Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing on the Board

In comments, Nonscriptor asks:

I'm thinking about trying an intro course in which I write very little on the board and mostly just lecture very slowly. Here's my inspiration:

I give short-essay format exams in some intro level classes. Many questions have the form, "What is X's argument that P? [Insert follow-up question here.]" Follow-up questions include things like "What would X say about Y?" and "Explain at least one objection to that argument and how X could meet it."

Many of my students ... respond by writing down, as nearly verbatim as they can remember, everything that I wrote on the board about the general topic, but nothing else, even when what I wrote on the board doesn't actually answer the question.

I'm hoping that if I remove the note-taking crutch of writing down all and only the things that I wrote down, students may be forced to think about what I'm saying when they take notes. Some will probably crash and burn, of course, which worries me.

Has anyone ever tried anything like this? Any advice?

I don't write on the board much. I find that the more time I spend with my back to them, the more of them fall asleep. (Instead, I provide detailed handouts--the problem there is that the students then take all their notes right on the handout, which leads to tiny, poorly organized notes squeezed in between the arguments, principles, definitions, etc. It's not good when they do that. I tell them not to, but they do it anyway.)

What say you, Smokers?

--Mr. Zero


zombie said...

I write on the board. I find it helps me -- a lot -- to pace my lectures. Otherwise, I tend to talk too fast. it also allows me to emphasize what needs to be emphasized. So, I don't write everything.

I also draw a fair amount, do diagrams, other stuff. Again, some of it is about pacing, but some of it is illustrating. I only do Blackboard handouts when there is a LOT of new stuff, and I want my students to get some detailed info about what they should be focusing on, or if there is a very complex argument, and I want them to have it written down to help them follow it.

I also use Blackboard to post significant excerpts from the text.

I also tend to point at the chalkboard a lot, which just looks silly if I haven't written anything on it.

And I prefer chalk. Hate whiteboards.

Mostly Anonymous said...

This just seems entirely backwards to me. Isn't the goal to get the students to learn something? If the students get what's on the board, maybe the trick is to put on the board exactly the things that the students should really take away from the class.

Anonymous said...

"I also tend to point at the chalkboard a lot, which just looks silly if I haven't written anything on it."

I have been known to point at the board, and then correct myself by saying, "Imagine I have put X on the board..."

I tell my students that the chalk board is for me, not them. They have notebooks to write notes down in. I have the chalk board. I'll use it to put up the major concepts covered for the day, maybe give some titles of works they might want to read for further information (should something come up in conversation), or helpful diagrams. But honestly, most of what I put on the board is stuff for my own purposes. For instance, if a student raises a point that I want to make sure I return to later in the discussion, I note it on the chalk board, so I don't forget to hit it later.

I also hate white boards. Learning smells like chalk.

Nonscriptor said...

Thanks for elevating my off-topic comment to the status of a thread, Mr. Zero.

I, too, hate whiteboards.

@Mostly Anonymous,

While students can regurgitate what's on the chalkboard, many of them seem not to learn what's on the chalkboard. The evidence for this is that many of them are unable to use what's on the board. They can't tell which parts, if any, answer a question on the exam, they can't draw inferences from it, etc. My hope is that moving away from the chalkboard will force them to think about the content, which will help them learn it in a deeper way. My strategy so far has been what you suggest: writing down all and only the things that I would like students to understand well when they leave the course. The problem is that this doesn't seem to lead to them understanding it.

Anonymous said...

In my Introduction to Ethics course I lecture without PowerPoint, I write on the board only rarely, and I don't distribute notes or outlines. My students tell me that my course is somewhat more difficult than their other introductory courses, but they seem to understand the material pretty well. For what it's worth, my evaluations for that course tend to be pretty close to the university average.

Anonymous said...

I hate chalkboards. Chalk smells like Satan and hell and death, and feels worse than all of the above.

Whiteboards are the only piece of technology in the last 50 years that I approve of without qualification.

Big D said...

Everything to do with chalkboards (writing on them, touching them, even touching the chalk) gives me that "nails on a chalkboard" feeling. Obviously, I prefer whiteboards.

Unknown said...

I provide handouts where the important moves are left blank. Thus, the notes are structured in argument/objection etc form, but the students need to pay attention and fill in the important stuff from lecture, discussion, or group work.

Mostly Anonymous said...


