Everybody gets a whiteboard!

One of the key findings about How People Learn is that teachers need to draw out and work with students’ existing knowledge and skills. Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, emphasizes students need to encounter a safe environment to try, fail, get feedback, and try again before facing a summative evaluation. The challenge for instructors is to find ways to draw out knowledge from EVERY student and create opportunities for EVERY student to practice.

Small, portable whiteboards (aka dry erase boards if you’re searching your institution’s suppliers’ catalogs) can achieve both of these.

Let me save the kinds of whiteboard-related tasks you can give to students for a future post. Here, I want to describe the class sets of whiteboards we put together. Each set contains 12 whiteboards which, when used for collaborative activities in groups of 3-4 students, can handle classes of 40-50 students. The key components are

  1. light-weight whiteboards that are small enough to carry and manipulate in class but large enough to let multiple students collaborate
  2. getting dry erase markers into EVERY student’s hand
  3. a convenient way for the instructor to get the kit to class and then carry it away afterwards

1. Portable whiteboards

Size and weight are the biggest concerns. Oh, and cost. You can cut way down on weight by foregoing magnetic whiteboards. We found these 18″ x 24″ light-weight whiteboards by Universal available through CDW. They’re only $15.99 retail (and even cheaper through our institutions purchasing system). These boards are so light, it’s very easy for students to pass them around, rest them on their knees, and hold them up for others to see. The only drawback to these particular boards is an inch-wide pen “tray” along the bottom of the board — the boards are made to be mounted on the wall — but it makes a good handle for students to grab.

2. Dry erase markers.

To create opportunities for EVERY student, it’s important to have enough dry erase markers that EVERY student gets one. Otherwise, he who holds the marker, holds the final say. I also like to give each student a different colored pen so they (and I) can easily see their contributions. We went with EXPO fine tip dry erase markers that come in boxes of 12 for $23.92 at Grainger. Four boxes – black, blue, red, green – gave us four markers for each board. We also included an eraser in each kit ($3.99 each by Universal from CDW) and a container of EXPO cleaning wipes ($14.99 at Grainger) we use to give the boards a once-over every now and then.

You can’t waste a lot of time handing out pens and erasers, collecting them again at the end of class so we put each set of 4 markers and an eraser into a pencil case, one per board. This works beautifully – quick to distribute, quick to collect, quick to reset for the next class. We found these canvas + mesh (mesh was great because you see what was in the kit without having to open the zipper) at our university bookstore for $2.29 each.

Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)

Each whiteboard comes with a pencil case containing 4 different-colored markers and an eraser. (Picture: Peter Newbury)

3. Carrying case

University instructors very rarely have a classroom where they can leave things. Instead, you arrive at the classroom 5-10 minutes before your class starts, bringing everything you need – computer, video adapter thingy, notes, water bottle, hand-outs, WHITEBOARDS – and then carry it all away after class. So, portability of these whiteboards is a critical.

We totally lucked out searching our universities suppliers’ website for “carrying case” when we stumbled onto this carrying case made for a retractable TeleSteps ladder ($74.90 from Grainger.) The bag easily holds twelve 18″ x 24″ whiteboards, with enough room to toss in the pencil cases. I’m not saying the strap doesn’t dig into your shoulder after walking halfway across campus but the case keeps everything in one place and you can dump on the ground when you get to class and deal it once you’ve got everything else ready. Heck, ask one of those enthusiastic students in the front row to distribute the boards and pencil cases for you.

Total cost per set of 12 whiteboards

Item Ea. Total
12 18″ x 24″ whiteboards $15.99 $191.88
dry erase markers (black, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (blue, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (red, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
dry erase markers (green, 12 pack) $23.92 $23.92
12 dry whiteboard erasers $3.99 $47.88
12 pencil cases $2.29 $27.48
1 container cleaning wipes $14.99 $14.99
1 TeleSteps carrying case $74.90 $74.90
Total $452.81

There’s taxes and delivery. And prices will vary if you buy these directly from the supplier or through your university’s purchasing website. You’ll have to keep buying more markers and cleaning wipes but everything else is a one-time purchase.

Overall, that’s a lot of learning for $500 :)

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Working with a diverse group? Try a card sort.

Education technology? Yep.

Education technology? Yep.

I went to a day-long retreat where the participants, about 20 of us, were deliberately selected to represent a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise – all the stakeholders in big project. The retreat organizer suggested each person prepare a 5-10 minute presentation about what they’ll bring to the project and what they’re hoping to get out of it. I was there to represent the teaching and learning support my center provides to instructors.

