Understanding Mathematical Connections, K–5


Written By: Deborah Armitage, M.Ed., Exemplars Math Consultant

What is a mathematical connection? Why are mathematical connections important? Why are they considered part of the Exemplars rubric criteria? And how can I encourage my students to become more independent in making mathematical connections?

This blog represents part one of a four-part series (parts two, three, and four here) that explores mathematical connections and offers guidelines, strategies and suggestions for helping teachers elicit this type of thinking from their students. We find many students enjoy making connections once they learn how to reflect and question effectively.

A Brief Introduction to the Exemplars Rubric

The Exemplars assessment rubric allows teachers to examine student work against a set of analytic assessment criteria to determine where the student is performing in relationship to each of these criteria. Teachers use this tool to evaluate their students’ problem-solving abilities.

The Exemplars assessment rubric is designed to identify what is important, define what meets the standard and distinguish between different levels of student performance. The rubric consists of four performance levels — Novice, Apprentice, Practitioner (meets the standard) and Expert — and five assessment categories (Problem Solving, Reasoning and Proof, Communication, Connections and Representation). Our rubric criteria reflect the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice and parallel the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Process Standards.

The Importance of Mathematical Connections

Exemplars refers to connections as “mathematically relevant observations that students make about their problem-solving solutions.” Connections require students to look at their solutions and reflect. What a student notices in her or his solution links to current or prior learning, helps that student discover new learning and relates the solution mathematically to one’s own world. A student is considered proficient in meeting this rubric criterion when “mathematical connections or observations are recognized that link both the mathematics and the situation in the task.”

NCTM defines mathematical connections in Principals and Standards for School Mathematics as the ability to “recognize and use connections among mathematical ideas; understand how mathematical ideas interconnect and build on one another to produce a coherent whole; recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.” (64)

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM) support the need for students to make mathematical connections in problem solving. Reference to this can be found in the following Standards for Mathematical Practice:

  • MP3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. “… They justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others.”
  • MP4: Model with mathematics. “… They routinely interpret their mathematical results in the context of the situation and reflect on whether the results make sense, possibly improving the model if it has not served its purpose.”
  • MP6: Attend to precision. “Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning. They state the meaning of the symbols they choose … They are careful about specifying the units of measure and labeling axes … They calculate accurately and efficiently express numerical answers with a degree of precision appropriate …”
  • MP7: Look for and make use of structure. “Mathematically proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure …”
  • MP8: Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. “… They continually evaluate the reasonableness of their intermediate results.”

The CCSSM also state, “The Standards for Mathematical Content are a balanced combination of procedure and understanding. Expectations that begin with the word ‘understand’ are often especially good opportunities to connect the practices to the content. Students who lack understanding of a topic may rely on procedures too heavily. Without a flexible base from which to work, they may be less likely to consider analogous problems, represent problems coherently, justify conclusions, apply the mathematics to practical situations …” (Common Core Standards Initiative, 2015)

When students apply the criteria of the Exemplars rubric, they understand that their solution is more than just stating an answer. Part of that solution is taking time to reflect on their work and make a mathematical connection to share.

What Can Teachers Do to Help Students Make Mathematically Relevant Connections?

When students begin to explore mathematical connections, teachers should take the lead by providing formative assessment tasks that introduce new learning opportunities and provide practice, so they may become independent problem solvers. As part of this process, teachers will want to focus on five key areas to help students develop an understanding of mathematical connections.

(1) Develop students’ abilities to use multiple strategies or representations to show their mathematical thinking and support that their answers are correct. When students demonstrate an additional or new strategy or representation in solving a problem, a mathematical connection is made. The Common Core includes a variety of representations students can apply to solve a problem and justify their thinking. Examples include manipulatives, models, five and ten frames, diagrams, keys, number lines, tally charts, tables, charts, arrays, picture graphs, bar graphs, linear graphs, graphs with coordinates, area/visual models, set models, linear models and line plots. By practicing these different approaches, students will begin to create new strategies and representations that are accurate and appropriate to their grade level. This in turn opens the door for them to use a second or even third representation to show their thinking in a new way or to justify and support that their answer(s) is correct.

