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My 3 Favorite Math Whiteboarding Modes

GOAL: develop frameworks and modes appropriate for MATH specific Whiteboarding.

I did a ton of experiments this year with whiteboarding and a lot of brainstorming, but here are my three favorite modes of math whiteboarding that I tried (some writing copied from previous posts). A good whiteboarding mode for me can be applied to many different topics and takes advantage of everything whiteboarding has to offer: collaborative, interactive, promotes risk taking and visually stimulating.

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Guess and Check with a Partner

Students try to solve problems that take a certain amount of intuition or guesswork (like antiderivatives or factoring) by having one person write down a guess, and the other person check if it is correct.They would then keep doing this until they get a correct answer. After a certain number of problems solved, the two students switch roles. For example, above the students are looking for the antiderivative of x^2 – the guesser writes down 2x and the checker takes its derivative to see if that is correct. Since 2 does not equal x^2, the guesser tries again. They continue this process until they finally get that x^2 back again. This mode is great for showing students that a great way to do math (at first) is to just try things and adjust their answer; it’s great for getting students to converse together about how to get a solution; and it’s great to get them in the habit of always checking their answers. I had a really hard time getting some students to follow the procedure for this one, but the ones that stuck to their roles got a lot out of it.

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Color Coding Problems

Before solving a problem, students rewrite it using different colors to help them understand its important parts. For example, above is a whiteboarding exercise I did with the Chain Rule. Students were in groups of threes – for each problem, one person had to rewrite the problem in different colors to indicate which was the outside and which was the inside function, the next person had to differentiate it still using the colors to point out where each part of the new expression came from, and then the last person had to rewrite the expression in a simplified form. This was perfect because the hardest parts of the chain rule are recognizing when you need, seeing inside vs. outside and then seeing where the parts of the new expression come from.

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The Mistake Game

Groups present solutions to semi-complicated/involved problems on whiteboards, but while presenting their solution, they purposely make a mistake (and not an silly arithmetic mistake like 3+4=8 – a real hardcore-misconception-style mistake). Then, they present their work to the other students in the class, trying to sell their mistake as having been made for real. Other students ask thoughtful questions about the presenting group’s solution to try to help everyone find the mistake. This is always great with a quick class followup at the end collecting the most common mistakes. Check out the Guide to the Mistake Game from Kelly O’Shea, who introduced me to this game.

P.S. I’m realizing now that the example above actually isn’t a great example of a time to use this game… Some topics that it worked well for this year were graph sketching, solving for limits algebraically, using the quotient rule, implicit differentiation, related rates and using infinite limits in graphing exponential functions.

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MATH Whiteboarding

I make it standard practice of mine to steal as much as I can from science teachers out there. One of the best things I have borrowed from Physics Teachers has been whiteboarding, popularized by the rise of Modeling Instruction. I feel like lots of math teachers have these smaller whiteboards in their classroom, either individual ones or a good size for groupwork, but they maybe aren’t all that sure how to use them. Physics teachers have figured out a way to use them effectively that makes sense for them. From what I gather, most of these Physics teachers (at a basic level) have students whiteboard problems that they have previously worked out on homework assignments or worksheets and then present those to each other in “board meetings” as part of the Modeling process (sorry if I totally butchered that). It makes sense with Physics and other teachers can join in on the fun because they can see immediately how to use them.

But as great as stealing is,we need a whiteboarding framework for math, so that math teachers can see how to use them immediately and also join in on the fun. We need non-content specific techniques that teachers can use day to day so that whiteboards don’t just get added to that pile of crap in the back of the classroom. There are math teachers in the blogotwittersphere – like Anna (@borschtwithanna) and Timon (@MrPicc112) – who are working on this too, and I hope we can get more collaborators. I am going to devote the next few posts to math whiteboarding, but please join in on the fun if you have done something super cool that might be helpful for others (i.e. me).

but first, some observations from this past year when I started using whiteboards…

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Why Whiteboard?

WHITEBOARDS PROMOTE COLLABORATION. My whiteboards are about 2 x 3 feet, which gives plenty of room for at least 3-4 students to work together on a problem. There is something about working on the same surface (as opposed to working on the same problem in individual notebooks) that gets students talking way more. Whatever written is owned by the whole group, so there is more of a natural desire for everyone to explain to each other and help each other understand, and to healthily debate various aspects of problems.

