Distributing Cognition Using Whiteboarding Techniques

Whiteboard showing group work

Though I have been an educator for seventeen years, I have regularly struggled trying to find the best techniques to help my students learn information. Cognitive science theories such as Cognitive Load Theory and Distributed Cognition explore how we learn, why students struggle, and reasons pedagogies and techniques have more or less of an impact on student learning.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), combines the ideas of working memory and long term memory by assuming people have a limited amount of working memory. Therefore learning is limited by one’s cognitive load, the amount of new information one can take in and use at any one time. Cognitive load can be reduced when information can be pulled from long term memory instead of requiring that information to be constantly in use. For example, if a student still struggles with a gram to mole calculation, the student’s cognitive load will likely have been too high to be successful at stoichiometric calculations. Often the cognitive overload is a result of the instructional format where too much information is presented without a way to reduce the load.1,2

Ed Hutchins developed the theory of distributed cognition in the mid 1980s and stated that learning is not limited to the individual but distributed among other people, tools, and even objects. 3

Classroom Applications 

One of the goals in education has been to develop strategies to help students distribute their learning and therefore reduce their cognitive load. For the first few years of my teaching career, I approached chemistry teaching in a traditional lecture manner. I lectured to explain a concept and gave my students guided notes to follow the powerpoint. We did practice problems together and then they had some sample problems while working independently. There were problems for homework and practice problems in class the next day. Rinse and repeat. I would add a lab in the mix to confirm what they already knew. On their assessments, I was repeatedly frustrated that they did not demonstrate the information I knew I taught them.

I took my first Modeling Instruction™ workshop in 2015 and learned a new pedagogy which I quickly incorporated into my classes. My classes now focus on having students illustrate their thinking and address higher level thinking questions. Instead of a confirmation lab, my students conduct a paradigm lab where they use their evidence to develop a conceptual model. In this set up, the experiment does not demonstrating a concept already learned – it introduces an observation that cannot be explained using what they already know. We therefore work together to develop a model to explain what we just observed. My students are more invested and engaged in the content on a daily basis since my move to Modeling Instruction™. After the switch, colleagues who walked into my classroom were surprised to discover my students, whom they viewed as academically weak, had discussions about chemistry as they composed their whiteboards.


What is whiteboarding?

Whiteboarding is a teaching technique that requires students to explain their thinking on large, portable whiteboards, usually about 24” x 32”. One of the reasons that modelers and other teachers have used whiteboards in their classrooms is that it distributes cognition and reduces cognitive load of students.



Develop a Model 

This is the most common way that teachers who employ Modeling Instruction™ use whiteboards. We begin each unit with a paradigm lab to set the stage for the unit. After the experiment or demonstration, students use multiple representations to explain what they saw and to develop a conceptual model (figure 1). After students finish their whiteboards, they stand in a circle and look at the boards of their classmates without talking for at least thirty seconds. This wait time is crucial for students to reflect on their boards and on the boards of their classmates. Students ask each other questions about the boards, made comparisons between their own boards and the others they saw, and try and develop an understanding of the chemistry concepts observed.

Figure 1: Developing a Model on a Whiteboard


Why this works: In Modeling InstructionTM, the goal is for the class to come to a consensus on what they learned and how to apply it. This would be a significant cognitive load for students if they were expected to figure it out by themselves. When whiteboarding their model, students are responsible for what they think but are under no obligation to get everything correct. After comparing their whiteboard with other groups, the class, with teacher guidance, develop a model together. Because students have already off loaded some of their thoughts to their whiteboard, they can more easily process what they have learned and developed a more nuanced understanding of the concepts than if I had just given them notes or a definition.


Assign Intentional Mistakes

I introduced the calculation of molar mass the day before a break, and while my students seemed to grasp the concept pretty quickly, I wanted to make sure my students understood the concepts when we returned. We had a brief review and then I gave my students a compound formula and asked them to calculate the molar mass on their whiteboard. I changed up this common problem by assigning each group an intentional mistake. I chose mistakes based on common mistakes I have seen students make:

  • Choosing the incorrect element, such as mistaking chlorine for carbon and iodine. 
  • Distributing a subscript incorrectly such as distributing the 4 to the sulfur and the oxygen in CuSO4 rather than just the oxygen.
  • Adding instead of multiplying, as in thinking there are 5 oxygen atoms in Ca(NO3)2 and not 6.
  • Multiplying instead of adding the masses in H2O might be written as 32 g/mol instead of 18 g/mol.

