WHITEBOARDING TECHNIQUES (To promote a good classroom environment and possibly, inquiry)

I have about 10 – 20 large whiteboards in the classroom. These are made from “tile board” purchased at building supply stores. This material is “Masonite” coated with a smooth white surface on side. It is intended for inexpensive bathroom remodeling. Tile board comes in 4΄ x 8΄ sheets. I have them cut it down the middle of the long dimension, and then make two cuts across the short dimension, so that I have six boards from one sheet. Each board is approximately 24″x 32″. Students write on these with dry erase markers, and erase them with rags. Blue and black erase most easily. Other colors and writing left for a long time may discolor the boards. Whiteboard cleaners will help remove the leftover writing, but rubbing alcohol also works.


Labs are a big part of the physics classroom. In my classroom students generally share their lab results by presenting them on a whiteboard. If everybody has done the same lab, then I usually only pick one or a few groups with good or interestingly poor results to present. More often, each group has investigated a different dependent variable, and everybody presents. The students below are showing lab results from a pendulum lab.


They investigated period and starting angle (the angular displacement from the rest position). Notice how they have graphed it two ways. On the left is a “zoomed in” version, based on what their graphing calculator showed them when commanded to set the window to zoom in on the data. On the right is a view that makes more sense, the “zoomed out” view. The zoomed in view emphasizes the variation in the data. When discussing their results with me before the presentation, the students recognized that the variation in the data was very small, and agreed that the calculator view was not a fair representation of their data. I asked them to show both graphs, which led to an interesting whole-class discussion of how the representation of the data influences what people think about it.


This is a technique I first learned from Jeff Steinert and Jamie Vesenka at a Physics Modeling workshop at the University of New England in Maine. More about modeling workshops here.

Students are given a set of problems, often as a worksheet. They work through the problems in their groups, and then share their answers with the class using the whiteboards. This technique works best if all students have attempted all problems, so you may want to schedule the group presentations on a different day from the group work. The problems may be conceptual, mathematical, or data-based, but I prefer a mix, rather than all one type in a session. The biggest gains in understanding come when the problems are on closely-related topics, and when at least some of the problems highlight misconceptions. 

Rules that I use for presentations (which I generally do not grade):

All group members should

  • participate equally in the preparation of the presentation.
  • participate in the presentation by speaking.
  • be prepared to answer questions about the presentation.
  • be prepared to answer questions that extend the ideas in the presentation.

All audience members should

  • listen carefully throughout the presentation.
  • hold all questions until the end.
  • be prepared to answer questions about the presentation.
  • be prepared to ask questions about the presentation.

No Comments or Applause until the group is dismissed.

The best advice I think I ever got on moderating whiteboard presentations in the classroom was “Allow Only Questions.”  In other words, students cannot comment positively or negatively. Positive comments tend to shut off conversation from both the audience and the presenters. Negative comments tend to embarrass presenters and destroy their ability to engage in a constructive dialogue. If mistakes are made in the presentation, the students in the audience are challenged to find a polite question that causes the presenters to realize the mistake. “Could you explain your assumptions in part (b)?” “Does your answer seem about the right size?”


Individual (or pairs or groups) of students present their attempts at homework solutions. An attempt, at a minimum constitutes a picture or diagram, summary of given info, summary of definitions, and (hopefully) an attempt at a solution. They transfer them to the whiteboard and make a brief presentation of their work.  If they are really struggling, they may present only their narrative of what they think they would try OR what they don’t understand that’s keeping them from solving the problem. Grades (if assessed) are based on how well they explain their attempt, either successful or “failed”.


32918025633_ce390634a2_oThis technique works particularly well for quick conceptual questions which can be answered with a graph or diagram (the students at left are working on Free-Body Diagrams, for instance). Students sit in a circle facing inward. It’s best if you really make them scoot in, so they are all in the circle. Either pairs or individuals have a whiteboard. Small “slate-sized” whiteboards may work better than the large ones, particularly if the group is small, the questions are not very involved, and you want to go quickly. The students complete a single question on a whiteboard, keeping their response hidden from the others. When the instructor, who is outside the circle, says “Go”, they hold up their whiteboards and examine them for differences and similarities. The teacher and students lead a discussion. Students must be gently persuaded by questioning to change their whiteboards until all agree on the best answer and every white board reflects the discussion. Only at this time should the teacher give the signal to go onto the next question. The goals are to quickly reach agreement for good physics reasons and move through a lot of conceptual material quickly. Sometimes the teacher sits in the group and marks their own answer on the slate with a strategic mistake.


