AAPT Summer Meeting, Guelph
Ontario June 30 - Aug 4 2000
BA04: Whiteboarding To
Foster Small-Group Collaborative Learning in
Dan MacIsaac, SUNY-Buffalo State College
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,
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
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,
- individual groups prepare WBs; round-robin class
- 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
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
- 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)
- 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),
- more traditional numeric problems I have chosen
as exemplars for modeling specific step-by-step problem-solving strategies
- 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
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
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
- group dynamics (guidance, makeup, changing, size)
are critical to success
- grading and evaluation are concerns as are time
- debriefing is critical, seat activities can be
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
...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
Arons, A.B. (1997). Teaching introductory physics.
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,
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.
Sokoloff, D.R., Laws, P. & Thornton, R.K. (1998).
Real-Time Physics. Wiley: NY.
Laws, P. (1995). Workshop physics activity guide.
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.