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Math Notebooks

by Jim McCue
(Boise, Idaho)

Hello Fellow Math Teachers,

I have a survey question for you:

Do you require your students to maintain a math notebook and why?

I have taught 3 years of Algebra at the high school level and have started my first year at the community college level. I have observed a strong correlation between well organized math notebooks and strong math students.

Back in the day, as a student, I just did a math notebook along with most students. Now it appears many students have lost this skill and I believe it impacts a students learning process.

I was surprised when I started teaching four years ago, just how many students did not read their math books or take notes at the high school level.

Thanks for your input!

Jim McCue

Boise, Idaho

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May 21, 2011
Notbooks for Organization
by: Jim McCue

Hi Everyone,

Another great skill learned with math students use Math Notebooks is organization.

Students learn the value of organizing their work allows them to retrieve information quickly. This can be used to review for quizzes and tests. Also later on students can use their notebook to refresh on math skills already learned when they move onto the next level.

Notebooks are very powerful tools !

May 21, 2011
New to Notebooks
by: Christina, Liverpool NY

I read with great interest the comments of others about the use of Math Notebooks in a middle school setting. I teach 6th grade math, and have emphasized over the past 9 years the importance of taking notes, steps in problem solving, practice problems, creating a math word bank for vocabulary and reviewing past quizzes and tests. I find my students struggling to maintain their notes on separate sheets of paper held in a binder, and am wondering if a "notebook" would work better. I also feel that the notebook will serve as an artifact that will also document student learning.

As an aside...It amazes me that students and parents understand the importance of practice when learning to play a sport or musical instrument, but for some reason this does not transfer to math.

Feb 12, 2011
Math Notebooks
by: Karin

Hi Jim,

So great to hear from you again! I'm glad to hear that you are doing so well.

Thank you for the wonderful ideas with your Math Notebooks. Because of your high expectations, your students are not only keeping organized notebooks, but I'm sure they are more successful and earn higher grades.

One other thing that I wanted to mention, especially for middle school teachers who might hand out a lot of worksheets, is to make sure that if you require students to complete their work on the worksheet to leave ample room for the student to show all steps.

I tutor a few students who are required to complete their work on the worksheet. However, the students are writing so small and don't have the room to complete the entire problem. Therefore, it's impossible to go back and check their work.

Although, I've asked them to complete their work on a separate sheet of paper, so that they have room, they insist that the teacher requires that they complete their work on the worksheet.

If students keep an organized notebook, it's still important to be able to read those notes and math problems!

Kudos to the teachers who really emphasize this important skill. I believe that it not only helps with understanding the math skills, but organization of any kind is a "life skill".

Thanks again for sharing your ideas! Hopefully you'll inspire other teachers to add Notebooks as a requirement to their Algebra program.

All the best,

Feb 12, 2011
How I grade Math Notebooks
by: Jim

Hello Fellow Math Teachers:

I would like to share how I grade math notebooks at the community college level.

At the begining of the semester, I review all the requirements of what the students math notebooks should consist of such as personal notes, class notes (that I hand out in class)and homework problems showing all work in a vertical format fashion.

Next, I encourage students to show me their notebooks a few weeks into the semester to make sure they are on track.

Finally, on the last day of class when we take our final, I grade the students notebooks while they are taking the final.

I use a simple 5 point scale and assign points for sections completed and how organized and neat it is. Then I evaluate how much effort was put into the notebook for extra credit.

A students notebook is worth 5% of their oveall grade and I give an attitional 5% for extra credit. While this is a lot, it helps motivates student to be committed to building, maintaining and using it as a tool for learning math skills.

Also, it helps students de-stress about letter grades when they know the extra credit can move them up a a half of a letter grade or keep the one they have going into the final.

I'm sure for middle school and high school, perhaps a more frequent grade schedule is needed to insure students comply.

Hope this helps,

Feb 12, 2011
Middle School Notebooks
by: Jim

Hi Brenda,

Stick to your guns on the importance of math notebooks in middle schools. At this level learning habits are being developed. Students need to be shown how to organize so they can use this skill the rest of their lives.

Also, showing the work on how a math problem was determined is critical. Getting students to see the value of solving problems vertical is a key technique when students advance into Algebra I & II when it takes several (4-6) steps to find the answer. Students need to learn how to find their mistakes and make the right corrections.

Also, Administrators and parents would start to apprecaate what math notebooks do for students when they see how much effort goes into learning math skills. My students are amazed how big their notebooks are at the end of a semester and how their notebook is "collection of their works".

Finally, I'm concerned with technoloy such as online math programs (which I love and use) encourages students to simply do "chicken scratch" work on paper in figuring out the answer to input into the computer.

I found students doing this and simply could not retrieve a problem because the sheet of paper became a random collection of scribble everywhere in any manner possible. I simply do not allow this and give no credit if a student chooses not to be organized when doing homework problems.

I predict in five years online math programs such as Plato will become mainstream and getting students to take notes and show work will become even more of a challenge.

Take care,

Feb 12, 2011
Hooray for Organized Notebooks
by: Brenda

I am a middle school math teacher and am finding it so hard to make administrators see the value of notebooks and grading them. There are so many of the students that are in " advanced" classes that do not understand the importance of having notes and using them as study tools.

I have to believe that one day society will see that some things done in the past do have a value today. Too often parents and adminsitrators want to take away a students rights to be responsible for their learning.

An organized useful tool like a notebook should not be ignored.

Feb 11, 2011
Update: Notebooks in the Community College
by: Anonymous

Hi Karin,

It's good to hear from you. I've been pushing my requirement for math notebooks here in Boise, Idaho where I teach Developmental Math at the Community College of Western Idaho (CWI).

