Journaling in Math

Writing about mathematics helps students articulate their thinking, and provides useful information for teachers about learning difficulties, incorrect assumptions, and student's progress in communicating about mathematics.
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Updated on: March 15, 2007
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For example:

  • I learned that...

  • I was surprised that...

  • I was happy about...

  • I wish I knew more about...

As they become familiar with journaling, ask students to write about math processes that they already know, as a way to review math content.

For example:

  • Explain how to add two numbers.

  • Explain how improper fractions can change to mixed numbers and remain the same amount.

  • Explain how to use a ruler to measure an object.

Then ask students to explain their understanding of new math concepts.

For example:

  • What is the most important thing to know about place value?

  • What have you learned about decimals today?

  • How could you use percentages while shopping?

Encourage students to use diagrams or drawings to explain their thinking, if appropriate, and have them write about problem-solving experiences, including the guesses they made and how they found their answers.

To help students reflect on their learning, teachers can ask students to write commentaries about what they learned in a lesson or a series of lessons and what remains unclear to them. To encourage clear writing, students can write a letter to a younger student explaining a difficult concept. Working in pairs also helps students develop communication skills. This approach is often very effective with students in the middle grades because they can try out their ideas in the relative privacy of a small group before sharing with the class.

Journaling can be used to:

  • Access prior knowledge: Use before a lesson, and have students write what they know about a topic.

  • To focus students: Use to focus students on the topic being taught if they seem confused. For example, "Write a few questions about the math problem you're working on."

  • Brainstorm ideas: Have students write about all the words, phrases, or ideas they can think of, related to the topic.

  • Ask questions: Have students write questions about the topic or problems they are having in understanding.

  • Focus a cooperative learning group: Have students explain in writing how they worked together to solve a problem or discover an answer.

  • Show progress in thinking: Have students choose a past journal entry and revise it, using information they now know.

  • Reinforce new information: Have students explain what they learned or they write a definition of the new math concept taught.

  • Make an observation: Have students write about what they found out, discovered, or saw.

  • Justify thinking: Have students write what they think and why, or provide a statement and have students tell if it is true or not, justifying their opinion.

  • Apply what was learned: Have students write about how they will use the information, or how it's connected to the real world.

  • Dialogue: Students and teachers (or other students) have a dialogue via written journal entries.

As an extension of journaling, teachers can begin having students write formally about a skill or concept, illustrate it, and include examples. This could then be "graded" or evaluated, going through the steps in the writing process. The final product could be a student-created "textbook," which could be used by the students to teach peers, or younger students.

How Can You Make It Happen?

Each student should have a notebook or writing material that is kept in a designated place in the classroom. You may want to have students write the date or title of a journal entry at the start of each journaling session, so that you can find the entries when you are looking in their journals. Develop a classroom routine of distributing and collecting the journals, such as assigning a student who is responsible for the journals each week.

Provide an adequate amount of time for students to gather their thoughts and write them down. Try using a timer and start with a few minutes of writing time, working up to several minutes. Give students instructions for what to do if they finish writing early. One idea to encourage students to write for the entire journaling time, is to tell them to write anything, or rewrite what they have written, just to keep their pencils moving. Tell them about how long you will give them to write, and how much writing is generally expected.

Students should be seated in a location that makes it easy to write. Enforce a "no talking" rule during journaling time. Teachers might want to spend the journaling time writing in their own journals, to model this practice for students. Provide feedback in the form of a written conversation, questions, notes in the margin, or some notation that lets students know that you are reading their entries.

How Can You Measure Success?

Student journals can be used to assess mathematical thinking and understanding of math concepts. Progress in articulating their thinking should be seen over time.

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