Writing in Mathematics
What Does the Research Literature Say?
While there are many recommendations regarding the importance of writing in mathematics classrooms, the research on the impact of mathematical writing on student learning is more limited. A summary of the research identifies a number of studies reporting that students demonstrate greater mathematical understanding and learning through “writing to learn” approaches; however, researchers making this claim explain that writing has this impact because it requires students to “investigate and consider mathematical concepts and connections and practice communicating such to others” (Bosse & Faulconer, 2010, p. 10). This claim is consistent with the many recommendations regarding the role of mathematical writing in classrooms by mathematics education professional organizations (e.g., NCTM, NCSM) and is also at the heart of many of the Standards for Mathematical Practice.
There is little research to date on the impact of strategies designed to strengthen and support student writing on the actual quality of writing that students produce. However, anecdotal data suggest that disciplinary literacy practices are more successfully incorporated into mathematics classrooms when teachers demonstrate an interest in reading and writing in mathematics themselves in order to learn more mathematics, share these learning experiences with their students, and provide structured opportunities for students to engage in these disciplinary literacy practices themselves (Bosse & Faulconer, 2010).
Another aspect of the question of the impact of mathematical writing on student learning has to do with the extent to which teachers use what they learn from student writing to reflect on and strengthen their instruction. Unfortunately, there does not currently appear to be any research on this question; teachers learn a good deal about their students’ mathematical thinking from a variety of sources, and it would be difficult to attribute the impact to student writing specifically. However, research on the impact of effective formative assessment strategies on student learning suggests that this can have an impact on student learning of mathematics.