November 13, 2020 5 min read

We draw landscapes with stick figures, equations with numerical figures, and timelines with historical figures. We’re not suggesting that whiteboarding is part of our DNA, but making marks on our walls is fundamentally human.

→ What are Whiteboards Good For?
→ Improved Learning with Low-Stakes Assessment
→ Keep Experimenting and Sharing Successes

We get it. You already know how to use a whiteboard. And you’re probably pretty good at it, too. You’ve been using large, wall-mounted whiteboards in your classrooms for as long as most of us can remember. Most people take them for granted. Now, smaller personal whiteboards are becoming more popular. Teachers have access to new teaching tools and practices.

Part of reorienting yourself will be experimenting with new methods for whiteboards in the classroom, especially with respect for COVID. Teachers have had to rethink most of what they thought they knew about teaching and learning tools. But to improve student learning with whiteboards, we need to drill a little deeper into some of their more fundamental functions.

What are Whiteboards Good For?

Sharing work. As a little kid, did you ever have the urge to draw pictures with crayons on the dining room wall? You’re not alone. It happens so often that paint companies even market some of their interior paints as kid-friendly. The point is that people of all ages have the impulse to make their marks for other people to see. We draw landscapes with stick figures, equations with numerical figures, and timelines with historical figures. We’re not suggesting that whiteboarding is part of our DNA, but making marks on our walls is fundamentally human.

A whiteboard is a place where groups of people can gather around someone’s work. One person can comment on the work while others listen and learn from that assessment. The most traditional version of this scenario involved students sharing their work at a large, wall-mounted whiteboard with a teacher or classmates discussing the student’s work. Breaking students into smaller groups for a feedback session is a common variation. And now, smaller portable whiteboards offer students and teachers endless versions of this practice.

Erasing and revision.
The logical extension of using whiteboards to share work and comment on it is to respond to that feedback by erasing and revising the work under discussion. Doing so while the work is still visible to other people allows everyone to evaluate, assist, and learn from that revision process.

Large permanently installed whiteboards have allowed students and teachers to share, collaborate, and revise class work for as long as most of us can remember. But whiteboarding technology has started to evolve again. We’ve been designing and producing dozens of new learning tools around the dry-erase functionality at the heart of whiteboarding. Now each student can have a whiteboard of their own. As has always been the case, teachers are the people driving the most creative applications of these new tools in their classrooms.

Kelly O’Shea, a high school physics teacher in New York City, taps into this human impulse by having her students participate in what she calls a “Whiteboard Face-Off.” It’s one of the most innovative whiteboard uses we’ve run across in a long time. Working in small groups, each at a large, portable whiteboard, the students visually work through a physics problem. They often create charts, grids, or sketches to work through the problem collaboratively. Each group works on the same physics problem for the same amount of time.

Once finished, the class then gathers into a large circle, displaying their whiteboards for all the other students. The whole class asks questions and comments on each group’s work. They compare their approaches and make suggestions or correct errors, too. In the end, students not only improve their solutions, but they learn a lot about alternative strategies other groups followed. They also learn to avoid mistakes they and their classmates made throughout the process.

Improved Learning with Low-Stakes Assessment

Another powerful benefit of using personal whiteboards in the classroom is that teachers can check-in on students learning progress in real-time low-stakes environments. Editor in Chief for Education World, Gary Hopkins advocates for outfitting each student in a classroom with a small whiteboard and markers. He offers several examples of how teachers might incorporate them into their spelling lessons.

In one instance, a teacher reads a sentence aloud to the class but leaves out a keyword. Students are asked to guess the missing word from a list of spelling words for the week. They then write that word down on their whiteboard. When the teacher requests it, all of them show their whiteboard. Students who choose the wrong word or make a spelling error can quickly change their answers. Or the teacher might return to that question later in the exercise until everyone in the class gets it right.

Eliciting immediate feedback is a powerful educational tool that allows teachers to track student progress in real-time. Teachers can make real-time adjustments to their lessons in response to student feedback and manage their classroom activities more efficiently. They might realize the sentence they’re using for the quiz doesn’t effectively prompt the intended word. As they return to that word, they can choose another more effective sentence.

Maybe more important is that students can get immediate feedback on their answers. When a student offers the correct answer, the positive reinforcement can have a compounding effect, improving their self-esteem and attitudes about learning.

On the other hand, when a student offers an incorrect response, they don’t have to feel like they failed at their only shot for the right answer. Imagine a student who finds spelling particularly challenging. It’s common for students to get anxious about writing down answers on a sheet of paper, wondering about their accuracy, and then having to wait until the teacher assigns a final grade. It can be incredibly stressful for students. Teachers can substantially lower student anxiety and frustration by offering immediate feedback and creating quick follow up opportunities for students to correct their work.

Keep Experimenting and Sharing Successes

As the pandemic drags on, students, parents, teachers, and administrators wonder how long we’ll continue learning remotely before fully returning students to classrooms. We know it will eventually happen. As we slowly transition back to face-to-face learning, teachers and administrators must continue experimenting with new teaching practices and technologies. But it’s also crucial that we maximize the efficiency and usability of our existing tools.

Teachers need to continue finding better ways of gathering students together for collaborative learning experiences. Students need to get out of their desks and engage their brains in more physical, interactive classroom activities. The list of challenges we’re facing in our classrooms is as long as it’s ever been. And whiteboards are still one of our most effective tools for meeting those challenges.

Anthony Franco
Anthony Franco

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