From your original remarks, it seemed to me that your students are identifying what you put on the board as the material important enough to recall. I appreciate that they don't know what to do with that material, but I don't see how leaving them in greater doubt about what material they should really care about will improve things. It seems to me that the students will just be less likely to be able to identify what material is important.

I might be completely wrong. I haven't ever seen you teach, and I don't know anything about your students.

Frank O'File said...

In discussion based classes, I quite often write points that students have raised (or that I think they've raised) on the board.

I also have a standard spiel I give them in which I warn them that they should not assume a) that everything I write on the board is true; b) that everything on the board is something that I believe is true and c) not everything I write on the board is something which is relevant to an exam question on the topic we are discussing.

Apparently, even if they rememebr nothing about the rest of the course, students remember this set of dicta, since I've had it quoted back to me. I'm not sure whether that counts as a wine..

Anonymous said...

This just seems entirely backwards to me.

Agreed. If students appreciate your writing on the board, then keep doing it. And then work from there. Why eliminate the common ground? As someone accustomed to sitting around a seminar table and discussing the abstract, it's all too easy for me to lecture without writing anything on the board. But my students tell me it's really helpful, and so I do it. And, yeah, I find writing on the board helps me keep track of the pedagogical aspects of my lecture (i.e. not just the material as I see it, but the material as it needs to be presented to my students).

For what it's worth, I respect the chalkboard but always break the chalk. And it never erases as cleanly as I'd like. And I have longer than normal nails on my writing hand (which is also my guitar string-plucking hand). So, yeah, put me down for the whiteboard.

zombie said...

Chalk haters, ya'll need to get yourselves a chalk chuck.

Dry erase pens are the Devil's hand tools. They even smell like perdition. Powerpoint is the Devil's boring roommate.

Anonymous said...

In all classes I teach, my philosophy is to use the board as a means to illustrate, in an organized way, actual instances of use of the techniques I'm teaching my students.

It's easy to see how this works in a logic or critical thinking class.

What about a philosophy course? Are there "techniques" to be illustrated?

Probably not as much--but there are some. One technique is the delineation of arguments and the interpretation of them as instantiating logical forms etc. That's something I illustrate on the board.

Another technique is visualization of possible worlds and hypothetical scenarios. That's something I illustrate on the board as well.

That's pretty much all I can think of when it comes to my use of the board in philosophy classes. I intentionally avoid using it to note down names, dates, or big words--this seems like a waste of time to me. That kind of information is available in the text if the students need it.

I have always been skeptical of the value of taking notes--I know!--and so I've never really used it intentionally as an illustration of note-taking.

(Why am I skeptical of the value of taking notes? Let me put it this way: It's incomprehensible to me that people could be simultaneously listening and writing. However, I also know that people are different from other people, so I give those who want to take notes the benefit of the doubt and don't forbid it or anything. But I've been tempted! I have witnessed clear examples of cases in which a student's attempts to take notes were getting in the way, not helping at all, as concerns their comprehension. An other problem is that note taking seems very often to lead to an inappropriate focus on "exact wording" and diffulty in focussing, instead, on the thoughts expressed.

Part of the problem is probably just that a lot of students don't know how to take notes. I know I never got the hang of it myself. How do you listen and write at the same time?!)

Anonymous said...

Oh Zombie, you make me LOL.

Tragically, though, I agree with the whiteboard lovers. This year I started teaching at an institution that ONLY uses white boards, and I was amazed by 1) how much more awesome it is to teach without the awful feeling of chalky fingers (which, btw, also always resulted in chalky spots on my pants) and 2) how much more legible my board-writing became.

I write on the board a lot (I think my approach is similar to yours), so these are pretty significant considerations. If I move institutions to a non-whiteboard place, I'll look into this Chalk Chuck of which you speak.

As to the original point of the thread, I do find that some students (usually the ones less prepared for college work) have problems understanding that they're not *just* supposed to write the stuff down on the board. When I first realized this, I felt kind of bad, because I saw that these particular students' notes were basically just mimics of my board-writing, which would be confusing if you encountered it without, you know, contextualizing explanations. But I don't think the solution is not writing on the board. Instead, I actually tell students things like "when I write something on the board or give you a handout, it's to give you a clue that some idea we're talking about is important, so you should pay close attention to what's going on conceptually, not just the words I write down." This might strike some as a bit goofy, but I've found that it definitely doesn't go without saying for many of my students, who are often totally ill-prepared for college work, not only in terms of writing/reading skills, but study/note-taking skills as well.

