I’ve attempted whiteboarding a couple of times, years ago, but the students and were never really happy with it. (Don’t know what whiteboarding is? Check out this page by Dan MacIsaac, and this page from whiteboardingUSA, both links from this whiteboarding plug by Frank Noschese.) I tried again this week, and I think I’m getting some good from it.

Two classes of frosh physics tried out whiteboarding momentum problems. I probably should have been goading them on to the next topic, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Both classes were tentative about it. Not surprising, this is a new mode for them (and me). In both classes, I described the process, and said I was going to stay out of the discussions as much as possible, and get the class to work it out themselves. Each class did two rounds: Once where everybody worked the same set of problems, and each group was assigned one problem to write out. So first time through, everybody was familiar with each problem.

One class: all went smoothly and fast, and was in fact a bit dull. Maybe I didn’t give hard enough questions. So the second round, when each group got an individual problem, I had them play the Mistake Game: each group puts in a subtle error, and see who can find it. More attention: to catch the mistakes, you had to understand a problem you’d never seen. The variety of mistakes was gratifying: unit conversions, math errors, missing negatives. All were caught fairly quickly.

Other class: In the first round, a couple of the students I called on randomly were not prepared to explain their group’s work. Some snickering. Before the second round, the next day, I started off with a story about the school’s cross-country ski team: that I go their meets (my kids are on the team), that everybody knows who’s fast and who’s slow, and everybody cheers for everybody else, wanting them to do their best… I went on a bit, and the kids may have gotten the point.

I had decided not to go to the Mistake Game so soon with this group, and things were kind of ho-hum for the first two or three presentations. Then I told the class to look at one of them again, and somebody realized it was a problem. He sketchily described how to fix it. Then I called on somebody else to restate the problem and the solution. She stated the problem, but had not caught the solution. I said I wanted lots of people to be able to explain, not just one, and called on somebody else, then went back to the others to have them restate it. And then somebody volunteered to rephrase it again for the class in a different way. And I think that’s when people started to see how whiteboarding can work.

As the discussion continued, a student form the group with the last problem whispered to me: “Can we ask the class to help us with this problem? We don’t know how to solve it.” And I said yes, and was delighted. So they took theirs up, and there was no snickering when he said they couldn’t solve it. Probably helpful that nobody could figure it out right away (the problem had them find the mass of one object, whereas the previous examples sought the velocity). And three or four people got involved in working it out (I was one, mea culpa, but they’d been worrying at it for so long…).

And I should probably edit this or come up with a deep moral, but then I would never get around to posting it. So there it is: my adventure into whiteboarding.

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