AAPT Summer Meeting, Guelph Ontario June 30 - Aug 4 2000

BA04: Whiteboarding To Foster Small-Group Collaborative Learning in
Physics Lectures

Dan MacIsaac, SUNY-Buffalo State College Physics , macisadl@buffalostate.edu and
Kathleen Falconer, SUNY-Buffalo State College Elementary Education and Reading

Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them.

Lev S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language, 218.

This grant has been supported by the NSF Collaborative for Excellence in Teacher Preparation (CETP) program via the Arizona Collaborative for Excellence in Teacher Preparation (ACEPT), and by the US Dept of Education Partnership Grants Program via the Arizona Teacher Excellence Coalition (AZTEC).

What are whiteboards?

  • 32" x 24" pieces of white tile board
  • written on with dry erase markers
  • 6 boards from a standard 4' x 8' sheet @ $1
  • PLAYSCAPES, INC (800) 248-7529 @ $8
  • described in 1995 AJP Modeling Physics article by Wells, Hestenes and Swackhamer
  • foster student collaborative learning in groups by ‘anchoring student dialogue in a concrete artifact’ (Hestenes, private communication)
  • individual groups prepare WBs; round-robin class presentation/critique
  • intended for HS physics classrooms (N < 30); extended to many other settings
  • see http://modeling.la.asu.edu/

I have extended whiteboarding to large (50 < N < 175)
lecture classes by largely eliminating presentation and negotiation of whiteboard work as a whole class activity.


My reasons for using whiteboards:

  • provide a concrete venue to ground student discussion
  • foster student dialog by providing venue, expectations, opportunity as regular classroom practice
  • foster alternative representations of problems by providing opportunities for students to use sketches, graphs, system maps, motion diagrams, pie charts, equations, free body diagrams, ray diagrams etc.
  • provide an opportunity for students to practice solving standard (and unusual) problems via explicit instructor-provided step-by-step problem solving strategies; to present, explore, critique and check one another's work during this process

More reasons (RTOP) for using whiteboards:

  • promote strongly coherent conceptual understanding of the physics at the expense of traditional lecture activities such as reading the text to students, deriving equations and performing (uninteractive) demos
  • greatly increase student dialog at the expense of instructor lecture; use class time to discuss ideas rather than present them and to think physics rather than watch it done
  • engage students in a collaborative learning community
  • exploit collaborative learning opportunities for students to teach one another, practice using the language of the science to one another, develop personal meaning of the physics
  • recognize and elicit student prior knowledge and preconceptions, having students articulate and then explicitly challenging their existing conceptual knowledge structures (and fostering recognition that these structures are being challenged)
  • placing exploration before formal presentation
  • engage students in divergent, student-directed discourse with one another and with instructors
  • encourage student conjecture, alternate solution strategies and evidence interpretation


I give two kinds of whiteboard assignments:

  • conceptual problems with limited numeric problem solving such as Aron's Homework Problems, Arons (1997), Laws et al (1997), Knight (1996)
  • more traditional numeric problems I have chosen as exemplars for modeling specific step-by-step problem-solving strategies

Whiteboard Grading:

  • 10 pt coarse scale; same grade to all group members present; 80% awarded for attempting and responding to all parts of an active learning activity (ALAs: whiteboards and seat experiments)
  • ‘Strong’ grading to an exact key not recommended (dialogue disintegrates)
  • All ALAs collectively worth 5% of final grade;
    about 1 / class. Attendance typically > 95%
  • Test individual comprehension of ALAs via essay questions on exams (strongly graded); 15% of final grade for these.

Student Whiteboard Feedback

Students claim whiteboards promote collaboration allowing the whole group to find mistakes in one another's reasoning, to teach (and learn from) one another, and to jointly practice problem solving strategies.

It also makes it easier for students to work together, not just one student working on one sheet of paper. They are valuable to my learning. The figuring out parallel resistors experiment was the most productive because the entire team was involved in finding out answers.

The white board force students to participate in active and in depth thinking. Also by working in groups, you can share knowledge with one another. O[u]r last white board showed us the magnetic field work with equations and reiterated the right hand rules.

White boards are just as helpful as experiments. Even though they are not hands on I like being able to talk about the concepts with classmates and have some extra practice at solving problems. Drawing things out is very helpful to me in remembering how things such as electric and magnetic fields work.

…it's nice to be able to work with people and talk about the things we are learning. It helps to see that other people are confused too, and we can help each other out.


Other student feedback themes include:

  • seat activities provide a mean to keep motivation, concentration and interest through long lectures
  • activities make you prepare more/read ahead better for class
  • group dynamics (guidance, makeup, changing, size) are critical to success
  • grading and evaluation are concerns as are time constraints
  • debriefing is critical, seat activities can be frustrating

A Dissenting Student Comments on ALAs
(Seat Experiments and Whiteboards):

Seat experiments are the stupidest thing I've ever had to deal with. I feel like the instructor is basically too lazy to lecture and actually teach us the stuff, so he has us "teach ourselves." The seat experiments are vague in instructions and when we ask for help my group is always just given more and more questions by whoever is helping us.

...I would dispose of the seat experiments if I could get rid of anything in the class. I cannot stress exactly how stupid and inane I find these things to be. They waste my time, confuse me more and make me want to run screaming from the room every time we do one.


Arons, A.B. (1997). Teaching introductory physics. Wiley: NY.

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66, 64-74.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. & Smith, K.A. (1991). Active learning: Cooperation in the college classroom. Interaction Book Co: Edina, MN.

Knight, R. (1997). Physics: A contemporary perspective. Addison-Wesley:NY

Sokoloff, D.R., Laws, P. & Thornton, R.K. (1998). Real-Time Physics. Wiley: NY.

Laws, P. (1995). Workshop physics activity guide. Wiley: NY.

Slavin, R.E. (1995). Cooperative Learning, 2Ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Thornton, R. K. (1989). Tools for scientific thinking: Learning physical concepts with real-time laboratory measurement tools. Proceedings of the conference on computers in physics instruction,, 177-189. Addison-Wesley: Reading, MA.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1997). (Revised and edited, A. Kozulin). Thought and language. MIT: Cambridge.

Wells, M., Hestenes, D. & Swackhamer, G. (1995). A modeling method for high school physics instruction. American Journal of Physics, 64, 114-119.