We are growing rapidly from 1200 studetnts to over 7200 students in just 2 years !

I am now teaching full time and have 164 stuents in my 3 developmental math courses.

Now for the good news....my students are believing in the benefits of maintaining a well organized notebook with their problems worked out ! and the word is spreading....

They are taking them to their next level math course and using them for reference and on there own starting a new math notebook for the next math course.

I am now able to ask former students to bring their notebook into my new semester classes and show what the outstanding notebook looks like.

this provides a great visual and students are quickly getting the nack of organizing and showing the work in their problems and realizing the benefits.

Next Tueday, I will be giving a presentation to our Board of Trustee's and two studetns will be showcasing their math notebooks and what it means to them.

I believe math notebooks are a key tool in students success in Algebra !!

Take care,
Jim McCue

Feb 11, 2011
Math Notebooks
by: Karin

That is a great idea! A great way to hold student's accountable and a great way to "grade" their notebook. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

Feb 11, 2011
by: Anonymous

Where I teach, part of the students' grades are figured on having an organized notebook. This is middle school. Around every 2 weeks, I will quiz them on any problem that I would have done in class. I tell them what day it was done on. if they took notes, all they have to do is look it up in their notebook. Just "forces" them to keep an organized ntoebook.

Dec 30, 2009
Parents Involement with Math Notebooks
by: Jim McCue

Hi Brenda,

You bring up some excellent points about the importance of notebooks for students to their success in learning math.

While I would love for administrators to realize the importance of teaching students study skills and implement the classes needed, I don't see it happening in the near future.

The burden will fall on the classroom math teachers to 'figure' out a way of teaching these valuable skills despite the lack of classroom time due to the demanding math curriculum at every grade level.

I like your idea of getting parents involved with notebooks. Perhaps parents could spot check them to make sure the students stay current with them and offer guidance in maintaining and using them to study.

I have come to the conclusion that they are so important to learning math that I will place the necessary priorities, time and effort to guide students to learning the 'art' of creating, maintaining and using the math notebook as a tool to master math skills.

Perhaps, the importance of math notebooks will become forefront in the national movement to increase students math skills in school.

Thanks for your feedback,
Jim McCue

Dec 30, 2009
Hooray for Teachers Who See The Need
by: Brenda

Unfortunately it seems that the idea of providing a basic foundation to academic success is far from the concerns of those who don't teach. The use of a well organized notebook could truly assist students in middle school but the time is much too limited for teachers to cover content and study skills.
I don't see the family support through questioning and reviewing notebooks to see what the day offered either.

Dec 30, 2009
Study Skills Classes
by: Karin


You are right on! Grading notebooks is probably essential to success in middle, high or even college classes! I believe in high expectations too!

I think your idea of building that solid foundation through study skills classes is the key to success! If students were taught how to effectively use their text books as a reference or better yet, use their class notes as a reference - that would most likely reduce the frustrations that we often see in Math classes.

These skills would not only reduce frustration and build confidence in Math classes, but it would definitely carry over to stressful situations that occur in every day life!

This definitely has me thinking about how to incorporate these skills into daily lessons! (We need about 3 more hours in the school day, right??)

Thanks for bringing up this topic!


Dec 30, 2009
Notebook Skills
by: Jim McCue

Hi Karen,

Thanks for your feedback from the middle school grades. It appears math notebooks are needed at all levels along with study skills. I like your idea of students taking a study skills class. Here at CWI, we offer this class but I am going to offer guidance in creating, maintaining and using a math notebook.

I required a math notebook during my high school teaching worth 10% of a students grade to insure students would take them seriously. Now when I started teaching college this past fall, I did not have the time to focus on teaching notebook skills due to my last minute hiring. However, I did offer students extra credit if they maintained a notebook worth up to an extra 5% added to their overall grade at the end of semester. I'm always intrigued to find what motivates students.

Anyway, after I graded the notebooks, I decided to focus on 'teaching' notebook skills next semester so the notebooks become useful tools to help students review for tests and the big final. I like your idea of keeping the notebooks so they don't 'disappear' and cannot be used as a tool for learning/reviewing.

I agree with you on the limited time math teachers have due to teach critical learning skills due to all of the NCLB mandatory testing now required. The amount of math material required at each level is astounding.

Perhaps, a better way is needed....building a solid foundation for students would pay huge dividends in learning math when they have been taught the proper techniques of learning through a study skills class. Imagine students who have confidence in learning math because they have the 'mental tools' that allow them to succeed !!

I strongly believe that students would enjoy math and want to learn how to use math as a tool in solving real life problems and be excited about the whole process !!

Take care,

Dec 30, 2009
Algebra Notebooks are Important!
by: Karin

Hi Jim,

I've taught in the Middle School, and I have experienced the same problems with my students and their notebooks! The students who earned higher grades, kept well organized notebooks. My students who struggled, were extremely disorganized and usually could not find their notes or homework.

I've often thought that students need a class on study skills/organization skills. With the demands of curriculum, teachers often do not have the time to teach these very important skills.

In Maryland, students must pass an Algebra High School Assessment in order to graduate. At the end of the year (in Algebra 1), students take the cumulative test. Knowing that many of my students had difficulty keeping an organized notebook, I collected their entire notebook at the end of each unit. I saved it for them until the end of the year. As we started our end of the year review for the assessment, I gave them their notebooks back, with all their work from the year.

I wish that I had the time to "teach" these organizational/study skills. School systems should offer a semester course on Organization and Study Skills in 6th grade in order to prepare students for higher level learning!

Thanks Jim for bringing up this important question!

If anyone has ideas on how to help students with the task of staying organized, and/or taking good notes, we'd love to hear your comments!

All the best,

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