When Dan Richert, Senior Lecturer of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, asks his students to work in groups at their whiteboards, he gives each student a different color marker. Before they begin their group assignment, Dan tells students that he expects them to “make a rainbow” on the board by the time they are finished. In other words, he expects to see each color of the marker (i.e., each student) represented in the collective contributions to the whiteboard work.
One way to address this imbalance is to provide markers for all students. However, most markers are black in color, and when markers are all black (like Henry Ford’s Model T), it can make students’ contributions look the same on the whiteboard.So often, when we ask students to collaborate at white board surfaces, we only provide them with a single black marker. But this approach allows only one student at a time to write or draw and can, in turn, discourage equitable participation.
Giving students not only their own marker, but their own color allows them – and others – to distinguish their contributions within the group.
To make the point, let’s revisit the idea of Dan’s students working at their whiteboards and making their “rainbows” of participation. Consider how student contributions might look when made with a variety of marker colors. Then, see the difference with the same image in black and white. With the color removed, the content remains, but the impression that several students contributed to the final product is lost.
It’s not just the distinctness of each participant’s contribution that is gained when you give students their own color with which to “speak” within the group. Color markers can also be a means to encourage further participation. When a whiteboard shows student contributions in a variety of colors, an instructor can more easily ask about “the contribution in blue” to prompt a student to discuss or expand upon the ideas they shared on the board.
If a student’s contributions are literally marked in color, then there can be greater accountability to participate, too. If a student doesn’t contribute to the rainbow, then their color is literally absent from the collaboration. The visibility of the student’s contribution may encourage them to add their perspective rather than be left out of the conversation or appear that they haven’t participated.
Color markers might also help instructors with calculating the (often frustrating) participation grade. As someone who has led many classroom discussions in my History courses, I can attest that it can be tough to fairly weigh students’ verbal contributions. Yet white board collaborations that utilize color markers could be a way to address this particular grade category challenge. Color markers indicating textual contributions offer another data point upon which to draw in finalizing participation grades.
So, next time you send students to the whiteboards, consider providing markers with distinct colors.
Do you use color markers? How do you encourage student collaboration at whiteboards? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.