Something of little substance

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, Using Whiteboardsand 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.

More using whiteboards

(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.

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5 Responses to Something of little substance

  1. Jenny says:

    We use small white board (much smaller than these) frequently at my elementary school. I’ve never thought about the issue of power. That’s an interesting thought for me to ponder.

    I think your use of these was really powerful.

  2. Isaac says:

    “[N]otebooks tend to be more passive since they are normally used for simply recording what is said…”

    I dig the whiteboard idea, and I wonder (slightly off-topic): what is your view of notetaking in class? My approach, which I will be the first to agree is probably inefficient, is that of the imperfect stenographer. I tend to write very quickly, afraid to miss a single word, and this is especially true when my grasp of the material is less than what I would desire. Case in point: I’m currently taking a low-level grad course in real analysis at AU and find that I am furiously scribbling every spoken word and written note concerning any proof the professor discusses. Though the professor strikes me as a committed educator, it is a tough class, perhaps the hardest I’ve ever taken.

    I think I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, because I’m sure that while recording near-verbatim what the professor says, I’m probably missing the opportunity to examine his thought process as he develops it, and thereby missing some subtler proof strategy or unwritten lemma. On the other hand, if I stop taking notes, I fear I will lack a vital record of important proofs which I may fail to grasp in the text or in various supplementary materials I can find online. What is the best approach for a student in this situation (short of making a video of every class)?

  3. Andy Ross says:

    If you just live long enough- when I started school in 1955 I had a little blackboard!

  4. Diane says:

    Using a whiteboard for me is a fundamental part of my study. I purchased a 6′ x 4′ whiteboard in 2002 when I was in the second year of my BA (Hons) Economics at UWE. I’ve used it ever since, and with other students who’ve come to my home for pre-exam revision sessions. We each take it in turns to write out graphs, formulae or equations, or model answers to different questions, and then we go through them and make any corrections using a red marker. Having then spent several minutes discussing the error or omissions, making sure we understand why it’s incorrect, and then repeating the exercise, it’s remarkable how after doing this only once or twice (even for difficult exercises) the amount of red marker each time diminishes substantially. All of the students who have studied with me in this way have passed their referral exams and passed pretty impressively. In fact it was the buzz I got from learning the material and teaching it to them that made me realise I wanted to go in to teaching in Higher Education. I’m currently a postgraduate student on the final year of an MA in Economics. I hope to go on to study a PhD in Economics and then on to a career in lecturing and research. If sucsessful I’ll make sure I incorporate using whiteboards as part of group work in seminars or workshops. It really is remarkable the improvement that can be made in such a short time using whiteboards, and particularly correcting in red and reworking!

  5. Fran Smith says:

    We did this too on an Economics in Context module for non specialist (Business) students. I initially came across it when observing primary school maths classes and thought it was a great idea. The students were given a set of standard questions one at a time on an OHP shifting demand and supply curves (one at a time on an OHP) ,and it worked a treat.
    The seminar tutors (teaching groups of 16-20) commented that it enabled them to check students understanding and they could tell at a glance who was -or was not -on the right track. The students relished the novelty and the individual attention their tutor was able to give them.
    I would highly recommend it as a low tech./low prep. method of engaging and motivating students.

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