Beginning the Year with Math Journals

Math JournalingLast Monday marked the first day of my 2015-16 school year. It’s been an amazing week but I’m glad the weekend is here. Yesterday my school had its annual PTO picnic and I now have some time to write. I feel like I need time to process and reflect on the whirlwind of events that’ve happened over the past week.

Last Tuesday I planned on giving student their journals. Before passing them out I decided to cover a few ground expectations. I had a discussion with the students about what the journal will be used for. In the past, students used the journal to reflect on different assessment results.  This year I want to add more goals related to journal use. Primarily, the journal will be used by and for the student to reflect on math experiences and answer prompts. I told the students that I’d be writing feedback or ask questions related to their journal responses throughout the year. Most students were relieved when I said that the journal wouldn’t be graded. I indicated that it may be used during parent/teacher conferences or to show growth over the year. The students didn’t seem to have a problem with that. I ended the brief conversation reiterating that the journal was for them.

One of my priorities this year is to have students write more in math class. I read a book this summer that exposed me to research related to connections between the brain and math.  In particular, I found that students need adequate time to process and rehearse mathematical information for it to be retained.  I feel as though newly acquired math concepts can be processed through reflections and the writing process.  I intend to have students explain their thinking and view of certain mathematical concepts. I’d also like to give students time to process what they’ve been experiencing and document those events. I feel like students, just like adults, need time to process and reflect.I feel like the math journaling process can lead to the rehearsal of math concepts. In a sense, students are practicing what they’ve been learning and personalizing it through their journal writing.

So, this week all the grade levels that I teach had an opportunity to start their math journals. All classes participated in the Marshmallow Challenge and that event related to their first journal entry

Tell me about your marshmallow challenge experience.

The first response was more geared towards helping students recognize the teamwork involved as the classroom was, and currently is, building a community of learners. The second journal entries were content specific

How do arrays help me multiply?

What’s the difference between rays and line segments?

Students gave me a variety of responses. Some were lengthy with many pictures, while others barely scratched the two sentence mark.


Visual model

ArraysRegardless of the length, I’m finding that some of the students’ math understanding is revealed in their writing and pictures. I’ve already been able to find misunderstandings through student journal entries that might have taken longer to expose using other means. Also, writing feedback to the students gives me an opportunity to extend understanding by asking questions that lead students to question their responses. This year I’m attempting to use math journals more regularly and so far (only 5 days) we’re off to a decent start.  At some point I’d like to have student complete a journal prompt related to how they use my feedback in their journals.

Better Student Reflections


This year I’ve attempted to incorporate more student reflection opportunities in math classes.  This reflection has taken on different forms.  Reflecting on math practices is evident through classroom conversations and through student math journals  I feel as though a heavy dose of student reflection can go a long way in having students build awareness of their strengths and areas that need bolstering.  My focus this year has been geared towards students reflecting on their unit assessments.  I want students to understand that reflecting on past performances and setting goals can help them improve going forward.  I don’t believe all elementary students come to this conclusion all on their own.

At the beginning of the year I analyzed all the different methods to promote student reflection opportunities.  The timing of student reflection matters. My classes generally have approximately 11 unit assessments throughout the year.  Having formal reflection points after the assessments provide a number of checkpoints along the way.  I decided to start by finding/creating student self-reflection templates.

My student reflection sheets have changed over time.  The evolution of what was created can be found below.


Students identified corrected answers and showed reasoning.
Students identified corrected answers and showed reasoning.

At the beginning of the year students were asked to find problems that were incorrect and delve deeper into the reasoning. Students had to seek out why a problem was incorrect and explain how to find a correct solution.  This offered little interaction between the student and teacher, although some students would come up to the teacher to get further clarification on specific concepts.


Positive elements

The above portion was added to the first and helped students focus on positive elements of their performance while still addressing areas of improvement.


Persevere and stay focused component
Persevere and stay focused component

One major area that I thought needed strengthening was in the perseverance department.  The above section was added to help students find strategies that they could use when approaching a complex problem.


