Tag Archives: VNPS

Leveraging Vertical Whiteboards for Effective Formative Assessment

First of all, my 6th grade students love working at boards (Vertical Non Permanent Surfaces). They ask me if we are working at boards EVERY SINGLE DAY. That alone is a powerful win in my math class. They would rather work collaboratively to solve problems than listen to boring notes from me. This is 100% in line with my core philosophy: whoever is doing is learning; students thinking rather than listening. Although this post is written from the perspective of the math classroom, boards can be used for formative assessment in any classroom and content area.

One of the exciting things that I have learned is how helpful board work is for me to formatively assess students’ understanding and misunderstandings in real time.

The Numbers

The first advantage of boards for formative assessment is that there are less numbers of places for me to check on. With a class of 30 students, there is not enough time to individually check on each student in an hour long class and provide adequate support. At best it takes me most of the work time to check in with each student, leaving some kids without coaching until the end of period when I finally get to them.

With partner work, there are still too many groups to check on quickly with up to 15 pairs. I can easily get bogged down with a couple of pairs and neglect others. Using groups of 3 at vertical boards, I have a maximum of 10 groups to check. This is more manageable for a single teacher. With boards I assess the entire class by making one lap around the room glancing at each group’s progress before talking to any students. This allows me to quickly assess which groups are on the right track and which may need my support in less than two minutes.

The Visibility

Secondly, quiet students don’t slip through the cracks with board work. When students work alone or even in pairs on practice problems at their tables, I am mostly dependent on them to ask for help when they need it. I always provide answer keys so that students can self-assess and admonish them to seek help when needed, but there are always a segment of students who will quietly struggle without seeking assistance. Whether because of shyness, apathy, or fear of “looking dumb” these students will rarely ask for help.

With seat work, I walk around the room and peek over shoulders to verify that students are on the right path, but this proves time-consuming and often difficult to see student work without interrupting their flow. I often need them to move their hands or stop working so that I can view their work. Some of my students write very small and I cannot read it without taking their paper from them.

But with board work, all student work is clearly visible with my quick stroll around the perimeter of the class. No student can hide from me, not even the shy ones. Students naturally write larger on the boards than on paper so my old eyes can clearly see their work. There is also a quiet buzz around the room so a shy student does not feel singled out when I question them.

I have found boards to be the single most effective formative assessment in my math classroom.

The Work

What am I assessing when I look at student board work? I am looking for common misunderstandings and creative solutions. I don’t just check right or wrong answers, but analyze student thinking and their problem-solving approaches.

  • Do they have a different way of approaching the problem than I would?
  • Are there conceptional errors?
  • Have they forgotten about past math ideas that would help them now?
  • How can I link previous knowledge to current problems?
  • Are they checking each other’s work?
  • Can they explain their thinking?
  • Can they apply their method to a new problem or situation?

The Support

After my quick assessment stroll, how do I address what I observe? When I see a common mistake among many groups, I use a call and response to stop and address the whole class immediately. I “teach” from wherever I am in the room. If it is something minor, students stay at their stations and just listen.

Sometimes I gather the class all around one group’s work to see a unique solution. Other times I might challenge them to find the error in a group’s thinking. Since we have a culture of sharing our attempts at problem solving, there is no embarrassment at looking at partial solutions or imperfect thinking.

Another approach I use is to stop and ask a group to explain their thinking. We can have a conversation about their work and I can push back on misconceptions or give hints as needed to connect their thinking to new or old concepts. I try to use questioning to guide them to figure out their mistakes in computations or challenge their thinking.

Another strategy is to teach a mini-lesson (5 minute lecture) to a specific group or multiple groups during board work. The rest of the class is busy working and I have the undivided attention of the 2-3 students in the group. I have found this to a thousand times more helpful than whole class instruction. The small group is actually listening and you are addressing their specific ideas based on their current work.

However you choose to use board work, I have found it to be the fastest and clearest window into student thinking. How do you assess student board work? What support strategies do you use?

Note: this post is a reflection on my implementation of the Thinking Classroom book by Peter Liljedahl. I have not fully implemented all of his ideas but are playing with the philosophy in my room.

Learn with me!

