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Recently, I have started to regularly write on chalkboards. I have also found out that I am quite terrible at it, although my handwriting is quite good.

Any tips or strategies for a beginner are welcomed.

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    Is this about the physical act of writing and/or about the content of what you write? Can you explain a bit more what do you mean by 'terrible'? – deags Nov 11 at 20:32
  • The question is about the physical act of writing, the content is not important. I write too big, and not in a good linear fashion. – Danijar Dreger Nov 11 at 20:34
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    There are universities that still use chalkboards instead of whiteboards? – nick012000 Nov 11 at 20:42
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    @nick012000 Yes – Azor Ahai Nov 11 at 20:43
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    @nick012000 Yes, indeed. Mine for example (and I hope they will never move to whiteboards). – Massimo Ortolano Nov 11 at 20:45
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This is going to sound stupid, but I've seen it work. Try dividing the blackboard with vertical lines to create narrower "pages." This will make it easier to write in a straight line and will discourage you from writing too large. Of course, the "pages" need to be large enough that you don't write too small.

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    And it will make much more fit on the blackboard! It's like 2-column style in CS, except here it's actually helpful. – darij grinberg Nov 12 at 1:26
  • Why would that sound stupid? – FerventHippo Nov 12 at 11:44
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As you mention this is about the physical act of writing, then yes, there are things you can do.

Put a projector with text on various sizes (like the vision testing charts optometrists use) and walk to the end of the room to see which size is more fitting given the room size, then go back to the board and mark the size. You then can measure it with a normal ruler (there are BIG wooden rules and instruments for chalkboards too) and then proceed to mark at the edges of the board the lines for that letter size. Then you can get some threat and tape from mark to mark to make a whole board ruler to mark dots on the board (or place stickers).

Then it's practice, practice and practice.

Sectioning the data you are going to put on the board before hand in a notebook can help you plan the spacing and distribution. It's a good practice for the lecture but it can be time consuming.

Alternatively,if you want to help the students more then you can provide them with digital notes on the topic.

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Maybe it's silly, but there is a section on Blackboard Technique in Gian-Carlo Rota's Ten Lessons I wish I had been Taught that I have always found very useful:

Blackboard Technique

Two points.

a. Make sure the blackboard is spotless. It is particularly important to erase those distracting whirls that are left when we run the eraser over the blackboard in a non uniform fashion.

By starting with a spotless blackboard, you will subtly convey the impression that the lecture they are about to hear is equally spotless.

b. Start writing on the top left hand corner. What we write on the blackboard should correspond to what we want an attentive listener to take down in [their] notebook. It is preferable to write slowly and in a large handwriting, with no abbreviations. Those members of the audience who are taking notes are doing us a favor, and it is up to us to help them with their copying.

When slides are used instead of the blackboard, the speaker should spend some time explaining each slide, preferably by adding sentences that are inessential, repetitive or superfluous, so as to allow any member of the audience time to copy our slide. We all fall prey to the illusion that a listener will find the time to read the copy of the slides we hand them after the lecture. This is wishful thinking.

  • Regarding a: Great advice! It also suggests that you care about teaching (which is not as clear as one might hope). – user115896 Nov 11 at 20:59
  • If you're going to hand out copies of your slides, hand them out before the lecture. That way even after you've moved on to projecting subsequent slides, students can go back and look at things they missed or didn't understand earlier. Ideally, the students can even spend a few minutes going through the slides before the lecture starts so that they can have some sense of the overall structure and what will be explained when; this can let them be better prepared actually to absorb the material when it's presented. – Curt J. Sampson Nov 12 at 8:11
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I was a teacher for 2 years. After the first month or so you get comfortable using your arms to write more / larger. If you are a teacher / lecturer than the best two options are

  1. Do a practice lecture or a component of it depending on the length before hand. Particularly practice any diagrams ahead of time.

  2. Just ask your students. Everyone has different handwriting. Ask if they can understand yours. Adjust size or specific letters / habits as needed and eventually you will meet in the middle. Your writing wont be perfect but it will be large enough everyone can see and no characters will look too similar. At the same time, your class will learn how you write and adapt.

After a year or so you will break almost all bad habits and the one or two you have your students will adapt to quickly when they can make out all but one letter. It wont be too hard to figure it out

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I assumed that chalkboards were last used when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

Anyway, write slowly and with large figures. Practice. It will probably get better with practice.

But.

The reason for the chalkboard - dinosaur allusion is that the technology is terrible. It was used at a time when there were few options and no better ones. It was difficult and expensive to distribute notes in other ways at that time. Your back is to the students so you are focused on what is in front of you, not on them. You don't see puzzlement on their faces when it occurs. They need to interrupt you vocally to ask a question and that is harder to ignore than a hand raised silently that you can postpone responding to. Whiteboards are no better here, of course.

For this reason, write big so that you can't write as much. Write slowly so that they can keep up and so that you don't try to overdo the stuff on the blackboard with too much detail or content. Don't make it a goal that students just copy what you write there and think they have learned something.

Use the blackboard for things that matter and that you want to talk about otherwise, not just to get it "up there". An important definition (the derivative) might be written on the board so that you can talk about its parts and what they mean -- the difference quotient, the limit, ... how it fits. This leaves the rest of the board free for drawing examples.

If you have a lot of notes for them, then distribute them on paper or electronically. I like paper since the students can write on them in class without a computer. I prefer distributing them before class. If they are read, then you can use the face time more effectively without turning your back on them. See "Flipped Classroom" here and elsewhere.

I once actually took a course from a professor who seemed to believe (the old story) that the purpose of a lecture is to transform the professor's notes into the student notebooks without going through the mind of either. Don't be that professor.

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    Actually chalkboards and whiteboard for markers are in wide use, specially in developing countries due to budget and technology access constrains. A lot of students still have no access to a PC or internet at home and the cost for mobile is prohibitively expensive. Even in private school a whiteboard is generally the norm as it also serves as a screen for projectors. I agree on the writing what matters. – deags Nov 11 at 20:50
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    Sorry but -1. I strongly believe that chalkboards are the single best tool to discuss mathematics, be it with colleagues or with students. They leave whiteboards and (shudder) slides in the dust in terms of effectiveness. Of course blackboards require technique, which is what this question is asking about. – Denis Nardin Nov 12 at 6:47
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    Does this answer really answer the question op asked? – DakkVader Nov 12 at 7:10
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    Totally agree with @DenisNardin. Actually, my university has, besides the chalkboards, interactive whiteboards in every room, given by some donator who didn't care of what's useful. Still, all professors use the chalkboards, and I understand why it's better, both from student and from lecturer's perspective. – Anton_P Nov 12 at 8:49
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    @nick012000 For one thing, chalkboards force you to write slower and to make pauses to erase them properly. Whiteboards are an acceptable, if inferior, substitute but I personally find the smell out of the pens you use to write on whiteboards much more noxious than chalk dust. – Denis Nardin Nov 12 at 12:28
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Try to have a good attitude about it. And make use of any technology available.

In undergrad, one of my profs would write on slides directly on the overhead projector. It meant he could produce his stuff in fairly normal sized printing on the slide, and he could even be sitting down when he did it. He had a tall stool by the projector. It means he can be looking at the class when he writes.

One day, the overhead projector was pointed at the curtains at the side of the room when he turned it on. Without missing a beat he said "if you will look over there" and did his lectures on the curtains.

But if you find it difficult to use the blackboard, possibly there is an overhead projector you can use. You can get dry erase markers in many interesting colors and nib widths. And then you have those slides that can, in principle, be transferred to other lectures.

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