I had nightmar—, uh, visions of participant after participant clicking through PPT after PPT. The educator in me didn’t want that to happen so I decided to do something active to give my colleagues a better understanding of what I do. They would experience it rather than listen to me describe it. You know, active learning.

(For the record, PPT after PPT was NOT what happened. People talked and distributed some hand-outs. Better that I was prepared, though.)

That’s when I remembered a really interesting and engaging activity I did during a workshop from Kimberly Tanner: card sorting. The idea is, you give each group of 2-4 participants a short stack of cards. Not playing cards but, for example, 9 index cards, one item on each card. In Kimberly’s workshop, the cards were 9 different superheroes. You ask the groups to sort the cards into categories — any categories they want — with just a couple of rules: there has to be at least 2 categories; there can’t be 9 categories (ie, you can’t put each card in its own category.) Well, there are more rules but that’s all I needed for my version.

Then something interesting happens. You’ve carefully chosen the cards so that the items have both surface features (these are superheroes with primarily green costumes, these are mostly blue, these mostly red) and deep features (these are Marvel superheroes, these are DC.) How people sort the cards reveals their level of familiarity and expertise with the content, and gives each participant ample opportunity to share that knowledge with their group-mates.

Back to my card sorting task: I made 9 cards, each one giving the name of a course, the course description, and the format of the course meetings (lectures, labs, discussions, seminars, online, etc.) Thanks, btw, to my colleague Dominique Turnbow for the great advice about what to put on the cards.

So, 9 courses. Please sort them into more than 2 but less than 9 categories:

Participants sorted these 9 cards into categories. Each card describes a different course. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Participants sorted these 9 cards into categories. Each card describes a different course. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

There were lots of surface features that could be used:

  • STEM vs Social/Behavioral/Economic Sciences vs Arts & Humanities
  • those with discussion sections vs those with labs
  • which UC San Diego Division they fit in: Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities, Medicine, etc.
  • (I forgot to put class size on the cards – d’oh! – but that would be another way to sort them: small, medium, large, ridiculous enrolment)

I was expecting some of those “surface” sorts but my colleagues blew through those surface features and quickly re-sorted based on deeper features. Honestly, the categories they invented and the categories I made up ahead of time (in case they needed an example) are mixed up in my memory but here are some deeper features (analogous to “color of superhero costume” and “superhero publisher”)

  • technology enhanced
  • amount of active learning in typical classes
  • computationally-focused
  • amount of  close reading required
  • use statistics
  • amount of writing required


We took 5-10 minutes to sort and then another 10 minutes to report out. Sure, I went over my 10-minute slot but the schedule was very flexible (by design).

I think the activity went great. It gave participants, many of whom were strangers to each other, an opportunity to share their backgrounds and expertise with each other. It revealed the breadth of knowledge in the room. And it gave everyone involved a reminder to look past the surface features of our meeting and project – who will be responsible for this or that, how many offices will be required, what budget will this come from – and look at the big picture: supporting learning.

Details about implementation

(These details are mostly for me so I’ll remember what to do next time. If you’re thinking about running a card-sorting activity, you might find them helpful, too.)

  • I started with a spreadsheet to help me select sufficient courses that covered the surface and deeper features I wanted. I printed it out and had it with me during the activity so I could remember why I’d included the courses and what I anticipated as surface / deeper features.
  • I wrote the course descriptions in Word as 2″ x 4″ labels, printed the labels, and stuck them to index cards. This made it easy to create as many stacks as I needed:
I made 8 sets of cards. What do you notice about the stacks? (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

I made 8 sets of cards. What do you notice about the stacks? (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

  •  What do you notice about the stacks? Right, the missing corners. Each stack has a different missing corner so I can easily reset the cards into stacks. Can you imagine the tedious task of sorting 8 x 9 = 72 virtually identical cards into stacks? No, thank-you!
  • There were 2 main camps of people at the retreat, plus a number of important “third parties.” As I began the activity, I formed groups of 2-3 with at least one person from each camp.
  • I used some old fridge magnets to make 9 magnets, one for each course. When the groups reported out, I quickly arranged the magnets on a handy whiteboard so I could hold it up for the others in the room to see:
When the groups reported out, I quickly arranged the magnets on a handy whiteboard so I could hold it up for the others in the room to see. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

When the groups reported out, I quickly arranged the magnets on a handy whiteboard so I could hold it up for the others in the room to see. (Photo: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

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Clicker points and mindset

I’m a big fan of peer instruction with clickers and of Carol Dweck’s model of growth and fixed mindset. The streams crossed the other day which can be both revealing (and dangerous.)