Figure 2: Two sample whiteboards containing intentional mistakes


After the students finished writing their assigned problem on their whiteboards, they stood next to their whiteboards and I gave each group of students a pad of sticky notes. The students looked at how other groups solved the problem and searched for the calculation and conceptual errors. When a group found the error on a student board, they explained the error on the back of a sticky note and stuck the note on the board. This way the other groups would not see the answer until the activity concluded. The groups circled through each board determining the mistakes until they arrived back at their own board and read through the comments (figures 2).

Why this works: This short, twenty minute activity, allows me to see if students as a whole know how to calculate molar mass by looking at their whiteboards. Although each group had one mistake, I could tell if students could identify mistakes and correct them.

Students were not responsible as individuals to achieve the correct solution, nor were they responsible by themselves to find other groups’ mistakes. By working collaboratively, they helped each other write the wrong answer on their board and identify the problems on the other boards. Students also didn’t worry about if they made a mistake on the board because they knew they had the wrong answer. They were able to use their collective cognitive ability to work through the problem.


Silent Conversation/Speed Dating

I’ve often struggled with the best way to help students prepare for assessments. I have not been a big fan of Jeopardy or Kahoot style games because they favor the student who has the quickest answer and usually only address lower levels of thinking. I use a technique I call a silent conversation. Students work in pairs or small groups on a large whiteboard where they write down everything they know about a topic, or solve a problem that requires them to combine multiple steps. However, they have a limited amount of time, usually about five minutes initially, and they cannot talk to anyone, including their own groupmates. After the first five minutes, students rotate to another group where they add information or comment to refine information already on the board, or correct misconceptions. Each time students have decreasing time on the board, before they finish back at their own board. Then the class examines the boards and we can see how much information they know and what misconceptions remain to be addressed to better inform our review before the assessment.

Why this works: Though there is a timed element to this activity, students share the work in writing rather than orally. Students were not awarded more points for finishing first or with more information. Rather, they were encouraged to build upon and comment on each other’s work. Students wrote questions about what they did not understand and were able to correct other people’s mistakes . Questions were encouraged and because the comments were anonymous, students did not have the pressure of being right or wrong.


Sticky Notes and Whiteboards

Similar to the silent conversation, student groups use whiteboards to review for assessments. I write a different concept/topic on each groups whiteboard and then students write everything they know about that topic on their board. In the silent conversation activity, students were not expected to finish any individual board. Instead, they wrote on every board. This time, they completed just one board. When they finished, the students circulated and wrote comments, questions, critiques, or added information on sticky notes and added them to each board (figure 3).

Figure 3: Silent Whiteboard review activity


Why this works: Students had time to process their thoughts during the silent time. Even though there is anonymity in the sticky notes, students can see questions and comments from other students that helps them solidify their own thinking. At the end of the session, I can outline for students their areas of proficiency and their areas of weakness and can better prepare them for their assessment.


Mini Whiteboards

In addition to my large whiteboards, I use smaller ones, about 12” x 16”, for individual work and quick formative assessments. When I want to quickly see if each student understands a concept, I have them complete the calculations or draw a particle diagram on a mini whiteboard to hold up for me. Other times, I encourage students to use the mini whiteboards as a another form of scrap paper for students to do practice problems or even think out their work on assessments before they finalize their answer. On my most recent final exam, some students raced to grab the mini whiteboards and their favorite color dry erase marker, to work out their problems as opposed to using scrap paper. They enjoy using the alternate media. 

Why this works: Providing this time when students can off load information is helping to distribute cognition. I have also discovered that my students work out their problems better on mini whiteboards than they do on paper. My sister, a high school math teacher, refers to these mini whiteboards as "magic whiteboards". There is something about the whiteboard that enables the students to feel freer to make mistakes. Their anxiety decreases and confidence in learning increases.


There are many other techniques to help students learn, but I have found that taking steps to scaffold information to reduce cognitive load and distribute cognition helped students process information and understand chemistry concepts.



  1. Bannert, M. Managing Cognitive Load—Recent Trends in Cognitive Load Theory. Learning and Instruction2002, 12(1), 139–146.
  2. Hollan, J.; Hutchins, E.; Kirsh, D. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction2000, 7(2), 174–196.
  3. Paas, F.; Ayres, P. Educational Psychology Review2014, 26(2), 191–195.

