How Math Journals Help Students Become Deep Thinkers and Active Learners

Have you ever kept a journal?

If you have, you know that the simple act of writing out your thoughts can help you process them.

This works for kids, too!

Writing is important because it helps us solidify our thinking. Not only that, but journaling helps individuals think about what they are learning.

Math journals allow students to communicate their ideas and thoughts about math. It gives them independence, helps them refine their thinking, and gives them the opportunity to see their growth.

Yet, what exactly are the concrete benefits of math journals for elementary students?


Benefits of Math Journals for Students

Research into the use of math journals for elementary students have proven that there are various benefits in their use. Here are a few specific benefits:

Build Math Vocabulary: When children write about math, they need to use math specific vocabulary. Even when class discussions happen in the classroom, kids don’t all get the chance to speak. Using math journals gives all children the opportunity to practice using math vocabulary appropriately. Research shows that students who used math journals boosted their use of math vocabulary.

Self-Assessment: When students journal, they can reflect on their own achievements, what they’re struggling with, as well as what they’re curious about. Not only does this help them see their own growth, but it can help students build motivation.

Supports Problem-Solving: Research shows that writing rather than speaking about math problems is more supportive of metacognition in problem-solving. In other words, children can grow in their understanding of math by writing about it!

An Amazing Teacher Tool: Math journals can be a fantastic way for teachers to assess student knowledge, identify areas for improvement, and more! When teachers are able to read through students’ thought processes, they can gain insights into how students understand concepts, and more.

These are just a few advantages to using math journals in the classroom. But, how do you use math journals effectively?


How to Use Math Journals Effectively

To use math journals effectively, you have to do more than just hand students notebooks and ask them to write about math.

First, there are the practical aspects. What should your students’ journals look like? Math journals can be physical or digital. One app that you can use for this is Notability.

You may also consider color coding your students’ math journals. For example, have students outline writing about counting with a red marker. Or, use blue post-its to mark operations & algebra.

Then, it’s important to consider what students will write about and record in their math journals. Journal entries can be used at any time during a math workshop. However, these entries should be guided by journal prompts and sentence starters so that students know exactly what to write about. Also, it’s best to use separate scratch paper for writing out calculations rather than the math journal. That way, the journal can be neat and organized.

There are four main sections of writing that teachers can have their students do in their math journals:

Problem-solving: Problem-solving allows for students to think of different solutions, entry points, and strategies.

Some journal prompts could be:

  • Explain two different ways to solve this problem.
  • Draw a picture to represent this problem.

Vocabulary: Math vocabulary allows students to refer to concepts. Students can also create their own definitions of concepts for teachers to see if they are understanding the concepts. Some math journal prompts in this category might be:

  • Write everything you know about multiplication.
  • Explain in writing how you would solve this problem.

Strategies: Working with strategies give students a better understanding of concepts by allowing them to clarify thinking. Some examples of journal prompts in this type of writing might be:

  • How did you know which operation to use to solve the problem?
  • Could you solve the problem another way? How?
  • How did you decide what to do first?
  • Would you use skip counting or addition to solve this problem? Why?

My Thinking: This area puts everything together and gives students the opportunity to reflect on what they know. From evaluating their knowledge to linking math concepts to real life situations, this category of writing is broad. Here are some journal prompts to include:

  • In today’s math lesson, I learned...
  • A way this sort of problem might show up in real life is when...
  • How can you check if this answer is correct?

If you need help finding math problems and activities to use as the subject of your journal prompts, try Matific activities! There are thousands of activities and problems to use in all areas of your math curriculum.

When it comes to using math journals, you’ll also need to consider your workflow. Students love it when you respond to their journal entries and add feedback! So, make sure you pick a regular time to review journals. This is also valuable because math journals are a window into a student's thinking. You can even use them when determining student grades and assessing student knowledge.


Other Strategies for Using Student Journals

Students may have trouble getting started with their math journaling. So, you should take some time to demonstrate the process and what you expect from students. An anchor chart may also help students who struggle to get started with journaling.

Some teachers also take tried and true classroom strategies and adapt them for math journals. For example, have you heard of “Think-Pair-Share”? It’s easy to adapt this to “Think-Pair-Write.” In this scenario, students think about a math problem, talk with a partner about how they might solve it, and then write out their thoughts about it. This can give students the opportunity to share ideas and gain feedback before writing. As students grow in confidence, they may need this sort of support less and less.

Student entries may also be read aloud anonymously. Then, the class can observe where more details or explanations could have been added. This helps the whole group improve their thinking without creating an anxiety-inducing situation by putting one student on the spot.


The Bottom Line on Math Journals

If you aren’t using math journals in your classroom yet, why not give it a try? They are easy to implement, highly beneficial, and help students not only in math, but with language arts.

Once you do implement math journals, you may be surprised by how much your students learn...and how much you learn about them!

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