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Turning the Tables on Busywork

April 6, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

“Busywork”: every student’s nightmare. The word conjures flashbacks of endless fill-in-the-blank packets, “educational” videos with surface-level question sheets, and insultingly easy problem sets.

In reality, few teachers actively set out to assign busywork, except perhaps in special circumstances, such as days when last-minute substitutes are called in. Busywork isn’t the root of all education evil, either: when teachers put thought into curricular decisions, worksheets can be instructive. Early skills such as basic math facts or foreign-language vocabulary words, which must be internalized if students are to understand more advanced concepts, often require repetition. This is not to say that these skills must be learned through dull worksheets, but just because work is repetitive doesn’t make it busywork.

But students may still think it is. And no matter what sound pedagogical practices lie behind a curricular decision, student opinion shapes student buy-in … and student buy-in shapes how much is learned.

“As a motivated student, I don’t like having my hand held in a class, being told what to do or having my time wasted. Above all else, I hate feeling bored. Busywork is a combination of all of these pet peeves,” said college student Darby Roan. “For motivated learners, busywork is a major de-motivator.”

De-motivated students disengage, and once they disengage, potentially useful practice quickly morphs into mindless busywork … which then only decreases motivation. It’s a vicious cycle.

So what can teachers do?

Essentially, we need to show students that the work they’re doing isn’t busywork. To do so, many teachers use an analogy approach—for example, reminding student athletes how they run a certain number of laps each day, lift weights repeatedly, or practice the same dance steps over and over. They point out to music and theatre students that they play, sing, or rehearse the same piece or scene many times in succession to learn it by heart. This repetition is hardly busywork; it’s practice to ensure that they can feel confident and enjoy their performance—just as it is with repetitive studying and exams.

But there is such a thing as too much practice. Lengthy workouts, late-night rehearsals, and overbooked schedules can induce injuries, illnesses, and mental burnout … and one too many worksheets can do the same for student engagement. That’s the problem with the analogy approach. It’s a good start to change your students’ mind-set about practice and repetition, but it might not be enough.

Why? Unfortunately, kids have often been conditioned to expect busywork and are seeing it even when it’s not necessarily there. Especially as they get older, kids’ “busywork blinders” are on high alert. After years of completing mindless worksheets when the teacher is absent, kids automatically assume any assignment from a substitute teacher is busywork or that any question sheet accompanying a movie is pointless … even if it’s really not.

In this case, experience really is the best teacher. It’s tough, but try your best to make substitute plans that don’t rely on worksheets or that engage students in project-based learning. Make video sheets more than just fill-in-the-blank questions, such as response essays or even critical reviews. Try to remove anything that resembles busywork from the situations where students are most likely to expect it, and they’ll become less likely to cry wolf when any worksheet comes their way.

Of course, there are times when the wolf is real. True busywork certainly does exist. One of the best ways to spot busywork is that not only is it not grade-level appropriate (think cutting and coloring), but it forces students to practice skills in isolation. This could be one math skill in countless similar problems, with no extensions, or a grammar task for 20 identically constructed sentences. With no connections made to other classroom standards or real-life examples, how can we expect students to “hook” the information into their memory banks?

If you recognize the isolation situation in your own worksheets, that’s something you need to address. But when it comes to the busywork culture, it may be a matter of helping students understand the purpose behind the papers. That’s the simplest strategy of all for nipping busywork buzz in the bud: discuss with students, quite simply, how doing this work will help them. If they can’t come up with any reasons, guide them to see the bigger picture. They might tell you they have a better way of reaching that goal, and they might be right. If you listen to them, they’ll be more likely to listen to you … and more likely to relax their busywork blinders and trust that their teacher is giving them work that matters.

Have you ever been accused of assigning busywork? What was your response?