Editor's Note: For readers interested in finding out more, Erica Posthuma wrote about Whiteboarding Strategies she uses in her Modeling InstructionTM classroom in 2014. 

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Comments 6

Scott Milam's picture
Scott Milam | Fri, 08/02/2019 - 08:40

My first reaction is that when I lecture and students do problems after, I don't get the impression of cognitive load. Usually they feel very confident in being able to understand what I said, but can't do it themselves. This suggests to me that it's a lack of engagement where they really aren't utilizing system 2 thinking and too much filtering is happening by system 1. The methods used seemed to focus on that, although I do have many times during discussions and whiteboards where you can really reduce cognitive load as well. 

Ariel Serkin's picture
Ariel Serkin | Sun, 08/04/2019 - 15:39

Hi Scott, thanks for your comment.  I think when students appear to understand the information at first and then can't follow through on their own, we see that students have not been able to take the concept from their working memory and therefore are unable to create schema, or at least can't categorize it well.  I'm not sure if it's an issue of engagement, but rather just not being there yet.  I know that the strategies I outlined aren't appropriate for every situation, and I would love to hear more ideas on how to help students reduce their load.

Meighan Monroe | Sun, 08/04/2019 - 19:15

I love this idea. Where can I find more info on this? Thanks! Meighan

Jeneen Hill | Wed, 08/07/2019 - 20:14

I would also like more information about this.  More examples would be great.  Thanks, great article. 

Ariel Serkin's picture
Ariel Serkin | Thu, 08/08/2019 - 10:27

Hi Meighan and Jeneen,

I use Modeling Instruction pedagogy in my classroom (www.modelinginstruction.org), and instead of using labs or demonstrations to confirm a concept, we use them to introduce a unit and help develop a conceptual model together.  We then deploy and test the model, and when our model doesn't fit, we start the cycle over again.

For example, instead of teaching the names of the gas laws and the relationships, we do experiments first and develop the relationships together based on the data.  This enables students to determine what happened and develop a mental model as opposed to me just telling them.

I have some activity of such that I use to begin each unit.

I stole the following line from a friend

"Acitivity before Concept

Concept before Vocabulary"


does this help?

Eric Nelson | Mon, 08/05/2019 - 18:25

Ariel -- 

I especially appreciate your citations of what scientists who study how the brain works say about how students solve chemistry problems.  For me, that’s a special area of interest.  I think it’s important because the cognitive scientists tell us that many of the ways we chem teachers are able to solve problems, and ways we think our students should be able to solve problems, are ways that, unfortunately, science says our students simply cannot do.

Among the recommendations I’ve collected in reading the science of learning?  Science says:

1..At the beginning of a new topic, give students the new definitions and relationships that are fundamental, ask them to memorize them (yes, memorize) using flashcards or similar strategies, and quiz on the fundamentals early.

The reason is, as you note, the working memory where students solve problems has great difficulty applying relationships which have not been memorized, but is very good at applying information that can be automatically recalled from memory.

2.  Students cannot solve math and science problems by reasoning.  Teachers can because as experts our long-term memory has a vast storehouse of information we rely on, often without even conscious knowledge we are doing so. 

But students can solve problems by applying memorized algorithms, which are procedures that have proven to break problems into steps that avoid working memory overload. 

We may not like to hear it, but in the evolved brain of non-experts, plug and chug is usually the only method to solve that works with any efficiency.

3.. Projects and inquiry are good for students to practice applying newly memorized fundamentals in distinctive contexts.  That’s how the brain builds conceptual frameworks.  But projects longer than 15 minute should be done after fundamentals are recallable, to avoid moving misconceptions into memory.

Two great short "summer reading" articles on how to structure high school classes to maximize student success in learning to solve problems I'd recommend are:

By Barack Rosenshine:  “Principles of Instruction:  Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know,” posted at https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf

and Clark, Sweller, and Kirschner’s “Putting Students on the Path to Learning,” at http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2012/Clark.pdf

Both articles are short, solid, uncontested science. This means sometimes what they tell us is not what we prefer to hear.  But I would submit it’s always best when helping students if we trust that what science says is true.

-- rick nelson