I <3 Worksheets: Or, How to Help Students Develop Research Questions More Effectively

It seems to be widely accepted among college professors that the use of worksheets in teaching is lazy teaching. What I’ve learned, however—especially in the last year—is that students love worksheets.

Well, maybe “love” is too strong a word, but I do know from powerful recent experience that worksheets are effective when designed well. I expect this is partly because students are very familiar with worksheets by the time they get to college. Hand them one, therefore, and they will generally do it, willingly. This is true whether I hand them out in class, or post them online to print and fill out.

The reason this is so important for me is that it made for a huge improvement in the first few weeks of my sophomore composition classes last semester. The class is built around a single research project that each student develops and works on throughout the course. Due to a change in curriculum a few years ago, we no long have the first few weeks of class to work on developing the research question. So in the past, I’ve given them instructions and asked them to work on it themselves for homework. The instructions consist of demos of Google Scholar, and how to do what I call “level one research” to help develop a reasonable research question, with examples.

Photo by Chris Yarzab.

Photo by Chris Yarzab.

This is all well and good: the problem is, students don’t do it. They show back up in class, and few of them have done more than think about it in basic terms. Because the assignment wasn’t concrete enough (even though I specifically said, “come to class with a research question”), it became easy to ignore. I realized a year or so ago that a worksheet, with individual steps and spaces for them to fill out the results, would probably work better.

I was admittedly reluctant to actually put one together, because it felt childish—and they ought to just do the homework. But I finally decided that my reluctance was itself childish, because what matters is what works (and even my colleagues can’t make it through a faculty meeting without playing on their cell phones, so we’re in no position to judge). So, last winter break (“break”—lol), I made time to put something together.

And—WOW! Nearly everyone filled out the sheet in full, and I have never seen a group of students better prepared to discuss and refine research questions in class. It was a tremendous relief—probably for them as much as for me—and it simply worked. With slight revisions, the worksheet is linked below. I would be delighted to hear ideas about improvements—and meanwhile, I’m thinking about other ways I can use worksheets in class. I don’t see using tons of them, but a few more would probably be beneficial for all of us.

Happy teaching!

Level 1 Research Worksheet

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