How I use mini whiteboards

Ubiquitous tool?

When I started my PGCE in 2006, mini whiteboards seemed to be everywhere (although I got the feeling it was only recently that they had become so ubiquitous), and I was encouraged to use them regularly.

But I never really warmed to them, if I’m honest. I found them a bit of a faff, and I tended to assess learning in other ways.

Having said that, I do use mini whiteboards, and I do still use them regularly (if not frequently).

Why I use them

Despite the “faff factor”, I do think mini whiteboards have a number of positive points:

  • They help ensure that all students are thinking about and answering questions. You can immediately see who is joining in and who isn’t.
  • You can use them to monitor who is ahead of the game, and find out which students are struggling.
  • They allow you to draw out thoughts from quieter, less vocal students.
  • You can check that everyone in the class is listening, following, understanding and applying ideas and concepts as they develop within a discussion.

And, possibly most importantly for me:

  • They allow you to give students immediate (verbal) feedback based on their responses to a question.

What else could I add to this list? Have I missed anything important?

How I use them

The other day, I read this excellent blog post from Tom Sherrignton about practising good teaching habits. One of the strategies mentioned was quizzing pupils using mini whiteboards. It suggests asking students to write answers down and then wait for a signal before showing them to you (simultaneously):

All-student response: using mini-whiteboards really well. 

As I outline in this post – the No1 bit of classroom kit is a set of mini-whiteboards. The trick is to use them really well.  You need to drill the class to use them seriously, to do the ‘show me’ action simultaneously in a crisp, prompt manner and, crucially, you need to get students to hold up the boards long enough for you to engage with their responses. Who is stuck? Who has got it right? Are there any interesting variations/ideas? Use the opportunity to ask ‘why did you say that? how did you know that?’ – and so on. It takes practice to make this technique work but it’s so good when done well. Taken from  Ten teaching techniques to practise – deliberately.

I agree with all of this. Mini whiteboards are very useful, and I have seen them used effectively with a crisp “show-me” routine. I also agree that MWBs are most effective if you question students further once they have answered a question.

However, it occurred to me that I seldom use them in this way, so I thought I’d summarise a few ways I do use them.

1) Conceptual development

I think this is the most common way I use them: to try and help students follow a concept as I unfold it, develop it and unpick it with them.

For example, I taught a lesson this week on the reactivity of group 1 metals and the halogens . To understand the patterns in reactivity, students have to draw on a number of ideas that they have met previously. So our MWB section went something like this.

  • Draw the electronic structure of Li and K (K has more electron shells- it is “bigger”).
  • When Li and K react with halogens, do they lose or gain electrons? (lose)
  • Which of the atoms that you have drawn will lose electrons most easily? Which will require the least energy? 

At this point, I paused for a while and let the students discuss it a bit. I let them hold up their whiteboards when they were ready, and had little conversations here and there with individuals as they held up their MWBs.

Next, I chose two answers, and asked the people that had written them to explain they reasoning. Only one of the answers was actually correct, but the reasoning behind the wrong answer was good, so we teased it out for a bit before we settled on the right answer and the correct reason:

Less energy is required to remove the outermost electron from K than from Li because it is “further away” from the nucleus .

At this point, I emphasised the language: “Notice that I’m talking about the outermost electron” and so on. And we talked about how we could improve “further away from the nucleus”.

Then, I returned to the MWBs.

  • What can you tell me about the force that acts between two electrons?

Again, I didn’t do this in a 1-2-3 show me routine. I allowed students to show me answers as they wrote them. This meant I could talk to them as they did so:

“Nearly there! Try again”

“Do you really mean that? What were you trying to say there? Can you be more specific?”

“Can you use a more scientific word there?”

“No! That’s not right. Think again. Talk to so-and-so and see what you can come up with.”

“Yes! Spot on! Put your MWB down, and don’t let anyone see it…”

By the end of the lesson, the class were predicting halogen reactivity, and suggesting the products of some displacement reactions. Most importantly for me, I could see if and when lightbulbs were coming on, and pick up on the students that weren’t engaging with the process.

“Fred, I can see that you haven’t written an answer down. What would you have written if I’d given you a bit more time?…”

2) Flipped learning check

I “flip” certain lessons. I find this a useful approach for some aspects of Chemistry. This means I get students to study new material before the next lesson, and then set work for them in class based on what they have/haven’t understood.

I use a few methods to check understanding, but one of the simplest and most direct is to use MWBs.

3) Hinge Questions

I don’t use hinge questions as often as I should do. I think they can be very useful, but I believe it’s really important to design the questions well, and sometimes I just don’t manage to do this.

However, if I do ask any kind of multiple-choice question within a lesson, I will use mini whiteboards (or ABCD cards… or pieces of A4 paper ripped into 4 pieces with A, B, C, D written on each scrap) to check understanding.

4) Quizzing

I do use MWBs for striaghtforward quizzing sometimes. However, I don’t always (ever?) use the “1-2-3 show me” approach. I like to see answers appear as students think of them. And I like to give students the chance to re-think or develop an answer. I also want to see who is struggling and who needs stretching.

When I talked about this on Twitter, I had some really useful feedback from @Sally2Sci who pointed out that the danger of this appraoch might be that pupils will rush their answers and not think them through enough, just so they’re not the last person to answer, and I think it’s right to be wary of this. But I also think that, as with many things, you need to judge the group and your relationship with them. If I notice that a students is rushing, I will say something to them. But I realise this wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone.

5) Metacognition

I can’t write a blog post about MWBs without referring to my brilliant colleague, @VickiBarnett, who uses MWBs all the time, and in a number of different ways. She is particularly adept at helping students with metacognition using MWBs. For example, helping students to plan improvements to their work here or supporting students to plan their approach to exam questions here.

What have I missed? What else should I be doing? What should I not be doing? Have I missed any real positives/ negatives for using MWBs? I’d be interested to know how others use them.

2 thoughts on “How I use mini whiteboards

  1. I use MWBs virtually every lesson: something of a funny joke with my students..
    ..they can be a nuisance e.g. when a pen runs out. I’ve been experimenting in recent years with writing hinge Q / quizzes generally in multi-choice form. You can then avoid getting the MWBs out if in a rush, and instead use finger-voting a-la D.Wiliams. Students like the variation!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 5th May – Friday 12th May – Douglas Wise

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