If you’re familiar with peer instruction and mindset, skip down to “Clicker points: performance or participation.” If you’re still here, a quick refresher:

(Image: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

(Image: Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Peer instruction is a powerful, evidence-based instructional strategy where the instructor poses a conceptually-challenging multiple-choice question, the students vote using “clickers”, discuss their thinking with their neighbors, vote again (depending on the type of question asked) and then participate in a class-wide discussion.

Carol Dweck’s model of mindset suggests there are two attitudes, or mindsets, we have towards our own ability to learn: fixed and growth. Earlier versions of her model had various terms for what eventually become fixed and growth:

fixed: entity, helpless, performance-oriented

growth: incremental, malleable, mastery-oriented

This infographic by Nigel Holmes gives an excellent description and comparison of fixed and growth:

Our attitudes or “mindset” toward our own learning determines our behavior (and success).
Infographic by Nigel Holmes.

Clicker points: performance or participation

One of the benefits of using clickers to facilitate peer instruction is the hardware and software lets you track who clicked and what they clicked because every i>clicker (that’s what we use at UC San Diego and other audience response systems can do this, too)  has a unique ID. After it’s set up and talking to your learning management system, when a student clicks, you can track it student-by-student and click-by-click.

Why would you want to track it, anyway?

The short answer is, so students can accumulate points that contribute to their course grade. The question is, what do they get points for:  for clicking anything (participation), for getting the questions correct (performance), or a combination?

It is generally recommended that students receive PARTICIPATION points for peer instruction questions. Assigning points for PERFORMANCE, that is, getting the questions correct, has been shown to hinder conversations (here’s an example in Physics) because students worry about “getting it right” rather than recognizing what they know/believe about the concept. Plus, many good peer instruction questions have more than one correct answer and the goal is getting students to talk about one of the choices.

Here’s where I see growth and fixed mindset coming in. Some of your students will already have a growth mindset about the concepts you’re teaching

Yes, I can learn this is. It might not be easy but I can do it.

Some of your student will have a fixed mindset about your course

I’m not good at this stuff. This course is going to hard.

And some of your students will have no mindset about your course. They’ve never even heard of transpolymerization or intersectionality or traxoline, let alone whether or not they think they can learn it.


Because of the success a growth mindset can bring, I say we do everything we can to spark and foster a growth mindset in our students and make them confident they can learn. And that confidence is fragile: it only takes being shut down by your professor once for asking a question in class to never ask another question in class. It only takes one hurtful comment on an essay to never stray beyond 5 paragraphs again. It only takes once getting the clicker questions wrong and receiving nothing to sit next to Mr. Smarty-pants next time and just do what he does.

Fostering a growth mindset is hard but you can do it* by how you create a supportive learning environment in class, how you respect all your students, how you show your appreciation for every contribution a student makes to class,  and how you reward your students for participating in peer instruction.

*Oooo, growth mindset about growth mindset!

How many performance points?

The i>clicker software has a 2 options for giving participation points:

Option 1: students receive 1 point per class if they answer almost all of the questions (“almost all” is good practice because you don’t want a student to get zero if they happen to miss clicking once during the class.) You specify the “almost all” threshold in the i>clicker settings.

Option 2: students receive 1 point every time they click.

Personally, I like Option 2 because on really busy days where students vote and revote on several peer instruction questions, they’re rewarded with a lot of points, compared to the slower days where they only had to answer 1 peer instruction question.

If you’re going to give points, you need to build it into the syllabus — it’s got to be worth something. I’ve seen instructors assign as little as 2% for peer instruction (too low, in my opinion) and as high as 20% when participation in the clicker-driven class discussion was really important. If you’re not sure, 5-10% is a good range, but call it “class participation” rather than “clicker points” to give yourself some flexibility to do other collaborative activities in class, too.

There will be times when a student does not click: he was sick that day; she didn’t click before you closed the poll; his clicker batteries died halfway through class; she left her clicker at home. You don’t want these students swarming you at the end of class. So build a “get out of jail free” clause into your syllabus, with a policy like this:

To receive full marks on this component of the class, you only need to participate 80% [you set this threshold in your syllabus] of the time. That is, you can miss an occasional click and still receive full marks.

At the end of the course, you’ll have to do a little calculation to figure out their clicker scores but that’s a small price to pay for removing all the stress and anxiety students might feel.


Support a growth mindset in your students with participation points for peer instruction to reward them for practicing thinking in expert-like ways. There are plenty of other components of the course to assess their performance. Let peer instruction be about practice, formative feedback, and their realization they CAN do this, after all.

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