Respond and adapt on the spot to improve your teaching

An illustration of a teacher at a whiteboard with her students with their hands up

Source: Illustration: © Smartboy10/Getty Images; notes on board provided by the author

Learn how to maximise the flexibility of writing on the board while you teach

I love writing on the board. As an NQT, I looked up to colleagues who had been teaching for more than 30 years and this is how they taught. Several years later it continues to make up the core of my practice. Advantages include: the ability to instantly change a lesson based on formative assessment, better modelling and changing the sequence of questions to build fluency and confidence. The greatest difference may be seen in students with low prior attainment. However, effective use of writing on the board is becoming a lost art. 

Guiding student practice

Writing on the board introduces new material step by step while limiting the volume of material students receive at any one time. When you write, you slow the pace of your explanations, meaning you can be more detailed.

For example, while guiding students through mole calculations, you can model the process on the board:

  • identify the information given in the question;
  • retrieve equations to use;
  • enter information, explaining where it comes from;
  • go through calculations; and finally
  • co-construct a set of instructions for students to use in independent practice.

For example, while guiding students through mole calculations, you can model the process on the board. Begin by identifying the information given in the question; then retrieve equations to use; enter information, explaining where it comes from; go through calculations; and finally co-construct a set of instructions for students to use in independent practice.

You can accompany this with a running narrative explaining, questioning and checking students’ understanding at each step. This is preferable to presenting the model all in one go and then having to unpick common errors or misconceptions that may arise.

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Adaptive questioning

Writing on the board provides the opportunity to ask more questions, from interleaved retrieval and checking for understanding to targeted probing questioning of why or how.

You can easily adapt questioning to change the level of difficulty or complexity, ensuring both a high success rate and correct level of challenge. If students struggle or need more practice, you can add examples, annotations and further explanations. Questioning, alongside formative assessment, means you can precisely identify where an error or misconception has arisen.

Responsive teaching

At any point you can modify the lesson to respond to students’ needs by changing the sequence, complexity of task or adapting explanations. You can do this while guiding student practice or in response to retrieval, formative assessment and questioning. If prior knowledge is lacking or students struggle unexpectedly, wipe the board clean and change the lesson to explain molar ratios or how to calculate relative formula mass – without worrying about the next slide in a presentation or students thinking you are going off topic.

You can add depth and improve explanations by using annotations, providing supplementary diagrams and additional examples and non-examples. I cannot count the number of times I have annotated a chemical symbol to show how where the numbers go tells us different information – most recently to a Y12 student triggering a light bulb moment.


  • Don’t be scared to have a textbook or notes out for reference or to copy from.
  • Secure subject knowledge in advance by discussing with colleagues, reading texts and around the subject, knowing common misconceptions and links between topics.
  • Plan which parts of the lesson require prior knowledge and retrieval – this will either need to be retrieved or retaught and may be where students may need additional practice.
  • If students don’t know – reteach!
  • Before the lesson write on the board and go to the back of the classroom to check you can read it.
  • It doesn’t have to be for the whole lesson.

As with all good teaching, writing freehand on the board (or on a graphics tablet) depends on strong subject knowledge. However, there are few media that grant greater flexibility to enable truly responsive teaching than a whiteboard and pen. By writing on the board, I aim to ensure all my students have a high success rate in lessons, lower cognitive load and be a responsive teacher. Throughout my teaching I have found this has resonated with and supported students with low prior attainment most. The benefit of not having to fight over the last scrap of A4 paper, the only working printer, worrying about the projector overheating (again!) or having to prepare a colourful animated slide show is a most welcome bonus.

Finally, reflect and practise. If writing on the board throws up misunderstandings or confusion, remember this may always have been the case, but now you can more easily identify those difficulties.