Peer Review with Whiteboards

Credit Where Credit’s Due

This idea was heavily influenced by @kellyoshea‘s Whiteboard Speed Dating  Click over and check out the idea; it really is fantastic! Essentially, students work on their whiteboards on a problem in pairs, and then they all shuffle around in a specific way and continue working. From Kelly’s blog:

Original Seating arrangement.


And then after a shuffle:


(Both images are from Kelly’s Whiteboard Speed Dating post)

What I specifically took from her post was the seat shuffling and of students examining other students’ work, but I modified it some. I call it “Peer Review with Whiteboards.” I’d love something catchier… hmmm…

The Basics

I love the idea of having students that wouldn’t normally group up talk and work with each other. I think it helps greatly with promoting a community of learners. At one point, I heard one student ask another what their name was. We have 3 weeks left in the semester! This student can’t have been the only one, and it illustrated to me that I haven’t done enough to promote the class as a whole working together.

I posed the following problems on the board. This was done a couple of days after students had gone through an inquiry-ish introductory lab on light. Coming into this, their prior knowledge (hopefully) was:

  • Light moves in straight lines called “beams” or “rays.”
  • We see things when light bounces off of them and goes into our eyes.

(*Notice that I said “hopefully.” That’ll become important later on.)

They completed the following questions on their whiteboards. The entire class worked on one problem at a time, and we wouldn’t move on to the next problem until the Peer Review process was completed. Each group was a pair. Even though they all sat in a 4 person group, I had the pairs work independently of the rest of their tablemates.


Once all groups had completed their diagrams, I had them shuffle. However, I had them shuffle a bit differently than in Speed Dating. They go from this…


To this…

peer-review-3  peer-review-4

This is an approximation of how my room is arranged. I’d say “left-side tables, move counter-clockwise!” The next iteration, I’d have the right-side tables move clockwise. I switched it up so that the same group of kids weren’t moving each time. Each time a group would move, they would take their whiteboard and marker(s) with them.

Now that the everyone has shuffled around, this is where it gets interesting.

Peer Review

Now that everyone is settled into their new seats, I put up the following directions:

I stressed that the importance of this exercise was in the differences between the two group’s whiteboards. I also emphasized the importance of asking about those differences. I noticed that even though some whiteboards would have some clear, important differences, some students would still say “oh, well, they’re practically the same.” I had to insert myself into their process more than I wanted to get them to see something like “showing the ray going into an eye” is a clear and important difference.

This is why I wrote #1 above the way that I did, which was a change I made after 1st period. I would also say “don’t just decide in your head that a difference is trivial. Come to the decision together as a group.” This helped tremendously. It also helped give groups a conversation to start with, even if it was just rattling off differences that were irrelevant to the concepts at large.

During this, I would walk around and keep an ear out on the conversations. If I saw that a conversation had stalled but felt that more should be discussed, I would ask them to rattle off the differences again. Typically, when I saw that more constructive conversation could happen, it was that there was a significant difference that hadn’t been addressed. I would have them rattle off the differences to me, ask “do you think that’s a significant difference?” and, when someone said “yes!”, I would ask the one group with the difference to explain why they thought it was significant enough to include in their drawing to the other group.

And then, I walked away immediately. One of the primary objectives for this activity was to get them talking to each other more. As soon as the conversation could be continued without my presence, I removed myself without hesitation.

Once I was satisfied that all groups had worked out all the significant differences in their work, I would have them change places again. Wash, rinse , and repeat until all the groups essentially had the same drawing without having to switch seats.

Why Do I Love This Idea?

I love this idea because it hits several major spots on my “things that happen in a great classroom” bingo board. I also love it because it takes me away from the center of attention. I don’t like being the “gatekeeper” to the kingdom of knowledge or solid, creative ideas, and I’m doing my best to decentralize the learning process.

Students talk to each other more. And not just the ones that they’re friends with already. This helps promote the entire classroom, not just partners and tablemates, as a community of learners.

Peer instruction. Though I didn’t think about this to begin with, I see now that this is a form of peer instruction. When a student sees a deficiency in their own work, another student is able to explain it to them. And since they’re generally on the same “level” of understanding, they can explain it to each other on their own terms while using a common vocabulary. Students correct each other instead of me correcting them.

Students decide what concepts are important. One difficulty I’ve noticed throughout the year is that students had difficulty deciding what factors of a situation were important or not. For example, air resistance and friction. I can’t remember how many times I answered the question “should we include friction?” Activities like this give students experience in zeroing in on what’s important and what should be ignored for modeling a given situation. It’s not very important that one group chose to draw the full circuit instead of just the bulb in their diagram, but them deciding that on their own is far more effective than me simply telling them that.

It’s a wonderful form of formative assessment. I was worried going into this that the activity would be too trivial. Boy, was I wrong! I was able to see instantly exactly where the gaps in students’ understanding were. What’s better is that through the peer instruction, the gaps are filled in almost immediately.

One major key to this activity is the differences in the work that students produce. I explain it like this:

Everyone here has got some really awesome ideas. I’ve seen it time and time again this year. But nobody here, including myself, will be able to come up with a complete, thorough, and accurate explanation by ourselves. It’s like a puzzle. We’ll all have different pieces of the puzzle, and when we put them all together, we get a complete picture.

Here’s the complete “picture” that I wanted students produce. Keep in mind that this was a summary and extension of an introductory activity.

  1. Light rays travel in straight lines.
  2. Light rays are emitted in all directions from light bulbs and other similar point sources.
  3. Light rays are reflected in all directions from objects.
  4. We see objects when light rays reflect off of objects enter our eyes.

As it turns out, not a single group made a complete picture during the first iteration. All of them got one or two pieces. Some had additional pieces that were more advanced extensions of what we were doing. But even those groups were missing one or two critical pieces of the “puzzle.”

It really did feel like watching a puzzle come together. I would see that one group with pieces 1 and 2, but were missing pieces 3 and 4. The would be paired with a group that had pieces 1, 2, and 4, and, after some discussion, both groups’s diagrams now incorporated pieces 1, 2, and 4. The next iteration, they would be paired with a group with the last missing piece.

What was awesome was seeing how students did the next problem. We went from needing 2-3 iterations to just 1-2. With the last one, everyone had essentially the same diagram. I was wow’d!

Ideas For Improvement

I need to figure out a way to make the activity even more like a peer review process. I avoided confirming students’ ideas as correct or incorrect like the plague, and (surprise, surprise!) it was a source of great frustration for them. I think ending each problem with a “board meeting” style discussion would emphasize that they all came to a consensus. I think this would also help students feel more confident in their ideas.

To further help with student confidence in their answers, I think I should have them support the aspects of their drawings with evidence they gathered from the inquiry lab. This way, by the end of the activity, everyone has a thorough set of supporting evidence AND a consensus on what it all means.

Doing this at the beginning of the year as opposed to the end would definitely be best. For this to truly shine, I think students need to do it more than just once. Ideally, after a few times, they would be able to run this themselves with minimal intervention or probing from me. It’s a classroom culture thing, and such a shift from what students are used to takes time to cultivate.

Finally, with this specific activity, I didn’t see any major disagreements. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would have handled it at the time. If handled properly, I think a major disagreement among groups would be fantastic. Another +1 for a board meeting at the end.


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