Analyzing specific math concepts
Analyzing specific math concepts

Around the third unit assessment I decided to merge a more standards-based grading approach.  I had students identify which problems were associated with certain math strands.  Students then analyzed those results to look at possibly setting a relative math goal.


Written reflection and growth mindset
Written reflection and growth mindset

By this time students were becoming more reflective learners.  I liked what I was seeing and felt like students were benefiting from this reflection opportunity.  I added more pieces that emphasized having a growth mindset – e.g. connecting to achievement.  This was also the first time that I had students and teachers sign-off on the reflection.  I was able to have short discussions with the students about their assessment.


Identifying areas of strength/concerns
Student goal setting piece

Around the fifth unit assessment I added a goal setting part to the reflection sheets.  I haven’t tweaked the reflection sheet much since then  feel the results are positive.  Students are not as infatuated with the letter grade, but more focused on specific concept areas of the test.

I’ve used this sheet for the last few unit assessments.  It’s in a Word format so feel free to edit it and make it your own.  There’ll never be a perfect student reflection sheet but this has worked well for my students.  Moreover, students are able to look back through their math journals and see their own growth over time.

Last week I passed back a graded unit assessment back to a group of fourth grade students.  Each student took a peek at their paper, looked over their problems and grabbed their math journals.  Students found a comfy place in the room to reflect on their results and set goals for the next unit.  After students finished the reflection they brought the sheet up to me to discuss the reflection and next steps.  We both signed-off on the reflection and the students move on to another activity.

This process of math reflection seems to help my students.  It does take up around 30-45 minutes or so, but I feel like it’s time well spent.

How do you use student reflection in the math classroom?


Reflection Journals in Math Class?

Image by:  Samana

In the past, I’ve used reflection journals for language arts assignments.  Allowing students to reflect via journaling was one way that I could informally assess whether students were making connections to the literature.  After utilizing the idea of journaling for my language arts class, I thought that it might be useful to integrate this strategy with math.  Before starting this adventure I decided to complete some homework on the idea of math journaling.   In the past I’ve used standard reflection sheets.  While collecting ideas, I also looked for math journal writing prompts and rubrics 1 2 3 .  I found many ideas and strategies for math journaling here and at Monica’s website. If you’re unsure of how to introduce the topic of math journaling, this Word example may help.  If you’re curious of where to start, I’ve found that this site provides terrific examples.  So, after researching a few options I decided to label all of my journals and prepare for uncharted territory.

After giving a unit assessment, I gave my first math writing prompt:

  • How do you feel about your performance on the last unit assessment?  
  • What type of math concepts do you find interesting?  Why?

Students were also asked to include a picture with their response.  Why a picture?  I thought that allowing students to draw a picture may portray how they feel regarding their performance.  Some students decided to draw more of a picture, while others decided to write more with words.  Allowing this type of flexibility gave students an opportunity to communicate their response to the writing prompts differently.  The students then turned in their journals and I wrote a short response to each individual response.  I feel as though the students really enjoy the fact that I personalize my response to each student. I also feel as though this builds a positive classroom environment, as each student is shown that their opinion is valued.  The journals can also be used during parent teacher conferences, although it might be a good idea to disclose this to the students before they write.

What happend?

After completing a plus/delta chart, students thoroughly agreed that the math journals enabled them to reflect on how they are doing in the class.  Some students even communicated that the journals were a way to set specific math goals.  Currently, I give students an opportunity to complete a journal entry approximately every two weeks.  A byproduct of using the journals may also lead to personal goal setting and more academic involvement from the student.

What’s next?

I would like to incorporate the idea of utilizing specific math vocabulary in the journals. Not only should the math journals be used for reflection, but they can also be used as another opportunity to practice mathematical concepts.  As an elementary school teacher, I think it’s important for students to have a solid understanding of math vocabulary at a young age.  Having consistent definitions is also important. Certain math vocabulary words that are utilized in first grade will accompany a student throughout their entire life.  For example: multiply, divide, sum, fraction, etc.  Overall, I feel that students will become better at understanding math vocabulary and reflect on their learning through the math journals.  The journals will be used consistenly, so students will observe the progress that they have personally achieved throughout the year.