At our school, we have made in the past few years a significant investment to install high quality digital smart-boards in every St. Gregory classroom, middle and upper school.  (We are deeply appreciative of donors who made this possible!)   These are great tools, but we cannot help but be curious about the research on their effectiveness– and in this month’s Educational Leadership, the stellar Robert Marzano again informs us.   The verdict: “in general, using interactive whiteboards was associated with a 16 percentile point gain in student achievement.”

Three teaching features, he reports, enhances smartboards’ effectiveness.   One is the use of graphics and visuals: “pictures and video clips from the Internet, sites such as Google Earth, and graphs and charts.”   This is consistent with one of Marzano’s biggest emphases in his research (see Classroom Instruction that really works) that ““probably the most underutilized instructional category of all those reviewed in this book– creating nonlinguistic representations– helps students understand content in a whole new way.”  That said, Marzano cautions against splattering slides with too many, cluttered images, which can detract from comprehension: “Digital flipcharts should contain visuals, but those visuals should clearly focus on the important information. Also, no single flipchart should contain too many visuals or too much written information.”

Second, he reports on the research evidence for using smartboard

reinforcers—applications that teachers can use to signal that an answer is correct or to present information in an unusual context. These applications include dragging and dropping correct answers into specific locations, acknowledging correct answers with virtual applause, and uncovering information hidden under objects.”

These correlated to a full 31% improvement, but like any teaching tool, they cannot be just a gimmick, just a trick like “virtual applause” without good explanations and clear reinforcement.  “Teachers should make sure that students focus on why an answer is correct or incorrect.”

Finally, he reports that interactive clickers useage by students improves effectiveness, and this is not something I think we are using (yet) very much at St. Gregory.

Learner-response devices—handheld voting devices that students use to enter their responses to questions. The percentage of students providing the correct answer is then immediately displayed on the board in a bar graph or pie chart. Using voting devices was associated with a 26 percentile point gain in student achievement…After asking a question and getting student responses using voting devices, the teacher should typically discuss the correct answer along with the incorrect answers, making sure to elicit opinions from as many students as possible.

With this report in hand, we will begin looking soon at the value of advancing on usage of voting devices; like many readers, I have used them myself on occasion in conferences, and they are a fascinating, interactive tool.   It could be questioned, I suppose, how much class size influences this issue: was Marzano looking at class sizes of 28-36 or class sizes of 12-16, and if the former, is there reason to guess that a teacher in a much small classroom would derive fewer advantages from voting clickers, because this teacher is that much more easily able to do quick comprehension checks with the smaller class?  Nonetheless, something to investigate!

Meanwhile, this blogger needs to remind readers that as much as smartboards are a great teaching tool, it is vital as we consider investments in classroom technology that we balance and reconcile the twin pursuits of empowering our teachers teaching with greater digital tools (such as smartboards) AND empowering our students learning with greater digital tools (such as laptops and smartphones).   St. Gregory has advanced greatly upon the former with our fine, excellent smartboards; next we must look at the latter for important next steps.