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Math Journals

A math journal, or problem solving notebook as they are sometimes referred to, is a book in which
students record their math work and thinking. They can be used to:
Record the solutions to math problems, along with the strategy and thought processes used to
arrive at the solution
Write about learning: At times students may be asked to reflect on their math learning. For
example, students may be asked to write about "what you already know about ......" at the
beginning of a unit or "what you did today, what your learned, and any questions you have", or
"the three most important things you learned in this unit."
By dating entries the journal provides a chronological record of the development of a students
mathematical thinking throughout the year.
Why Use Math Journals?
While students learn how to "do" math, they must also learn how to articulate what they are learning. It
is important to provide many opportunities for students to organize and record their work without the
structure of a worksheet. Math journals support students' learning because, in order to get their ideas on
paper, children must organize, clarify, and reflect on their thinking. Initially many students will need
support and encouragement in order to communicate their ideas and thinking clearly on paper but, as
with any skill, the more they practice the easier it will become.

Journals also serve as invaluable assessment resources that can inform classroom instruction.
Reviewing a students math journal provides a useful insight into what a child understands, how s/he
approaches ideas and what misconceptions s/he has.

What are the Characteristics of a Good Math Journal Question?

A good question .
builds in differentiation by allowing for multiple entry points and recording techniques, thereby
allowing all students to work at their individual level of thinking,
provides the opportunity for students to learn by answering the question, and the teacher to learn
about each student from the attempt,
may have more than one solution or a variety of possible solution paths that range from simple
to complex,
requires more than just remembering a fact or reproducing a skill,
provides opportunities for students to represent their mathematical ideas using models and
written language,
provides opportunities for students to justify their reasoning and evaluate the reasoning of
has clear, concise directions,
provides opportunities for group work and discussion.
The most important thing to consider when developing a journal question is whether the question
involves significant mathematics. Closed questions such as "Ben had 5 apples. He ate 2. How many
apples did Ben have left?", often seen in early years classrooms, do little to develop a child's
mathematical thinking if the child can answer the question before even getting back to his/her seat. The
child may spend 15 minutes drawing and coloring apples but mathematical thinking is limited.
Changing the question from a closed to an open format such as, 'Ben had 5 apples. He ate some of
them. How many did he eat? How many did he have left?' creates greater potential to stimulate
mathematical thinking and reasoning when a child is asked to show as many different solutions to the
problem as s/he can.

Can Journal Tasks be Revisited During the Year?

Definitely! Good tasks are open ended to allow for different strategies and products to emerge. Many
tasks have multiple solutions and students should be encouraged to choose their own method of solving
problems and representing their findings. Repeating, or revisiting tasks, allows students to engage with
tasks at a deeper level. On the first occasion the student may be focused on how to do the task.
Subsequent visits provide an opportunity for students to communicate their mathematical thinking and
reasoning more clearly.
The methods that children use for representing their thinking will also change over the course of a year.
Repeating a task provides a record of this growth for teachers, parents and students. For example, in
Kindergarten an open ended addition task (see work samples below) may be explored early in the year
before children begin to write number sentences. Early in the year most kindergarten students will
record their thinking in relation to this problem pictorially and may only record one or two solutions to
the problem. As the year progresses symbolic representations will gradually begin to appear and
representations will become more detailed. Making slight variations to a task (e.g. changing the
numbers, context, or materials used) will help to maintain interest while students further develop skills
and concepts. Some teachers like to introduce tasks whole class and then place tasks in centers for
children to revisit at other times throughout the year. Other teachers choose one journal task and repeat
it, with slight variations, several times throughout the year as a record of the development of math
skills and understandings for student portfolios.
The work sample above on the left shows a Kindergarten students' attempt to record her thinking early
in the school year in response to the task: Vanessa had 5 cupcakes. Some were chocolate. Some were
vanilla. How many were chocolate? How many were vanilla? Three months later this student
completed a similar task: Cameron had 6 buttons. Some were green. Some were purple. How many
were green? How many were purple? On this occasion the child's written representation (above right) is
more detailed and clearly demonstrates her developing understanding of addition. Although she repeats
some number sentences, her drawings show all possible combinations of the six buttons.

How often should I use Math Journals in my class?

Some teachers use several tasks a week as a warm up to the math lesson. Other teachers set aside one
period per week for journals, select a task that correlates with the current unit of study and allow more
time for students to share their thinking with one another. Tasks may also be used for assessment
purposes, or as homework. The important thing is to ensure that students are being given regular
opportunities throughout the year to represent their mathematical thinking in ways which makes sense
to them.

What type of book should my students use as a Math Journal?

Our experiences in numerous K-5 classrooms have shown that a notebook with blank pages produces
the best results. Although these are not always as readily available as ruled notebooks (and are often
more expensive) they have a distinct advantage in that students are not restricted by lines and have the
space to choose whether to use pictures, numbers, words or a combination of these to record their
thinking. Visit our Math Journal Gallery pages to see examples of written responses made by
Kindergarten - 5th Grade students when encouraged to make their own decisions about how to record
their thinking.