STUDENTS ARE MORE LIKELY TO TAKE RISKS. The magic of a whiteboard marker is that it erases easily. It’s really not a big deal to make a mistake on the board because it is so easy to change. Students will try things that they never would with a pen and paper.

WHITEBOARDS ARE A NICE CHANGE OF ROUTINE. My students loved using whiteboards just because it was something different. They would work with different groups of students, we would sit in a different spot in the classroom, and the onus of the learning would be on them instead of on me. I don’t think that the idea of changing up the routine is trivial.

ALL TYPES OF LEARNERS ARE TARGETED. With different color markers, verbal exchanges between students, lots of time where students are being active and opportunities for creativity, almost every type of learner is engaged by whiteboarding.

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Issues to Work Out

STUDENTS DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO REVIEW LATER. Lots of great learning happens during the whiteboarding, but for those that need to review later, they don’t have anything written in their notebooks. I tried taking pictures of the whiteboards and posting online, but I doubt that any students ever really looked at these. A solution that I heard from a colleague this summer was to give them 5 minutes at the end of class to copy down a problem that they would like to look at later. I like this solution, and would like to try it out this year.

SOMETIMES ONE STUDENT WILL TAKE OVER. I found that occasionally whiteboarding would turn into one student writing while a few others sat back and watched. This is a fallback with almost every type of group work. Though they felt a little forced, the best way I found to avoid this is to have specific roles, or structured ways for all students to get themselves involved. This is something I am going to try to document and work on

WHITEBOARDING TAKES A LOT MORE TIME. I’m sure some pros have managed to work whiteboarding into their curriculum without sacrificing pace, but I definitely did not. In fact, I sort of used it to slow things down. If you’re looking to power through material (like I was at times in my AP class), I don’t think whiteboarding is the solution, because its strengths are in allowing students to communicate, construct their own concepts, and spend more time exploring a concepts deeply.

IT IS TOUGH TO GRADE WORK DONE ON WHITEBOARDS. Some teachers have expressed this concern to me – they aren’t handing anything in and the work is done by everyone, which makes it difficult to grade. My solution? Don’t grade it. Not everything that happens in the classroom needs to be graded.

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Getting the Materials

GETTING THE WHITEBOARDS: If you can, I think the easiest way to get whiteboards is to have your department order some, but you can also easily just head down to home depot, buy a huge piece of whiteboard and have them cut it for you. @borschtwithanna describes how she did this here, and @fnoschese describes a few different ways to get them in his classic post describing whiteboards here.

OTHER MATERIALS NEEDED: I found that for my whiteboards, the normal erasers just don’t work well. @mgolding suggests using black socks as erasers (white socks get gross) and @misscalcul8 suggests putting the markers right in the socks as an easy way to distribute the markers and a way to avoid students fighting over which color marker they get. With the whole class using markers instead of just you, I also found that you need tons of markers. Luckily, I don’t have a quota at my school, so I just always go nab some more from the supply closet, but @kellyoshea has a pretty good solution to this problem with refillable markers and marker buckets for each group.

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Student Feedback

Want to know what students think? I collect student feedback as often as possible, so I went into my most recent document and pulled out every comment having to do with whiteboards. Interestingly, most of the negative comments came from my AP class and very few negative comments came from my non-AP class. (emphasis below is mine)

I LOVE when we use the white boards because I get to see how my peers think and compare their thought process to mine. And then when we discuss it with the class its even more helpful. There is so much opportunity to lean with this exercise.

I really liked graph sketching on whiteboards, and then hiding a mistake in it. It was helpful because it helped me remember what common mistakes I should avoid.

You’re doing a great job with the white boards, it give us a chance to work together which is fun and helpful at the same time, we can talk a little but we generally do the work and its more of a competition to me instead of just work so that is an extra motivation

For me, graph sketching on whiteboards and working in groups on packets isn’t really helpful and it’s not your fault. Some kids in my class lack motivation and manners and a desire to improve; so I guess it’s really frustrating to work with them.

