I Think, Therefore I…Fill in the Blanks?

Students generally try to complete an assignment with as little effort as possible. Therefore, even if a workbook page is labeled “Thinking Skills,” it may not be developing a student’s ability to reason. Frequently, all it takes to score 80% or higher is the ability to copy a word or phrase—with or without actual understanding.

For example, I had a student read a paragraph from a book he had selected from the library. A detective took an elevator to the penthouse to meet someone for the first time. When the man opened his door, the detective noticed velvet curtains and marble top tables. I stopped the student and asked what the detective now knew about this man. He could have filled out a page of typical questions for literal recall without difficulty: Where does the man live? (a penthouse) What are the curtains made of? (velvet) Was this the first meeting? (yes) However, he was unable to answer me because there was no one word or phrase describing the man, only clues. I asked him what a penthouse was. He didn’t know. I asked if he had ever seen velvet curtains. He didn’t think so. Nor could he visualize marble top tables. Therefore, he had no idea that any of these things indicated wealth.

I worked with a single parent who had decided to homeschool her ninth grader. He was comfortable with the textbook/workbook approach and continued with books from the school, writing out answers to chapter questions while his mother was at work. However, I then had his mother take his written answers and instead of grading them, use them as a basis for discussion. Her son now had to answer these same questions orally and in his own words. As I suspected, he had honed the art of filling-in-the-blanks with a minimum of effort and understanding. His memory was good enough to parrot phrases, but he was unable to explain what they meant. His mother acknowledged that it was obvious he did not really understand what he had just read.

So, are workbooks to be avoided? Not at all. Rather, they must be used with their limitations in mind. Workbooks are not teachers and are rarely an indicator of a student’s ability to understand or to think beyond the literal level. Therefore, to be effective tools, limit workbooks to the following uses:

  1. As a follow-up to discussion. Practice of any objective can take a variety of forms. Workbooks are only one of many choices. Other follow-up activities include compositions, games, projects, and presentations.
  2. As a test to check for the most basic level of understanding–recall. There are times the teacher does not require a deeper level of comprehension of material. If a child is being exposed to a great deal of factual information, for instance, this type of practice (including multiple choice) helps reinforce basic recall of those facts.
  3. As a casual introduction to taking standardized tests. These types of tests supply questions and choices. That format is something with which students need to become familiar.

If you have invested in a curriculum that relies heavily on filling-in-the-blanks, adapt it:

  1. Use at least some of the questions for discussion, requiring the student to put answers in his own words rather than parroting what he has just read.
  2. Assign short compositions that require the student to answer why or compare and contrast using the content he has just read for his information.
  3. Plan activities that will at least occasionally replace some of the workbook pages by covering the same objectives.

The ultimate goal of any teacher should be to help students understand and apply concepts and develop the basic skills needed to eventually learn on their own. If a workbook approach is used without the balance suggested here, it is likely that the students will remain dependent learners. Therefore, what may seem like a convenience could be robbing your students of something most precious—a chance to become thinkers.