Understanding the Pressures Against Whiteboard Meetings

An interesting phenomena in our department is the following one:

Our introductory physics sequence makes use of whiteboards. The typical mode is this:

  • The instructor models how to work a problem based on the reading students did the night before (the reading was incentivized by use of reading quiz when students show up).
  • Student groups are randomly assigned to do 1 of 4 possible problems. Students are expected to work on the problem collaboratively on whiteboard. Typically they are expected to show how they set-up the problem, but not show grueling detail of any algebra or math.
  • Students are expected to stack their whiteboards at the front of the classroom.
  • Then there is a class discussion or whiteboard meeting of some sort–my understanding is that, in implementation, the typical format of the discussion is the instructors picks one or two group to stand up and explain how they solved their problem.

The course has been using this for a couple years now (not sure exactly how long). Over this time, there has been a uniform movement away from having whiteboard meetings / class discussion. All instructors still use whiteboards for problem-solving and see value in it, but there has been a fewer and fewer instructors do the discussion part. Some instructors still do the discussions, but even among them, the feeling is that the discussion are not useful and productive.

There are many possible factors that drive this shift away from holding discussions. Here I want to lay out some and see what other people think:

#1  Professional Development Collectively, there has been little to no training, apprenticeship, feedback, or support in developing effective practices with structuring and facilitating whiteboard meetings. This is true for both faculty and undergraduate TAs, and more generally of all interactive engagement methods that instructors are expected or encouraged to use. This isn’t to say there has been no professional development in some cases. In most cases, however, no instructors have never even observed anyone else running a whiteboard meeting, not to even mention an effectively run one.

#2  Substance of White-boarding Problems: The particular problems students are assigned to work on were not necessarily designed to support productive discussion; rather they were designed around chapter topics. They are also not necessarily designed based on physics education research or specific learning objectives; or, if they are, such design features are not clear to their users. Well-chosen problems can go a long way to helping promote useful discussion.

#3  Values and Priorities: Explicit conversations about the value and importance of whiteboard meetings for student learning and classroom community are mostly absent in our department. With very real pressures for time that instructors face and their growing sense of the ineffectiveness of whiteboard discussion, whiteboard meetings become one of the first things instructors will stop doing. The reality is that it’s hard to persist in doing something if either the individuals involved (or the community at large) don’t value that thing. Instructors, I believe are doing what they see is best for their classrooms and students.

#4 Classroom Constraints: Our classroom space is a large, wide-open space and there are 32 students spread out among that space. This makes white-boarding meetings difficult.  Managing a classroom discussion with 32 students is different than managing a classroom discussion with 10, 15, or 20. In addition, the tables in the class are also not conducive for rearranging the space. Large rolling chairs make it difficult to find space where everyone could be a circle. Designing spaces that support particular kinds of social interactions can go a long way to promoting productive conversation.

I would imagine that these constraints are common to many institutions, classrooms, and instructors. Understanding how these constraints operate on us and how we can change these constraints becomes really important. I can’t imagine significant movement toward developing effective classroom discussion with whiteboards without changes at all of these levels. What do you all think?

* I should note that I am subject and influenced by these same constraints: An environment/community that doesn’t explicitly communicate the value of the practice. A classroom space that is not conducive to effective practice. Content that is not design to support the practice. And lack of professional development (specifically about what it means to engage in this practice at our institution in our courses). These pressure have driven me away from consistent use of effective classroom discussion with whiteboards. I write this post, because in the fall, I am re-commiting myself to making this work in my classroom.

8 thoughts on “Understanding the Pressures Against Whiteboard Meetings

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  1. In the three phase Karplus learning cycle, there was research done demonstrating how the effectiveness of its implementation was significantly reduced if one or more phases were eliminated or the order was changed. Has there been anything similar done for whiteboard use as you describe? In the learning cycle, instructors may eliminate the concept application (3rd phase) or trim the concept development (2nd phase) phases of the learning cycle. Doing do limits students’ opportunities to merge. E’s ideas with already existing mental content. This may be analogous with doing away with whiteboard meetings…

    1. Our curriculum could benefit in general from thinking about Karplus. In general, our sequence is (1) canonical information in reading, (2) test of recall, (3) conceptual practice, (4) canonical demonstration of applying such information, (5) practice applying problems, (6) confirmation of knowledge via laboratory work… It’s very traditional in that sense. We’ll see what changes abound over the coming years, I suppose.

  2. Speaking as a devil’s advocate, is there any evidence that the public presentation and discussion is a useful part of whiteboarding? I would think that most of the benefit comes in the co-operative problem solving. Perhaps the final step is being omitted because it really is a time waster?

    1. It’s a good question. My own personal sense (without evidence) is that effectively managed whole-class discussion around student work is not a time waster, but that it does takes a lot of skill and practice to become an effective facilitator of those conversations- same goes for becoming an effective architect of the contexts that create those conversations.

      I think your question also begs asking what does “useful” mean… useful in mastering content in ways that would show up on a written test? useful in helping students develop skills at verbally explaining phenomena with physics concepts? Useful in helping student develop meta-cognitive skills toward self-assessment, by having to practice assessing others’ work? Useful in helping students learn to develop and critique arguments? Useful in providing opportunities for students to see a range of other approaches, thoughts to concepts and problems? Useful in helping student to develop good questioning skills? Useful in providing a context in which it would be meaningful to put care into organizing and communicating one’s work because there is an audience? Helpful in creating a learning community, one that shares aspects with scientific communities (sharing work, peer review, etc)? Helpful in making it so that the teacher is the only one providing explanations in the class? … there are many ways in which the board meetings could be helpful, and some of those ways would be easier to provide evidence for than others.

      I do think that poor white-boarding discussions, ones where students just present their work, the audience has no clear role, the facilitator has not thought carefully about the activity and the key ideas that might or need to arise during discussion, where a culture of scrutiny, care, and questioning hasn’t been cultivated… when white-boarding is like that, it is definitely a time waster.

    2. I’ve not completed any studies in that area, but it seems to me defending your answers/logic and questioning others’ are important parts of internalizing new material and learning to think critically of what you “know.” It’s closing loop, like what scientists do at conferences. Are conferences a waste of time? Maybe the analogy of whiteboard presentations as a conference isn’t a good one.

  3. I know this is an old post, but I was thinking that this book might be a useful resource at least to catalyze conversation about the potential value of the “discussion phase”:


    (It’s primarily targeted at K-12 teachers, but I have found that the framework and phases it describes have also worked with adult learners, so I hope a bit of interpolation is acceptable.)

    1. Hi. Yes, I like that book as well, and a copy of the science and math one). We actually use it our Teaching of Physics class for undergraduates pursuing physics teaching. You are right that it would be productive for faculty to read as well. I

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