One learning activity I found particularly helpful is the activity in which we drew derivatives on whiteboards. I tend to find drawing graphs from functions to be difficult at times, especially when we are focusing on derivatives and so this activity helped me a lot. It allowed me to see common mistakes and different ways of drawing functions and the discussions we had while sketching graphs allowed me to realize my mistakes.

graph sketching on whiteboards [is helpful]. Since it was interactive I learnt much more

I really like graphing sketching on the whiteboards. I enjoy working in groups, then looking at what everyone did. It’s a good way of practice, and we learn from our mistakes.

when we use a white in groups [isn’t helpful] because i get confused when were than one wants to solve it on the board rather than if we work in groups and each one with his/her own paper.

Drawing derivatives on whiteboards [isn’t helpful], because I find that the diffusion of responsibility between the team members decreases their productivity in class.

I think the most helpful class activity that has been very helpful is sketching on the white boards leaving mistakes for others to pick, in this case we can learn where are the possible mistakes occurring and allow you to avoid them when dealing with your own.

I found that [it was helpful] when we graphed derivatives on white boards and slowly drilled each step aswell as common mistakes to avoid. It was perfect to clear any doubts both visually and algebraicly.

Drawing derivatives on white boards, because my classmates and I can discuss different methods of solving a question.

I like using the white boards because it’s nice when we all share our work and see everyone else’s work and compare it to ours and then we look at the mistake and fix it together.

The best activities which I felt that helped me a lot is the group work like the games and the white boards

I think that when we do goup work and work on answering a question on the white-board I feel that one student work and the rest just watch him working which is not as beneficial to everyone.

Honing My Skills Instruction

Skills instruction was something that I was not good at when I first started teaching. I found it boring compared to big ideas and didn’t really understand why kids didn’t get things from me doing problems on the board and then them doing practice problems with each other or individually or for homework. For me, it was like “What is there to understand that simple practice wont solve?” Well, I have grown a lot since then. This year, I have implemented a lot of new tools (many whiteboard based) that have really helped out with my skills instruction. I feel like I really had a great sequence this year when doing the skills part of integrating with my regular class – I wanted to share and reflect, especially so it’s written down somewhere for me to use in the future, because some of the ideas will be useful when I teach other topics.

PREAMBLE:

Just so you know how I lead up to this seminal topic in Calculus… First, I spent a considerable time (about five 45 minute class periods) exploring everything to do with Riemann Sums, both in terms of pure area and what area means in applied situations. I think that feels like a lot of time, but we tackled the conceptual side of integration very throughly and used that to motivate the idea of an antiderivative/integral. Once we motivated the integral, we focused on learning how to find antiderivatives, which is the part I want to talk about.

1. Guess and Check With a Partner

With inspiration from a great worksheet from Sam, I wanted students to rely on their intuition at first to find andiderivatives, instead of relying on formulae. I’ve tried things like this previously, but it really helped this time to explicitly explain that this is what we were doing – that maybe eventually we can rely on a rule, but we are going to discover the math first. I paired them up with whiteboards and set them out with the list of functions from Sam’s worksheet. Their goal: find the antiderivative of all the functions. The method: each person had a marker. One person would write down a guess for an antiderivative, and the other person would simply take the derivative of this to see if it went back to the original function. They would keep doing this until they got something correct, then write that answer down on the sheet. Then, after one person has been the “guesser’ four or five times, they switch. Example:

For the kids that actually did what I asked (others just kind of started solving them on their own, which is okay I guess), it was a really nice exercise. They worked together really well, and were so excited to tell me the rule that they had made up for integrating power functions. I had them even doing simple substitution, per great suggestion from Sam. They got good at just getting themselves to try something, and getting in the habit of checking all of their answers. One kid at the end of class told me “My brain hurts from thinking so much.” Then, after the students were done, the next class we started by collecting rules they had noticed, and it made a nice little automatic cheat sheet for them. –> SHEET WITH FUNCTIONS HERE

2. Power Rule Folding Game

Next was to tackle more complicated functions with which we could use our rules, mainly negative and fractional powers. I did this same exercise in the fall when learning how to differentiate these functions to much success, and then tried it again with differentiating power functions to much confusion (so I guess the activity has a specific niche). The idea is that everyone starts with a problem, does one step and folds over the sheet so that only their work is visible. Then everyone rotates their problems around. The next person does the next step, and then folds the paper so only their work is visible. The group keeps rotating the papers until they are all done, then they open them up and look for mistakes (if there are any). Example:

