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Small Whiteboard Questions

“Small whiteboards” are whiteboards that are about 30 x 40 cm (12 x 16 in) and are used by all students individually. Small Whiteboard

Using small whiteboard questions has produced a dramatic difference in the amount of engagement by all students during class. This is an inexpensive, low-tech way to “disengage the glaze” of students during a lecture. It is a chance to get the instructor and all students interacting more meaningfully during lectures. Unlike asking questions to one or two individual students, all students are involved in answering each question and the instructor can easily see how all students are responding. Unlike clicker questions, whiteboard questions can be created quickly and can either be planned or used spontaneously. Whiteboards also allow for open-ended answers that don't fit a multiple choice format. The links below describe ways to use whiteboards in upper-division physics classes.

By using small whiteboard questions, instructors can address the following questions about their courses:

  • How do you know if your students are following your lecture? Is your lecture pitched at a level your students understand?
  • How can you get students to be more actively involved in your classes?
  • How can you encourage students to make connections between what they already know and what they're learning?

Using Small Whiteboards Effectively

There are two particularly powerful affordances of small whiteboards: you can ask all students to respond to a question you pose and you can rapidly assess what your students know about the question. For class sizes of 5-50 students, it is feasible for a teacher to ask a question and in a few minutes walk a round the classroom to see what all students have written on their whiteboards.

Prior Knowledge

Small whiteboards can be used effectively in a variety of ways. One way is to help students activate relevant prior knowledge and for them to communicate this knowledge in a nonthreatening way. As an example, consider the situation where the instructor of an E&M course says “Everyone write down the formula for the potential due to a point charge.” If everyone writes down the formula perfectly, the instructor needn't waste time belaboring the point. However, if the instructor notices that half the students are putting an $r^2$ in the denominator, the instructor can seize opportunity to point out the differences between electric field and the electric potential. Furthermore, if some students are writing $|\Vec{r} -\Vec{r'}|$ in the denominator, the instructor can lead a discussion about position vectors. Questions of this type can alert students to important details of a formula or representation. When students write things down, they are forced to grapple with whether or not something is a vector or a scalar, or whether a quantity is squared, or what the limits of integration are. Having students actively recall what they know will help motivate the lecture/discussion that follows.

Allowing a Question Mark

An important norm to establish with small whiteboards is allowing students to write a question mark if they don't have any idea what to write down. If a question elicits a sea of question marks, this can signal to the instructor that many students will benefit from a review (or that they don't understand the question!). This can also signal to the student that there is a learning opportunity coming up.


Whiteboards can prevent students from mindlessly copying a derivation off the board. Stopping in the middle of a derivation and asking all student to write the “next step” on their whiteboards can immediately focus a student's attention on the how to do the calculation. Also, many students view the student's role in a derivations is a spectator and fail to recognize that derivations in this course will be problems assigned in the next course. Students benefit from any signal that derivations should be studied and understood.

Piecing Ideas Together

Another use of whiteboards is encourage fluency with multiple representations and make connection among a lot of pieces of knowledge. For example, having students, “Write down something you know about the dot product” will likely have some students writing $|a||b|\cos{\theta}$ and some writing $a_{x}b_{x} + a_{y}b_{y} + a_{z}b_{z}$ and some drawing vector projections. Some may also write incorrect answers such as $a b \sin{\theta}$. The instructor can go around the room and collect a few chosen whiteboards, and then display them at the front of the classroom and then discuss the relationship between the different representations and when each might be most useful.

Type of Small Whiteboard Question

Below are some of the many ways whiteboards can be used effectively in the classroom

  • Wake up the class, break up lecture, “disengage the glaze”: see unglaze
  • Formative asessment (finding out what students already know): see formative
  • Engage Student Prior Knowledge: see prior
  • Draw attention to important aspects or details of something: see aspects
  • Get participation and interaction with students who don't otherwise participate: see engage
  • Get students involved in a derivation: see derive
  • Starting Point for Deeper Thinking: see deep
  • Have students see connections and multiple represenations: see connect
  • Traditional practice & formative assessment - these uses are currently common in K-12 classrooms and date back over a hundred years to when slates were used: see traditional
  • As part of a kinesthetic activity

FIXME Construction notes: (Comments for people constructing this page) See comments (under discussion page for this page) and “power of the marker” under others. Medium white boards, as used in the paradigms, are a “safe” place for students to brainstorm and try out ideas, because they can be easily erased. Ask Len to put in some video clips of Troy alternately writing and erasing.

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