My students are starting to appreciate classes where small groups share their problem-solving with the class.  Each small group gets a different problem, based on which homework question they had trouble with.  They like getting a problem geared exactly to them, and working with others who want to talk about the same questions.  They also like that, even if they spent all class working on question 3, they get to see what the question-5 group came up with.  But I hate how long it takes to copy notes to the front board.  So I decided to try using small whiteboards during class, inspired by this post from Action-Reaction.  Each small group got a problem to solve, a 2′ x 3′ board and a pack of markers.  (Now that I’m using screencasts, I have time in class for this stuff.)  At the end of class, each group picked up their board and explained their process.  No time wasted while they decipher their tiny notes.

Some benefits that I hadn’t anticipated:

  • They wrote bigger.  It helped the small group work together because they didn’t have to read out of each others’ notebooks.  It also helped me take stock more quickly — I could see who was making progress even from across the room.
  • They drew.  Some students resent redrawing schematics.  I don’t know why.  But there’s something pleasing about the tactile experience of whiteboards, I think. (Or maybe the commenter who wrote that they “don’t get enough coloring time” was right).

Big deal, you might be thinking.  You can do that with flip chart paper.  And it’s true.  There’s a small advantage to whiteboards:

  • They experimented more.  Lots of ideas got written down, and I think it’s because it’s so easy to erase.  (I wish they felt confident enough to leave their mistakes, crossed out, as a reference for later.  But they don’t.)

I don’t bring the boards to class every day (they’re heavy).  But I’ve done it a couple of times in the last 2 weeks and the whiteboards have been helpful, unobtrusive, and have not cost me any time.  I like that.  They don’t have to be booted up, or warmed up, or assembled.  I’ve never had to troubleshoot my whiteboards.  I did have to explain marker policy though.  A commenter on the A-R post above explains that people who leave the caps off are marker murderers.  I demonstrated by pulling the cap off of a marker and screaming like a deranged muppet.  No markers were harmed in the making of this pedagogical experiment.

Last Thursday during shop, some students asked if they could borrow one.  One student had brought a notebook-sized whiteboard of his own.  Next thing I knew, huddles of students obscured the whiteboards.  They were planning their next experiments.  Oddly, there are two big whiteboards at the front of the shop.  They could have used those, but I think those seem like they belong to the teacher (note to self: do something about this.)  The little ones can be adopted, claimed. (Also stood on the bench-top right next to your circuit for reference,without worrying that someone else will write over it).

When I asked them why they liked them, the advantages that they saw were totally different from mine.  Top-rated: they like how easy it is to reorganize long calculations.  “It’s way better than working on paper.  On paper you end up with calculations all over the place and you can’t see where things are.  It’s easier to keep it organized, and if you need to move things, it’s easy to erase.”  Go figure.
That night, as I was cleaning up, one of the whiteboards was AWOL.  I found it tucked neatly under a bench, covered in calculations and measurements for an experiment in progress.  I left it there.  But I took a picture first.Whiteboard on the lam

PS: it is apparently impossible to get plain shower-board in Canada.  Please don’t send me those tantalizing links to the American Home Depot site; they won’t sell it across the border.  Not one of the 10 hardware stores and contractors’ supply places around here has plain shower-board — only the printed stuff, with faux-tile squares and flowers.  Whiteboardsusa.com doesn’t ship to Canada.  Whiteboard paint has received mixed reviews and is expensive.  I eventually broke down and bought whiteboards from Staples.  ($30 each… ).  Problem is, the aluminum frames are heavier than the whiteboards themselves and cause the surface to buckle.  I should have liberated them from the frames.  Then I stumbled on the mother-lode:  old 4′ x 8′ boards taken from classroom walls, waiting, forlorn, in the maintenance room.  They’re mine, all mine… is this what they mean by “gateway drug“?