This is a good way to mix it up a little. Students or student groups complete their whiteboards and then arrange then around the room in a gallery display. After the boards are complete, everyone strolls around the room and carefully examines the work in the boards. If they agree with the physics on the boards, they put a smiley face on the board. If they think the board has problems, they put a frowny face on the board. After everyone has finished rating the boards, a class discussion about the work and the ratings happens.


This is a technique I learned about from Kelly O’Shea’s blog:


I think she invented it. (BTW, if you are a physics teacher and you have not spent some time reading her blog posts, I suggest you do that. Lots of great information, thoughtfully and creatively presented.) I have only used “speed-dating” a few times, but students thought it was fun. Students are given a problem or problems. They have a short time to work on the problem on the whiteboard, and then they have to change to a different whiteboard. In Kelly’s blog post, she had the whiteboards stay in place while some students rotate clockwise and others rotate counterclockwise. See Kelly’s pic below (Definitely read her blog post to get the full story):


I have also tried having pairs of kids move around to different whiteboards. The problems need to be fairly deep, or on a topic new to the students, otherwise some kids will solve them so quickly that there is nothing left to do when the next students get there. It’s definitely worth trying if whiteboarding is getting stale.


Another Kelly O’Shea innovation (at least she is the person I think I heard about it from). Kelly does this a lot. In fact, in this blog post, she recommends doing it nearly all the time, in order to build a classroom climate that I call “constructive failure.” I do this when whiteboarding problems is getting a little stale. I instruct students to put an intentional mistake on their whiteboards. The teacher should walk around and ask students what mistakes they are putting on the board. Most groups will probably put something pretty trivial on the board, like a mistake in units, or significant figures. The teacher will want some of the groups to highlight misconceptions, such as “the force of motion” that persists for a long time in spite of determined instruction.


Students are given a diagram or a written situation, but they aren’t given a specific problem to solve. Instead they try to model everything they can about the situation, using whatever physics they have learned in that unit, or multiple units, if you wish. For instance, you could give your students this diagram,


(copyright Pearson, from the Knight textbook Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A Strategic Approach)

with a brief description, i.e., “a suitcase is being towed 100 m on a level surface by a force T, at a 45 degree angle.” I can see several ways I might use this picture as the source of a goalless problem.

Near the end of the study of forces, it would be a useful review problem. The command might be, “Tell me everything you can about this situation, using the physics that you have learned. I expect to see diagrams, graphs, equations, and words that describe the physics of the situation.” The students could address this goalless problem again after studying energy, and use techniques that they have learned in the energy unit to model the situation in a new way.

I usually give all groups the entire sheet of problems, but each group only presents one of the problems on the sheet. I walk around and help or ask questions.  It can take a while to work through the situations and then a fair amount of time to present the whiteboards, so we don’t always finish all of the problems.

A subset of goalless problems is the “Model a Story” whiteboard. I’ve only done this when we were studying motion, but it worked very well then. Students were instructed to invent a story, and then illustrate the story using the representations from the constant velocity and constant acceleration units. The results are often funny, as the students outdo themselves trying to be creative. The whiteboard on the left had something to do with squirrels and acorns. The one on the right has to do with speeding cars.


I learned about this from reading Dwain Desbien’s doctoral thesis on Modeling Discourse Management: http://modeling.asu.edu/modeling/ModelingDiscourseMgmt02.pdf

The idea here is that students often respond better to a question or comment from a student than from the teacher. Teachers walk around to different groups or students and suggest questions for them to ask of the presenters.

If you have suggestions for things I ought to try, please post in comments below.

Frank Noschese wrote this post some years ago, which got a lot of attention and is an excellent overview of the reasons why physics teachers love whiteboards so much.




About marcreif

I live and teach high school physics in the town I was born in, Fayetteville, Arkansas. My professional interests include modeling instruction and Advanced Placement courses. I also work as a College Board Workshop Consultant, which means I lead Pre-AP and AP Science Teacher workshops. Lately I've also been leading a fair amount of student review sessions for the National Math and Science Initiative. I have a website for students (fysicsfool.info) and another for AP Summer Institute participants (apsifool.info). I tweet infrequently (@marcreif).
This entry was posted in Labs, Modeling., Teaching Ideas, Uncategorized, Whiteboarding. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to WHITEBOARDING TECHNIQUES (To promote a good classroom environment and possibly, inquiry)

  1. Great post! I like the idea of “Allow Only Questions” and think I will implement that next year. I do have a class rule that I took from Earl Legleiter, which is “Be Nice” — so I refer back to that printed rule in my room when students get snarky with each other.

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