Toward an Operational Definition of “Worksheet”

It was a Saturday morning, and I saw these:

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And shortly after that:

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That question was phrased in a scientific way, which I liked so it got me thinking, “what is the definition of ‘worksheet’ anyway?” I came up with a couple of quick thoughts:

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A few people seemed interested in that (it got retweeted by 32 others), so perhaps I was on to something. And, even if I wasn’t on to something, I found it to be a topic that deserved further consideration. Consider it considered.

Now, there must be some kind of generally accepted preexisting definition or worksheet, right? Google has it covered with:

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Definition 1 is the one of interest. I do not know how Google comes up with their definitions but this one is about as good as any I found elsewhere and is fine, although a bit simplistic, for our purposes.

I have been meaning to do some word research on a different topic using the Google Books Ngram Viewer and this seemed like a good time to learn a little more about it. Below you see a graph of the frequency of occurrence of  the word “worksheet” since it’s earliest appearance (about 1886) in the Google books data set. I tried to embed an interactive graph viewer but couldn’t get it to fit in the space properly.  If you click on the graph it will take you to the proper Ngram page. (If you want to try your own word analysis go to


Google generated plot of frequency of use of the term "worksheet" in books

Frequency of use of the term “worksheet” in books


It looks like “worksheet” in its various forms peaked at around 1995. Hey, we’re on a downward trend! Not so fast. Maybe people just don’t like using the term so much anymore in its computer science context, or perhaps “scratch paper” has supplanted its use according to definition 2 above. I did another analysis for “math worksheet” and “science worksheet” and the result is much more interesting.


Google generated plot of frequency of use of the term "math worksheet" or "science worksheet" in books

Frequency of use of the term “math worksheet” or “science worksheet” in books


Whoa! Look at that rising trend in the appearance of “math worksheet” in books of all kinds. It is interesting to note that “science worksheet” was reported to have only  a single occurrence in the data set.

Sure, the term “worksheet” conjures up pretty much the same image in just about everyone’s mind when they hear it. A worksheet is a collection of some combination of silly, cute, mindless, boring problems to solve in a mechanical (rote) way. Worksheets are the classic example of a “kill and drill” approach to practice and learning. A lot of them are like that, and they do come out pretty low on the critical thinking scale. If you are fan of Bloom’s taxonomy they tend to be at the first (knowledge/remember)  or second (understand/comprehension) level. It is this reputation as an almost cruel way of getting learning to happen, that has led to a real backlash against worksheets in recent years. And, they are cruel if someone is made to do them even if they have mastered the material that they contain. That is just torture. Or more kindly put, “busy work.”

I am pretty sure that Frank Noschese (@fnoschese) is not a big fan of the old kill and drill style worksheets but also doesn’t think that all worksheets have to be that way. I’d bet that Sean Junkin’s (@sjunkins) would be wiling to agree that not all worksheets are created equal. And, Alex Shevrin (@shevtech) is essentially correct in that worksheets have their place. If I am wring, I’ll hope they’ll engage in some discussion.

The problem is, that the single one-size-fits-all definition of worksheet is in need of an update. Here’s what I am going to start using.

Rep Sheet—A set of problems that are strictly skill based, designed to reinforce and remember how to reliably perform important algorithms or techniques of problem solving and for memorization of facts. Examples would be sets based on math facts (multiplication, addition, subtraction, division) and the algorithms used to find sums, differences, products and quotients. A science example would be a set of problems on calculating densities, volumes and masses.

Practice Sheet—A set of tasks designed to be more active that the simple performance of rote skills. Some data would need to be organized or some measurements taken, then questions about the data or measurements wold be answered. An example would be a sheet asking for the average temperature of the room, taken from 9 different measurements around the room with a digital thermometer.

Think Sheet—Presentation of one or a few open-ended problems to which the method of finding a solution is not immediately obvious, or there is more than one way to go about it. A Think Sheet could also simply pose a problem or ask a question that requires more that recollection of facts or methods to be able to solve or answer. “How would you find the average temperature of the air in this room?” and extensions based on this initial question.

Kind of weak on dividing fractions? Here’s a Fraction Division Rep Sheet. Forgot how to use a protractor? Try this Measuring Angles Practice Sheet. So you are done with the unit on photosynthesis? Here’s a Think Sheet providing some data on the typical photosynthetic rates on a sunny day of nine plants in three different plant families. Where would you expect a sunflowers to fit into this data set and why?

So for an operation definition of worksheet, I say get rid of the word entirely and replace it with better more specific and meaningful definitions. Because, when it comes to “worksheets” one size definitely does not fit all.