Social Sundays: Trading worksheets for project learning

I listen to many teachers who say they want to use less worksheets in their classroom but struggle to eliminate them. It's not surprising that worksheets are common:
  • Worksheets are readily available on the Internet and from textbook publishers
  • Worksheets are easy to grade - most worksheets need one to two word responses.
  • Worksheets require little to no prep - teachers hand the worksheet out, students fill them in, teacher grades them. Easy!

But most teachers know that: 

  • worksheets are boring
  • worksheets don't tend to address deep learning, and 
  • worksheets are little more than open book assessments. There is very little learning and engagement with worksheets.

Alternatively hands-on activities and project based learning actively engage students. Projects provide opportunities for student ownership of their learning. And projects and activities are fun (and let's be honest, when you aren't having any fun, you aren't apt to learn much.)  But hands-on activities take a large amount of time to prep, do and assess. A rubric takes more time to fill out then a scantron test takes to load.  Project-based learning require materials and procedures. Writing responses are longer and take more time to evaluate. Unit projects are open-ended which means a wide variety of skills and content are being shared and assessed at the same time. And students who are used to worksheets can struggle a bit.  I mean worksheets are easy for everyone.  Now, you are asking students to THINK!

I completely bought into the idea hands-on activities and projects from my first day teaching, which means that my first three years teaching were exhausting as I built out curriculum. I don't recommend this method. It was hard, and I felt like I was inventing the wheel.  I didn't work in a collaborative environment, and many days I felt like I was on my own to engage students.  It was worth it, but there are much easier ways to transition to a worksheet absent classroom. 

Making the move from worksheet and textbook teaching doesn't have to exhaust you.  To make it feasible for you and your students:

  • Start with one unit - maybe you try hands on activities and a project just for your American colonies unit and then use worksheets and textbooks for the American Revolution. Later, you can try projects and activities for a different unit.
  • Use your talents - what are you good at designing? Maybe, you love creating gallery walks. Make what you are good at and find the rest. Teachers today are extremely lucky to have a wealth of talent to tap into on the Internet. Find free and paid resources for activities on the web. Grab a ready made activity with all the student handouts or just scour for ideas and build your own.
  • Know your capacity - this piggy backs on using your talents. Good hands-on activities and projects are time consuming to design and prep. You want the activities to achieve the goal of engaging your students in active learning. If you don't have the capacity to prep projects or activities for every day, then mix them in. You don't have to change your entire classroom in one year.
  • Get students involved. The best thing I can do for my students' education is to get out of their way.  By that I mean I am there to support, inspire, guide and share but they want to learn.  Remember how excited you get discovering a new area or subject?  Let your students get excited.  Scaffold in broad parameters, and then let them go.  I love to put students in charge of a unit.  We spend the first couple of days getting oriented to major events, players, and themes and then students take over by investigating and sharing particular areas. Students select topics and types of projects from a wide range of ideas.  We share them and learn from each other instead of relying on me.  (You can read here about what one class did for our World War II unit).  Students are the most powerful resource you have.
For those of you thinking about putting away those worksheets, I hope this helps you get started.  And should you need some more resources or ideas, checkout other project-based learning ideas on the blog:

Social Sundays is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.  



  1. I like that you point out that you don't have to change your whole classroom in one year. I definitely struggle with thinking of changes to make and then wanting to get them all done at once versus pacing myself so I don't burn out and so that my students are keeping up with the changes, and hopefully thriving in the new set up. ~Stephanie's History Store

    1. Thanks for sharing. So important not to burn ourselves out! If we have nothing left, we will have nothing to give.



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