Everybody gets a whiteboard!

One of the key findings about How People Learn is that teachers need to draw out and work with students’ existing knowledge and skills. Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, emphasizes students need to encounter a safe environment to try, fail, get feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation. The challenge for instructors is to find ways to draw out knowledge from EVERY student and create opportunities for EVERY student to practice.

Small, portable whiteboards (aka dry erase boards if you’re searching your institution’s suppliers’ catalogs) can achieve both of these.

Let me save the kinds of whiteboard-related tasks you can give to students for a future post. Here, I want to describe the class sets of whiteboards we put together. Each set contains 12 whiteboards which, when used for collaborative activities in groups of 3-4 students, can handle classes of 40-50 students. The key components are

  1. light-weight whiteboards that are small enough to carry and manipulate in class but large enough to let multiple students collaborate
  2. getting dry erase markers into EVERY student’s hand
  3. a convenient way for the instructor to get the kit to class and then carry it away afterwards

1. Portable whiteboards

Size and weight are the biggest concerns. Oh, and cost. You can cut way down on weight by foregoing magnetic whiteboards. We found these 18″ x 24″ light-weight whiteboards by Universal available through CDW. They’re only $15.99 retail (and even cheaper through our institutions purchasing system). These boards are so light, it’s very easy for students to pass them around, rest them on their knees, and hold them up for others to see. The only drawback to these particular boards is an inch-wide pen “tray” along the bottom of the board — the boards are made to be mounted on the wall — but it makes a good handle for students to grab.

2. Dry erase markers.

To create opportunities for EVERY student, it’s important to have enough dry erase markers that EVERY student gets one. Otherwise, he who holds the marker, holds the final say. I also like to give each student a different colored pen so they (and I) can easily see their contributions. We went with EXPO fine tip dry erase markers that come in boxes of 12 for $23.92 at Grainger. Four boxes – black, blue, red, green – gave us four markers for each board. We also included an eraser in each kit ($3.99 each by Universal from CDW) and a container of EXPO cleaning wipes ($14.99 at Grainger) we use to give the boards a once-over every now and then.

You can’t waste a lot of time handing out pens and erasers, collecting them again at the end of class so we put each set of 4 markers and an eraser into a pencil case, one per board. This works beautifully – quick to distribute, quick to collect, quick to reset for the next class. We found these canvas + mesh (mesh was great because you see what was in the kit without having to open the zipper) at our university bookstore for $2.29 each.

Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)
Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)

3. Carrying case

University instructors very rarely have a classroom where they can leave things. Instead, you arrive at the classroom 5-10 minutes before your class starts, bringing everything you need – computer, video adapter thingy, notes, water bottle, hand-outs, WHITEBOARDS – and then carry it all away after class. So, portability of these whiteboards is a critical.

We totally lucked out searching our universities suppliers’ website for “carrying case” when we stumbled onto this carrying case made for a retractable TeleSteps ladder ($74.90 from Grainger.) The bag easily holds twelve 18″ x 24″ whiteboards, with enough room to toss in the pencil cases. I’m not saying the strap doesn’t dig into your shoulder after walking halfway across campus but the case keeps everything in one place and you can dump on the ground when you get to class and deal it once you’ve got everything else ready. Heck, ask one of those enthusiastic students in the front row to distribute the boards and pencil cases for you.

Total cost per set of 12 whiteboards

Item Ea. Total
12 18″ x 24″ whiteboards $15.99 $191.88
dry erase markers (black, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (blue, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (red, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (green, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
12 dry whiteboard erasers $3.99 $47.88
12 pencil cases $2.29 $27.48
1 container cleaning wipes $14.99 $14.99
1 TeleSteps carrying case $74.90 $74.90
Total $452.81

There’s taxes and delivery. And prices will vary if you buy these directly from the supplier or through your university’s purchasing website. You’ll have to keep buying more markers and cleaning wipes but everything else is a one-time purchase.

Overall, that’s a lot of learning for $500 🙂

If you want them to think like experts…

I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why peer instruction works and helping instructors improve their technique. The other day, I had an experience that crystallized for me the difference between peer instruction and students merely clicking their clickers.

The instructor I was observing, who gave me permission to tell this story, was teaching a political science class about gender and politics. During the class, she asked a clicker question something like this:

Where does the US rank in the world when it comes to
the percentage of women in elected positions?
A) 12th
B) 34th
C) 78th
D) 112th

Here’s what was supposed to happen…

The students would vote. Then they’d “turn to your neighbors and convince them you’re right.” The students would help each other remember the correct answer, 78th, and then spontaneously launch into a discussion about how that’s surprising because of ABC and interesting because it’s DEF but not GHI and so on, bringing in all the interesting, conceptually challenging ideas that political scientists explore and debate.

That’s not what happened, though. Sure, they voted. The even split across all four answers showed they didn’t know the answer and were guessing. And when she asked them to turn to their neighbors, the room didn’t crescendo with conversation. There was some brief murmuring

“What’d you pick?”
“Huh. I picked 34th.”

And that was it. There was no interest, no conversation, no debate.

The problem, I think, was not with the students but with the question. It didn’t require students to confront their understanding, take a stance and be prepared to defend it. It simply required them to remember some fact from some book somewhere. In other words, just the kind of low-level knowledge we often scoff at when we say, “Oh, this course isn’t about fact and memorization. No, this course is about gathering evidence to form and then defend arguments.” Not to pick on the Humanities, I often hear from STEM instructors, “…No, this course is about problem-solving and applying the theory to real world applications.”

Here’s a better clicker question:

The US ranks 78th in the world when it comes to the percentage of women
in elected positions. In your opinion, why is this surprising?

A) Because it shows ABC
B) Because it’s an example of DEF
C) Because it contradicts GHI
D) Something else

The fact that requires memorization? Just give it to them. Most importantly, seed the conversation with the concepts you want them to grapple with. They’re not expert enough, not yet, to spontaneously come up with ABC, DEF and GHI, so spark the conversation, especially if one of the choices is a common misconception that needs confronting.

With a question like this, and effective peer instruction “choreography”, the students first do a solo vote where they have to decide, each in their own heads, what they believe about the concept. This solo vote is critical because it prepares them to contribute to the discussion with their peers that follows. For 30 seconds or a minute, the room will be filled with political scientists. Or at least, students practicing to become political scientists, getting immediate feedback from their peers and the instructor. That’s what peer instruction is about.

[Update Jul 5, 2013] One of my Summer projects is (finally) reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. In summarizing how the best college teachers conduct their classes, Bain describes the “natural critical learning environment”

More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: “natural” because students encounter the skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating — authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting; “critical” because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people. (p. 99)

Where I see the clearest connection with the questions used in peer instruction is one of the characteristics of a natural critical learning environment”

[T]he natural critical learning environment also encourages students in some higher-order intellectual activity: encouraging them to compare, apply, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize, but never only to listen and remember. Often that means asking students to make and defend judgments and them providing them with some basis for making the decision. (p. 102)

The original peer instruction question, “Where does the US rank in the world…” asks students only to remember. A good peer instruction question (and a well-choreographed episode of peer instruction) forces students climb higher into Blooms’s taxonomy.