Anonymous said...

Chalk chuck. I'll look into this, since I have to use both chalkboards and whiteboards. But it won't solve the dry, frictiony sound of writing with chalk or the irritating clackety clack that accompanies each word.

Do they make a chalkboard eraser chuck? Just touching those things makes me feel like I've been dying of thirst in a desert for a month.

The smell of dry-erase marker: heaven.

Anonymous said...

I use powerpoint, though I try to keep the number of slides - and the amount of info on each slide - to a minimum. I think students need some guidance to pick out the main ideas. Lecture and discussion puts the flesh on the powerpoint bones. The hope is to make the powerpoints a guide but not a crutch - not something that they can simply regurgitate when it is time to write a paper, and not something that they'll spend an inordinate amount of time copying in their notes. (I tell them I'll make my slides available online, though this rarely deters them from copying them.)

Illustrating examples, keeping track of student ideas and suggestions, etc., is done on whiteboard. And this brings me to my most important point: whiteboard rocks!

Tim said...

One major advantage of whiteboards over against chalk is the possibility of using distinct colors. (I'm a chalk lover myself, but think whiteboards are pedagogically more effective.) This is especially helpful for illustrating what you might think of as "variations on a theme". For example, when I talk about theories of perception, I have a basic illustration that I mark up in different ways to highlight the differences among various theories. When those differences are contrasted from the basic, common picture with color, the students are better able to grasp the distinctives of various views and, thus, where the views diverge. (Other cases where I use this sort of thing: theories of properties; the contextualism/invariantism dispute about 'knows'; views of representation by propositions/worlds.)

More generally, though, I've had many, many students comment on how helpful these illustrations are for them. And their claim to understanding is confirmed by how they express themselves in class, in my office, and in their papers. So that's a reason to use the board (at least in this sort of way) rather than just talk, I think.

Anonymous said...


Ever heard of colored chalk?

Anonymous said...

I don't like chalk boards -- (and yes I've tried one of those chalk chucks) and I don't like white boards either. I simply HATE writing on the board altogether. I have handouts on my website that I project in class and the kids can download ahead of time so they don't have the pressure of writing everything down. The handouts themselves however are carefully constructed to go with the lecture and important things are left blank and covered only in class.

Anonymous said...

Does it seem like you might want to consult some educational theory to deal with this problem? I'm pretty sure that there have been discussions of this nature for nearly a hundred years that might help you out.

KHG said...

It sounds to me like your students are memorizing the ideas you write down. That kind of passive learning is useful, but not the ultimate goal of any philosophy class. How about switching teaching modes after you've written something on the board? You could ask them to apply the concept you've explained. If this is what you are asking them to do as part 2 of your test questions, then practicing actively in class may be what they need. I fear that lecturing slowly would reinforce the same model of passive learning as writing on the board does. Good luck with the changes you make!

Anonymous said...

When I don't plan ahead how I'm going to use the board in a particular class meeting, I wind up just writing words and phrases that come up during lecture and discussion. If someone left the room with all and only what I wrote on the board on those days, they'd be totally lost by the time an exam or paper assignment comes around--if not much sooner.

So now I plan ahead exactly what I'm going to do with the board on a particular day and why, and I also consider whether something else might work better for that day (a handout or a single, carefully designed ppt slide).

Now for the silly bit. I also go all Five Obstructions on my plan every now and then--I throw away my plan and start over with a restriction. Comes in handy when the restriction actually fits the circumstances (the board turns out to be unusable or all 8 markers are ruined or the projector is broken, or the copy machine is down, etc.)

Anonymous said...

One of the nice things about whiteboards is that it makes me feel like I'm teaching a business seminar on winning or synergy or some shit. It's especially nice when my students push to have all the material condensed into bullet points that they can copy down from a powerpoint presentation.

(wv: vitted. I vitted the last fool that tried to take my blackboard. You don't even want to know what that means.)

Anonymous said...

I use dustless chalk. Hold on--ins't chalk just dust? How can it be dustless?

Anyway, what philosophers never get is any training on how to teach. Students learn in many different ways. Some can pick up on lectures, some need to see things on the board. So keep on putting things on the board.

Anonymous said...

I love some aspects of the whiteboard (all things that have been mentioned here) but intensely dislike the 'white' part of whiteboard. Combine it with fluorescent lights and the white plastic tables in the classroom and the teaching environment is only slight better than teaching in a racquetball court.