Last Spring, at the NITLE Summit, I encountered something of little substance. (This is to be distinguished from the many things of substance I also encountered.) In one of the sessions, we were given small whiteboards to use for some exercise that escapes me. I’m used to using a wall-sized whiteboard, but at that moment it occurred to me that small whiteboards might be very useful in teaching economics, a discipline that at the undergraduate level commonly employs graphical models to analyze issues or problems.
This summer I ordered ten little whiteboards,18 by 24 inches each. They arrived last week, just in time for our discussion of the theories of supply and demand. As usual, I spent a day and a half presenting the theories, and then showed how they could be used to analyze events that affect any markets. Next, I gave the students a series of problems and asked them to work thru them in pairs. In the past, the students would solve the problems on paper. Then I would invite one or two groups to the class’ board to present their results. This time I passed out the whiteboards and asked the groups to solve the problems on the whiteboards. I then selected two groups to stand and present their results, the first to present and the second to critique the first’s analysis.
(With 40 students in the class, half the groups had a white board for each problem. After each problem, the whiteboards were passed to the other groups. For one problem, I ended up choosing a group without a whiteboard to present using the classroom whiteboard, to make sure that everyone was doing the problems.)
I really liked this approach and think it worked better than my previous approach.
The whiteboards feel to me like a different space, a different medium than paper in a notebook. One of the problems I observed when students did this exercise on paper was that they tended to draw the graphs too small to see what’s really happening. This is a problem since the graph, when drawn correctly, shows the answer to the problem. The individual whiteboards solve this problem, since the work being done is much larger. It’s also easier for me to see and supervise what the groups are doing without disturbing them, since I don’t have to get so close.
The whiteboard exercises also feel like a more active type of learning, where notebooks tend to be more passive since they are normally used for simply recording what is said. Not to get too touchy-feely, but the whiteboard and markers are symbols of power in the classroom. With the old approach, the students tended to approach the class whiteboard gingerly as if they were aware it was really the instructor’s medium. With the individual whiteboards students seem to take more ownership.