Board work is just one of the strategies that I use in my classroom. If you are interested in how to implement PBL and SEL to build self sufficient learners, I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling workshops and book studies for spring and summer. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL

The Magic of Vertical Whiteboards

Students working on 1001 coins via @ankermath

As mentioned previously, this year I am committed to getting students to think, rather than just mimic me in math class. A huge component of this is working in small groups at vertical whiteboards (VNPS-doesn’t have to be whiteboards) around my room. Each day students solve either open-ended problems or practice on progressively more difficult problems at their boards developing their own strategies and building on their background knowledge. So far it has made a huge impact in my class.

While vertical whiteboard use is very popular in math classrooms, it is a flexible strategy that can be used in any content area. In science, students could problem solve or document experimental data that they turn into graphs or charts. In social studies students might create timelines or outline key events. In English, it is a great strategy for collaborative mindmapping, brainstorming, or outlining a draft of an essay.

Vertical whiteboards are engaging and a great pedagogical practice to add to your tool bag. Here’s four highlights of why you should try vertical whiteboards too.

Via https://www.globemedical.com.au/adelaide/interact/blog/sitting-is-the-new-smoking.html


Kids sit too much in school. Their bodies need movement. It is not a luxury but a biological need for both their muscles and their brain. I think that most educators realize this, and some teachers use brain breaks to introduce movement into static lessons. But oftentimes adding movement feels like another thing to include in an already overcrowded lesson plan. On the other hand, consistent vertical whiteboard work creates a culture where movement is a part of every day routines.

Whiteboards allows for age appropriate movement. Students don’t need fidget toys because they can move freely in their area unrestricted by desks or the need to “stay still.” I played some quiet music one day this week and noticed several students “dancing” unconsciously while working on the math. Movement while working at boards is natural and individualized as each student moves as their body needs too.

Collaborative Thinking

Students attack the problems together practicing teamwork. There is plenty of research that shows students learning from each other is an effective strategy. Students are able to combine their background knowledge to attempt a solution together. Since students can erase their work and start over at any time, they are free to make mistakes without judgment.

Another key aspect is not bailing kids out. When I restrain my natural tendency to over help students-they think. So instead of answering questions, I respond with questions to point them in what they need to analyze.

This past week, students were struggling with one part of a story problem. Students would ask me, “we need to divide, right?” Instead of bailing them out, I explained that it could be solved with addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. Different groups tried different approaches. After a long struggle when most groups had solved it, one group finally figured it out. A girl in the group jumped up and down saying “we are so smart” after sticking with it and finding a solution. I am seeing students confidence in math grow daily.

Shift in Control

Previously I talked too much in class. We spent a ton of time following the textbook notes in the format of “I do; we do; you do.” At the end, I noticed two things demonstrating how ineffective the notes were. First, we often only had 5-10 minutes left for the “you do” part. Too much time was spent on “I do.” Secondly, I still had many students who needed my help and could not solve problems on their own even though I had just demonstrated it several times and they had examples written down. Clearly it wasn’t working for them.

At the boards, students are working on math and talking about math with each other. They are negotiating strategies and approaches. They are checking each others’ work for errors. Instead of following a prescriptive algorithm that they don’t understand they are using and building their own number sense. It fits my manifesto: “whoever is doing is learning.” I have turned the time of class over to students to work on math instead of aimlessly listening to me.


My sixth graders naturally love working at the boards. After forming random groups for the class period, they immediately get to work solving problems. I have experienced zero resistance or complaints to working on the boards. Students are disappointed when I say that we are done and are shifting to something else. Previously, I heard lots of complaints and resistance to taking notes or practice problems.

Many students say, “I don’t like math, but I like this class.”

Will kids get tired of the boards? Is it just a novelty? Time will tell. So far I have mixed in a game, Prime Climb and the Exploding Dots interactive to work on number sense. If needed I can “spice up” board work, but my guess is that students won’t get tired of boards if the tasks are compelling.

I am enjoying class and having fun too. It makes me more positive and light-hearted. I am less stressed. Kids are loving math class and telling me daily.

Learn with me!

If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to teach SEL skills. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I have limited availability for PBL & SEL workshops during the school year so contact me early. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL