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How to Get Your Students to Work at the Board

I call it Group Board Work.

In 2017 I went to a teaching conference: Twitter Math Camp (TMC). (They haven't had one since 2018, and I don't know if they will have one again, but it was an awesome conference.)


One of the sessions I went to was by Jennifer Fairbanks ( and on Twitter @hhsmath) and Katy Campbell (on Twitter @kd5campbell). It was about Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces or #VNPS.

I had never heard of #VNPS before this session, but in the session description, it must have said something about getting your students out of their seats and working on the board because I was excited about going to the session.

At the time I had been trying to find a way to get my students to work at the board. I know other teachers would ask students to work homework problems on the board, but I always felt that would take too long and I would be anxious to get the lesson started.

Students working on the Ambiguous Case of the Law of Sines

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Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces #VNPS

During this session, Jennifer and Kathy explained that a man named Peter Liljedahl, author of Building Thinking Classrooms, did a study where he timed how quickly students got to work when they were given a set of problems. There were 5 different scenarios: 
  1. vertical non-permanent surfaces (whiteboard on a wall)
  2. vertical permanent surfaces (flipchart paper hanging on the wall)
  3. horizontal non-permanent surfaces (a whiteboard on a table)
  4. horizontal permanent surfaces (flipchart paper on desk or table)
  5. horizontal permanent surfaces (in students' notebooks) 

What he found is that students got to work the quickest when they were working on vertical non-permanent surfaces #VNPS. It seems that if students can quickly erase what they've written (non-permanent) then they are more likely to start writing right away, and if students can easily see what other groups are doing (vertical) that also contributes to them starting quicker.

When I explain this to my students they always say, "Isn't looking at other groups' work cheating?" to which I say, "It's not cheating, it's collaboration" to which they say, "Can we collaborate on the test?!" 😆

Before he published Building Thinking Classrooms, Liljedahl had published a study. You can read it here: Building Thinking Classrooms: Conditions for Problem Solving and also check out his article on Edutopia: Building a Thinking Classroom in Math

Honors Precalculus students verifying trig identities

Visibly Random Groups #VRG

Also in Liljedahl's study, he discovered that putting students in groups should be done randomly and in full view of the students. In other words, do not pick the groups ahead of time; use a deck of cards or a website to randomly group them. Part of the purpose of this is that students will "buy into" the group and be more willing to contribute if they can see how the group was formed rather than speculate why the teacher formed the groups the way he or she did. Read more here.

How to use Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces and Visibly Random Groups

  • Give the students an assignment or a task.
  • The task can be one like from Liljedahl's book, such as the Tax Collector task (from page 107 of Building Thinking Classrooms).
  • You could also give your students a set of problems to work on.
    • For example, we were practicing factoring. I took a set of 20 problems and divided them into 4 sections. I made enough copies for each group to get one. Then I cut them into fourths. 
      • I gave each group the first 5 problems. When they finish the first set of problems (and have had the answers checked), I give them the second set of problems.
    • Try to give more problems than most students can finish in the time allotted. This is to keep the fastest/smartest students occupied while still allowing the slower students to be engaged.
    • I like to design the second to last set of problems to be more challenging than the last set.  This is designed to slow down the fastest students and allow the slower groups to catch up.

  • Only 1 marker per group. 
    • Students have to rotate who is doing the writing. I sometimes will stop the groups in the middle of a problem and ask another group member to take the marker and finish.
  • Students must work WITH their group; talk to each other.
    • Students should not just watch their mate work a problem and then wait their turn.
    • If students are not working together, make one do the writing and another do the talking (the one doing the writing can only write what the talker says.)

A bit more prep work:
  • Give the activity a name (I call it Group Board Work or VNPS).
  • Before putting the students in groups, describe the task/assignment.
  • Before putting the students in groups, point out where the "stations" are.
  • Put the students in random groups of 2 or 3 students (3 is preferred).
    • Use the Random Name Picker template from 
    • Or use a deck of playing cards (since you're going for groups of 3, remove one ace, one king, one queen, etc)
Calculus students doing Group Board Work

A few more tips:

  • Stop the activity as soon as (or before) the fastest group finishes.
  • Alternatively, once the fastest group finishes, assign the individuals from said group to go and help some of the slower groups.
  • On occasion stop the class after a few minutes and ask the youngest person in each group (or the person whose birthday is coming up next) to move to the group to the left.
    • The flaw in this system is in the case when one group has gotten off the pace of the other groups. A student might end up in a group doing a problem that he has already completed, this sometimes kills the motivation of that student.
  • Be prepared for some students to resist this activity if it's done too often. Some students prefer to sit at their desks, take notes, and work individually.
    • A good idea here is to remind these students that school is also about learning how to work with other people and share ideas. Reassure them that there will be other times for them to sit and work individually.
  • Be prepared for some students to think they can get lost in the crowd, and allow their groupmates to do all of the work so they don't have to work. 
    • In this case, I identify the student and then later have a private conversation about what I noticed, why it's a concern, and what I would like to see them do instead.
  • Be prepared for some domineering, bright students to take over their group and do all of the problems quickly. 
    • I suggest you quietly remind that student that part of the activity is learning to work in a group and you would appreciate them teaching/helping their peers.

Have you done something similar in your classroom? Let's continue the conversation. Join me in my Facebook group.

Need a head start?

Check out my Factoring Review Board Work resource