Using formative problem-solving tasks to introduce and practice new strategies and representations is part of the problem-solving process. Teachers should provide formal instruction so that students may grow to independently determine and construct strategies or representations that match the task they are given. An example of this can be seen in the primary grades when many teachers introduce representations in the following order: manipulative/model, to diagram (including a key when students are ready), to five/ten frames, to tally charts, to tables, to number lines. This order allows students to move from the most concrete to the more abstract representations.

(2) Encourage students to continue their representations. Mathematical connections may be made when students continue a representation beyond the correct answer. Examples of this can be seen when a table or linear graph is continued from seven days to 14 days or when two more cats are added to a diagram of 10 cats to discover how many total ears a dozen cats would have. Another example includes adding supplemental information to a chart such as a column for decimals in a table that already has a column indicating the fractional data. In this case, the student extends his or her thinking to incorporate other mathematics to solve the task. It is important to note that connections must be relevant to the task at hand. In order to meet the standard, a connection must link the math in the task to the situation in the task.

(3) Explore the rich formal language of mathematics. Mathematical connections may be made as students begin to use the formal language of mathematics and its connection to their representations, calculations and solutions. Mathematical connections can be seen in the following examples: two books is called a pair; 12 papers is a dozen, the pattern is a multiple of 10; 13 is a prime number so 13 balls can’t be equally placed in two buckets; and the triangle formed is isosceles. The input and output on a table can also help students generalize a rule with defined variables. Students will quickly learn that making connections promotes math communication (formal terms and symbols) and that using math communication promotes connections. Again, these connections must link the math in the task to the situation that has been presented.

(4) Incorporate inquiry into the problem-solving process. Asking students to clarify, explain, support a part of their solution to a math partner, the whole class, or a teacher, not only helps develop independent problem solvers but also leads to more math connections. In your discussions, use verbs from Depth of Knowledge 2 (identify, interpret, state important information/cues, compare, relate, make an observation, show) and from Depth of Knowledge 3 (construct, formulate, verify, explain math phenomena, hypothesize, differentiate, revise). By asking students questions that provide them the opportunity to show and share what they know, connections become a natural part of their solutions.

Instead of asking, “Do you see a pattern in your table?” say, “Did you notice anything about the numbers in each column in your table?” Try asking a primary student, “I know you have a cat. Would you like your cat to join the cats in your problem?” “What new numbers are you using?” “I heard you tell Maria that all the numbers in your second column are even. Can you help me understand why they are all even numbers?” Every time a student provides you with a correct answer to your or another student’s inquiry, stop and say, “Thank you for explaining/showing/sharing your thinking. You just made a mathematical connection about your problem.” If you hear a student make a mathematical connection outside of class, stop and comment, “You just made a math connection!” Some examples of these student connections may include, “Look, we are lined up as girl, boy, girl, boy, girl, boy for lunch. That is a pattern,” “In four more days it is my birthday,” “Art class is in 15 minutes because we always go to art at 10 o’clock,” “We can have an equal number of kids at each table because four times six equals 24,” “My dad says we have to drive 45 miles per hour because that is the speed limit, so I think I can write each student as ‘per student’” or “I think I can state all the decimals on my table as fractions.”

(5) Encourage self- and peer-assessment opportunities in your classroom. Encourage students to self-assess their problem-solving solutions either independently, with a math partner or with the support of their teacher. The more opportunity students have to use the criteria of the Exemplars assessment rubric to evaluate their work, the more independent they become in forming their solutions, which will include making mathematically relevant connections.

Exploring Authentic Examples of Mathematical Connections

In the next blog post of this series, we’ll look at a problem-solving task and student solution from Grade 1 to observe how mathematical connections have been effectively incorporated. We’ll also explore the type of support a teacher may provide during this learning time as well as the type of support students may give each other. (Solutions from Grades 3 and 5 will follow in subsequent posts of this series.)