This was good for helping them drill some algebraic manipulation and develop the skill of checking their own work for mistakes… all while working very closely collaboratively. –> FOLDABLES HERE

4. Flip-Up Answers for Initial Conditions

After learning basic integration skills, we began to talk about how functions have more than one antiderivative, and how sometimes it is useful to find a specific one. After only one or two examples together, we immediately just started practicing this idea with an activity that I stole from Mimi where I placed problems around the room with the answers on the back, the idea being that students would go solve whatever problems they felt like they needed to. Example:

I enjoyed this for many of the same reasons that Mimi cited in her original post. Students could work at their own pace without feeling like they were falling behind, could pick their own problems, and could move around the room to interact with many different people (which are all huge advantages over just doing a worksheet). –> FLIP PROBLEMS HERE (though the formatting is a bit screwy)

5. Mistake Game

After two days of a little bit more traditional style instruction just to make the connection between the definite integral and area (a lesson that I need to make more discovery based next year), we then did the Mistake Game, an idea from Kelly, which I have described a few times now. Basically students work out problems on whiteboards and hide a mistake in their solution. They then present their work like as if they didn’t make a mistake and the other students have a discussion to try to find their error. The problems I chose for the mistake game where all functions for which you had to do some sort of simplifying before integrating (like distributing or dividing), which ended up being a great way of pushing them a little bit forward while giving them plenty of opportunity to really go in depth discussing this new mechanical process of a definite integral.

6. Substitution Marker

Then the last skills activity I did with integration was a few days later when we started doing substitution. I had them first try a bunch of substitution problems intuitively, and then showed them how to use a u-substitution. Then, we pulled out the whiteboards and I gave them all a sheet of problems and two markers each. They were to do all u-related work in red, and all original-integral related work in blue. What I wanted them to get comfortable with was envisioning the transition between the variables and helping see how the skeleton of the integral becomes the “outside function” of the backwards chain rule. Example: (actual student work)

This was, again, one of those activities where a bunch of students totally ignored my directions and just solved the problems (and again, not the worst thing), but I think some of the students that did it like this really benefited from using the different colors.

So why did I just ramble about all those activities? I guess what I loved about this whole sequence is how ridiculously much of the instruction for a good week and a half or so was collaborative and engaging, and forced them to think about what could have been routine material in different ways instead of just plowing through worksheets and drills. I feel like I never would have been able to pull something like this off even last year, so I am so grateful (especially to the online community) that I now have a toolbox full of sweet teaching methods. My goal is to try to mix these types of activities more often into various units, since most have skills based components. I would love any other modes of instruction that you use in your classroom to add to my toolbox!!

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Side note for the Calculus people: There are a few antiderivative/integral related traps that my students fall into… any ideas on how I can stop these problems before they happen?

  1. I always start with the word “antiderivative” to emphasis that it’s the opposite process of a derivative, and then try to transition to “integral” as soon as possible, but it’s really tough for them to keep the vocabulary straight. I always correct them in class (mostly just trying to replace antiderivative with integral). How do you approach that vocabulary? I even had a hard time writing this post with the correct vocabulary.
  2. Many of my students had a strange barrier this year (that I have never seen before) when finding the area under a curve because they kept thinking of the function you integrate as “the derivative” and the function that you get out as “the original function.” So when we had a function they wanted to find the area underneath, they would take its derivative and then integrate, or some other strange thing like that. How do you introduce the integral as being the opposite of the derivative without getting that misconception (or rather, what did I do in my sequence to imply that)?
  3. I always, always, always have so much trouble convincing some students that u-substitution is only used for specific functions that are “backward chain rules.” But after we learn how to integrate normally, we spend a ton of time on u-substitution, and then some students try to solve EVERYTHING with u-substitutions (like 1/x^6 for example). I spent a lot of time doing activities where we pick out the functions that can be integrated with substitution and those that can’t, but for a lot of students, this obviously did not sink in. Any tips?
  4. I cannot for the life of me get students to remember to add a “dx” when differentiating a u to find a du. So if u = 2x, then du=2xdx. Granted we didn’t do differentials, but I still don’t understand why this was so difficult! I need some sort of conceptual trigger so they can understand why it’s so important…