence and motivation affect performance, practice is necessary if not sufficient for acquiring expertise (Campitelli & Gobet, 2011).”

Although deliberate practice is not solely reserved for worksheets, it would certainly seem that targeted, independent worksheets can certainly provide deliberate practice that involves “attention, rehearsal, and repetition” and need not succumb to rote repetition. Worksheets can also introduce and help students practice “new knowledge or skills that can later be developed into more complex knowledge and skills.”

Math teacher, Robert Evan Foster, discusses the difference between deliberate practice and rote repetition on math worksheets in an interesting article: “There is a paradoxical problem in teaching math. Students need to know certain mundane facts so they can move on to problem solving. A student who has to look up every multiplication fact on a cheat sheet lengthens their homework algebraically. On one hand, a teacher needs to make sure the students know their math facts. On the other hand, the teacher risks mind numbing boredom on the part of the students doing the homework.”

“I think that the root of the dilemma is found in the length of the worksheets. I was asked the question, ‘If a student can demonstrate that they know how to divide a three-digit number, by a two-digit number 100% of the time with five problems, why do they have to do an additional 45?’ Teachers don’t have to assign more problems than necessary for the student to demonstrate mastery of the math skill. Five problems will do just as well as 50. You have students who are learning their basic math facts. In turn, they aren’t wilting in the field out of boredom doing the last 45 problems.”

So, besides deliberate, targeted practice (avoiding rote memorization) of new knowledge or skills, what do the American Psychological Association researchers suggest? I’ve weeded out a few of their suggestions and focused in these key ones. See the article for the entire list.

Research (Anderson, 2008; Campitelli & Gobet, 2011; Ericsson, Krampe, & Clemens, 1993) suggests several conditions that must be in place in order for practice activities to be most effective in moving students closer to skillful performance. Each of these conditions can be met with carefully designed instruction:

  • Teachers should design practice tasks with students existing knowledge in mind. When students succeed at practice problems, the benefits of practice are maximized. But when students become frustrated with unrealistic or poorly designed practice problems, they often lose motivation, will not receive the full benefits of the practice they have done, and will be less motivated to attempt future practice problems.
  • Students receive the greatest benefits from practice when teachers provide them with timely and descriptive feedback.
  • Students should have repeated opportunities to practice a task through practicing other tasks like it.
  • Distribute practice over extended periods of time.
  • Provide clear instructions on performance expectations and criteria.
  • Break complex problems into their constituent elements, and have students practice on these smaller elements before asking them to solve complex problems independently.
  • Guide students through sample practice problems by using prompts that help them reflect on problem-solving strategies.
  • Provide students with fully completed sample problems as well as partially completed sample problems before asking them to apply new problem-solving strategies on their own.
  • Provide plenty of opportunities for students to practice applying problem-solving skills before you test them on their ability to use those skills.

Considering these research suggestions, it certainly seems to me that targeted, independent worksheets can provide effective practice if they are “carefully designed” to apply the educational researchSo maybe what teachers do for their students (using worksheets) actually does make sense.

The author of this article has written English-language arts and reading programs for grades 4-8 teachers and their students which include assessment-based worksheets, designed according to the above research-based suggestions. For examples of worksheets providing deliberate practice according to research suggestions, check out Research-Based Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics Worksheets, as well as Check out the Research-Based Spelling Patterns Worksheets and the Research-Based Vocabulary Worksheets for examples. Visit the author’s website for product information.

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