Magazine article Teaching Children Mathematics

Journal Writing: An Insight into Students' Understanding

Magazine article Teaching Children Mathematics

Journal Writing: An Insight into Students' Understanding

Article excerpt

During the first ten minutes of our fifth-grade mathematics class, students are busily writing in their journals. We use journal writing to focus students on a review or to assess their ideas about a topic before its introduction. We have also used this activity to assess how well students understand a topic in progress. We find that journal writing often brings to light thoughts and understandings that typical classroom interactions or tests do not elucidate. An example of this type of journal writing is illustrated in figure 1. As is evident from the product of the writing task, this student can do a multiplication problem algorithmically but lacks a conceptual understanding of the operation. This student's lack of understanding can be further explored by other journal writings or by a direct interview to find out where the student has gotten off track. Journal writing enables us to recognize that this student needs remediation.

Because we have experienced some roadblocks in incorporating journal writing into the classroom, we would like to offer the following suggestions:

1. Since students are often more resistant to new processes and procedures once the school year has started, we recommend introducing journal writing at the beginning of the school year. Let students know that journal writing is an expected activity for mathematics class that can give them a greater understanding of mathematics and give the teacher a better understanding of their knowledge of mathematics. Explain the reasons for asking them to write.

2. Prepare a special booklet journal in which students can take pride and over which they can have ownership. Suggest that they submit drawings for the cover of the journal. Duplicate the cover on colored paper, fold the cover, and insert plain white pages. A sample cover, such as the one in figure 2, serves to illustrate to the students that this product is special and is to be used only for their thoughts about mathematics.

3. Decide how long to allow students to write; set an egg timer to go off when time has expired.

4. Since students tend to write more if they are instructed to address their comments to a friend or family member, have them write to someone specific.

5. Clearly explain your expectations to your students, and give them details concerning how their writing will be evaluated.

6. Introduce journal writing by using exercises that are affective in nature. For instance, students are able to respond more easily to a question such as "How did taking the math test make you feel?" than to a cognitive question such as "Explain how to subtract 1/5 from 1/2."

7. Respond to the students' writings on a frequent basis. Let the students know that what they write is indeed being read. Reading five journals a night is a realistic goal. The wealth of information that can be gained from the journal is worth the time it takes to read and respond to students.

8. Don't give up. Be patient. Students who are unaccustomed to writing in mathematics class may become frustrated. It will take time for students to understand their teacher's expectations for them.

9. Join the students in writing. Address the topic from a teacher's point of view. Share your writings with your students.

10. Exhibit, with students' permission, those writings that most closely illustrate desirable characteristics, such as clear, concise explanations and creative word problems.

Like most worthwhile endeavors, helping students produce journal writing that will affect their understanding of mathematics and illustrate their feelings and knowledge of mathematics will require time and patience. It will also require practice on the students' part. The following prompts might help students start their journal writing. …

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