Developing conceptual understanding with whiteboards

One of the cornerstones of Modeling Instruction is the use of group whiteboards which students use to explore and explain their conceptual models. I have seen this in action in a variety of Modeler’s classrooms at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix and Trinity School and the High School for Maths, Science and Engineering here in New York City.

Pile of student whiteboards at Trinity School

How can we use whiteboards in teaching science?

When using whiteboards, the focus is on promoting student discussion, firstly within small groups of 2-4 students and later between groups in the class. The three main ways of using whiteboards in modelling instruction are the following (based on Colleen’s Megowan’s article, see reference at the end):

  1. Collecting experimental data in groups and developing representations of this data (i.e. graphs, motion maps, diagrams, calculations) on the whiteboard in order to understand an explain the observed phenomena.
  2. Whiteboarding answers to homework questions, where groups are assigned different questions to answer and explain to the class.
  3. Applying models by exploring difficult problems or phenomena to push understanding, when all groups work on the same open-ended or challenging question.

Simply due to the timing of my visits, I’ve yet to observe a class actually analysing experimental data on a whiteboard (type 1, possibly the most important type of whiteboarding) but I’ve seen kids exploring homework questions (type 2) and trying to explain known phenomena (type 3). Students have to come to agreement within their group about the ideas or answers they are suggesting bef.ore they can share with the class.

Student whiteboard from exploring graphs of motion (Trinity School)

Essential to all of these uses of the whiteboards is the the ‘board meeting’ where students share and discuss. Taking place in a circle if possible, students all share their boards and discuss each one in turn. This is the tricky part, as the teacher has to let the students lead the conversation rather than intervening and directing too much. The teachers I watched were all highly skilled at this – often physically removing themselves from the circle of discussion (when there was one) and letting the students ask each other questions. I can see the challenge here – at times it would be tempting to get involved and ask the questions which will draw out misconceptions or misunderstandings, but in time other students may ask those questions themselves.

A ‘board meeting’ where students explain their ideas to their peers

What are the benefits of whiteboards?

Whiteboards offer a flexible space for students to develop their learning. There is an aspect of ‘erasability’ which exists only when using a whiteboards and not pen and paper, even when brainstorming on butcher’s paper. Students can feel free to write anything and correct it later, which promotes an understanding of the learning process as ongoing rather being simply about answers being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

In addition, this is a medium which is designed to be shared. This sharing in the board meeting is essential to the modeling instruction process. Students get practice explaining their ideas and presenting them in multiple forms and they have to justify these ideas to their peers. In addition, not only do they present their ideas, but they also have to ask questions of others. If the teacher forces the students to lead the discussion and does not get involved, the students learn to evaluate the information presented to them and ask questions when it is not clear. If a misconception is corrected by a peer, the peer has to explain the idea to the student – so both are learning through the process of explanation. In this way, modeling instruction can be seen as a form of peer teaching.

A good, student-centred discussion without teacher involvement is not something which is easy to create. Physical space limitations made it challenging at some of the schools I observed, which led to board meetings which tended towards a single group presenting at the front rather than a circle of discussion. This doesn’t promote as good interaction as it defaults to students ‘presenting’ and students ‘observing’. In addition, students have to trained to think and ask questions of their peers without looking to the teacher for help. Since many of the students I observed have only been using these methods since they started Physics a month ago, some students were inclined to turn to the teacher when they were confused or when there were disagreements. However, I have also seen some great interaction between students and I am sure that in time the students will become more practiced at these discussions.

Is this only relevant for science subjects?

Many subjects could benefit from students improving their skills in forming and explaining ideas.

At Trinity School, in addition to using Modeling Instruction in Physics and Chemistry classes, they had also recently implemented a new Math program which also uses whiteboards, although ones attached to the wall instead of portable ones. All of the Maths classrooms have had whiteboards installed on all four walls, so there is at least 8 different spaces on which students can write. I observed the students tackle a tricky maths problem, and they broke up into groups around the room and worked on the problem. One of the comments by the teacher was that even in the short time that they have been using this method, she has noticed a huge improvement in the way students present the information on the board – using appropriate symbols, proving working, laying out working somewhat. They have already learned that the communication of their ideas is difficult of they don’t present it well. Even my year 11s and 12s struggle with this concept!

Math students exploring a problem on their whiteboard

As I often seem to be finding on this trip, I saw evidence of this approach at High Tech High as well. There the classroom walls were covered with whiteboards: on cupboard doors, on bifold doors dividing classrooms, students were even writing on windows. This was evident in classrooms for all subjects.

Whiteboards on the cupboard doors in a Physics classroom at High Tech High

Student whiteboards are an example of a ‘low-tech’ solution which allows students to improve their skills in develop their own ideas and explanations and justifying those to others. Installing these on classroom walls or purchasing student groups boards is a relatively minimal expense which could have a potentially significant impact on the way students develop their conceptual ideas.

References / additional resources:

  • Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz, ‘Helping Students Construct Robust Conceptual Models’, in M.S. Khine, I. M. Saleh (eds.), Models and Modeling, Models and Modeling in Science Education Volume 6, 2011, pp 99-120. Available from Springer here.

One response to “Developing conceptual understanding with whiteboards

  1. Colleen Megowan’s PhD dissertation is posted on the ASU Modeling Instruction website. You can freely download it, and 8 important excerpts from it, at .

    I find it exceptionally interesting. Her writing style is engaging, and her topic is of central importance to effective instruction.

    Colleen taught 9th grade physics for many years, and she learned Modeling Instruction in eight weeks over two summers. Her Ph.D. dissertation advisor at Arizona State University was David Hestenes; they spent many hours discussing her PhD research.

    TITLE: Framing Discourse for Optimal Learning in Science and Mathematics (2007).
    (Modeling Instruction from grade 8 to college)

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