contributed by: Leah Childers
go back to category: Reading & Writing


Using in-class writing prompts to facilitate dialogue between students and teachers in order that students gain self-awareness about their attitude towards learning and doing mathematics, as well as that students engage deeply with the mathematical material presented in the course.

Class information

I’ve used in-class writing prompts in two different class at Benedictine College, a small Catholic liberal arts college: Mathematics for the Elementary School Teacher 1 and 2. Both courses are math content courses focusing on understanding the inner workings of elementary mathematics, not just procedural knowledge, in order to prepare pre-service elementary teachers. Class size is 20-25 students mostly freshman and sophomores. The class met 2 times a week over a 16-week semester. Many of the students self-reported having negative attitudes towards learning and doing mathematics.


In-class writing prompts were used about once a week at the beginning of the class. Students were given 5 minutes to write their response to the prompt, two or three minutes to share their response with another student, and lastly 5 minutes for a class discussion. I have students designate several pages at the beginning of their notebook for in-class writing. Then during class work time, I can quickly check that students have been doing the in-class writing.

Description of activity

  1. Students individually respond to the writing prompt provided.
  2. Students share their ideas with a partner sitting close by.
  3. Moderate a class discussion where students share their ideas from the prompt.

Examples of in-class writing prompts I used to teach to student self-awareness:
  • When I think or math, I think….
  • Draw a picture of a mathematician and describe what a mathematician does.
  • When I see a problem I don’t know, the first thing I do is….Then I…
  • Describe your feelings about when you are asked to show your work to others or to explain a problem
  • When you make mistakes, what do you do first? Do you make corrections or ask questions? Why or why not?
  • If math were an animal it would be…..because….

I found this resource useful for finding prompts as well:

Examples of in-class writing prompts I used to reinforce content:
  • Where do you think students with struggle with (fill in any topic you are teaching, e.g. place value, adding fractions, etc. )?
  • What makes (fill in any topic you are teaching) hard?
  • List examples of symmetry you have seen in nature.


I tend to function more as a moderator during the full class discussions and ask for volunteers to share their thoughts. Based on student evaluations, I have found that it is important to give more time than you think for the individual writing. It is important that students feel they have had time to thoroughly write their thoughts down. If you are worried about taking too much time, I have found it better to shorten the discussion time than rush the writing.

A positive outcome of the in-class writing prompts is that it sets a tone for the class that I want to hear students’ thoughts and opinions as we are learning new topics. Acting as a moderator and requiring student participation early in the class builds useful momentum to keep students engaged with the material.


It is well documented that students learn well by writing. In particular, having students write in a mathematics class gives students the opportunity to be assessed in a non-traditional way, which for many of my students is more comfortable than working mathematical problems.


The main goal of this activity is to encourage students to have a self-awareness about their feelings, attitudes, and beliefs related to learning and doing mathematics. A secondary goal is to provide an opportunity for students to assess their understanding of a given topic.


Many students report that they enjoy writing in a mathematics class. They liked being able to communicate with each other and enjoyed hearing what other students were thinking. Some students have not seen the value of the self-awareness prompts. I have found these are frequently students who have not struggled with math. One thing I’ve done to combat this is to celebrate the diversity of responses from the class and remind the pre-service teachers that they will be teaching students who have a wide variety of beliefs and feelings towards mathematics, as well as working with parents who hold beliefs quite different than their own.