← Blog home

Math Journals: Questions Answered


Having your student record his math activities through writing and sketching in a math journal can help reinforce his mathematical understanding.

Whether you call it a notebook or journal, having your student record his math activities through writing and sketching can help reinforce his mathematical understanding. Writing about math processes and creating diagrams and pictures stimulates different pathways of the brain, more than computation in isolation will do. A math journal provides students of all abilities and ages with the flexibility to examine and express their mathematical reasoning. This is especially useful when math concepts are too complex or abstract to keep track of mentally. A math journal also benefits you, the instructor, by providing a glimpse into your student’s mind so you can address any misconceptions and applaud his successes. Also, along the way, you will have a record of your student’s math studies that can be used for a portfolio or homeschool evaluation. How you choose to use a math journal will depend on your purposes, preferences, and the particular age and needs of your student. Let’s review some frequently asked questions to help you decide how you can best implement a math journal in your current program.

What Should My Student Use for a Math Journal?

First, consider your objective when choosing the materials to create a math journal. Do you want your student to be able to categorize his work and materials? A binder or three-prong folder with labeled dividers that separate the different types of entries by chapter, skill, or concept may be appropriate. Do you want him to use it to document his work throughout the school year? In this case, a spiral or composition notebook where he can keep track of all his entries might be more efficient. In this format, worksheets can be taped in and folded, if necessary. If your goal is to add journal entries from time to time, you can staple plain paper together to make small booklets to showcase particular concepts, problems, or a math theme, such a problem solving.

How Can My Student Use a Math Journal?

The good news is that there is not one right way to do math journaling, so feel free to pick a format or a combination of ideas that works best for your student and math program. Keep in mind that the journal can be filled with a variety of math-related concepts, ideas, and experiences. Some possibilities to get your started might include:

• drawings, diagrams, or models to illustrate math problems or math concepts
• written explanations of mental calculations
• lists of math vocabulary or symbols
• math-inspired art (such as tangrams, tessellations, fractals, or symmetry)
an interview with an adult who uses math in a profession
• newspaper or magazine clippings of math-related current events
• photographs of your student doing a hands-on math-related project
• creative writing that features math within the story
• an explanation of how a problem was solved
• biographical sketches of mathematicians
• personal reflections about how your student feels about math

How Often and How Long Should My Student Write in a Math Journal?

The frequency that you use a math journal can be as routine or flexible as you would like it to be. Begin with an attainable goal. For instance, you might choose to have your student reflect on a topic before he begins a unit of study and then again after a few days of instruction. Because of the variety of ways math journals can be used, entries can be generated as often as 1-2 days a week or as occasionally as 2-3 times per math unit. The time it takes your student to create an entry will vary depending on his writing skills, the topic, and guidelines you establish regarding the depth and quality of an entry. Typically 10 minutes is sufficient for most students, but you will want to allow extra time for more complex topics or problems. Be sure to build in time every so often for your student to share and celebrate his work. Doing this will help keep him accountable and provide authentic practice expressing his thoughts and ideas verbally.

How Much Should My Student Write?

Writing about math may be difficult and strange to your student in the beginning. Be positive and encouraging with his efforts, even if he just writes a sentence or two. As the weeks pass he will become more comfortable with math journaling, and you will see improvement in both the content and amount of writing he can produce.

What Types of Questions Are Good Prompts for a Math Journal?

Open-ended questions create greater potential to stimulate mathematical thinking and reasoning than closed questions. For example, “Round 36.67 to the nearest tenth” is a closed question because it requires your student to provide a single “right” answer. This question can be modified to be an open-ended question, encouraging your student to “stretch” his thinking, by considering multiple strategies or solutions, as in, “Give three different numbers that when rounded to the nearest tenth results in 36.7.” By incorporating open-ended questions into math journaling your student, will attain a healthy balance between trying to find the “right” answer and discovering how problem solving works.

Should I Assess the Entries in a Math Journal?

Math journals best serve as a record of a student’s progress and mathematical thinking. Whether or not you choose to grade it formally is up to you. Routinely reading and talking about your student’s entries is probably the most meaningful and effective feedback he can receive. Talk to your student if he gets stuck and comment on what he has written to encourage his efforts. Ask your student to read his response and describe any diagrams or pictures; then give verbal feedback or ask him questions to help guide or extend his mathematical thinking. Some questions you might think about while reading or listening to your student’s journal entries might be: Is the answer correct? Does he include mathematical reasoning that supports the solution? If computation is involved, did he use an efficient method or mental math? If relevant, does his solution indicate the use of estimation or determine if the answer is reasonable? Is there other information you would still like to know about your student’s thinking after he has shared his entry?

If you are looking for a flexible component to complement or enhance your current math program, try incorporating a math journal. By reading and listening to your student’s entries, you can evaluate progress and recognize his strengths and needs. Overall, a math journal is a great tool for your student to process his understanding of mathematical concepts and a fun way for students of all ages and abilities to enjoy math beyond just working with numbers.

A math selfie can help improve problem solving skills, increase self-confidence, and showcase student work while learning math.



About Scottie Altland

Scottie Altland is a certified elementary educator with specialties in math and curriculum development. Previously, Scottie taught grades 5-8 in public schools and worked for a local non-profit organization, offering families and students a broad range of family life education programs. As a mother of two, she enjoys spending time with her family, is an outdoor enthusiast, and continues to love teaching and learning. For the past year, Scottie has served as the Elementary Math Editor for Demme Learning.