What is a Math Vitamin?

How can we have each student in our school finish a math project and feel like a strong and capable mathematician?

To answer that question, we spent years researching various learning styles and curricular entry points. This faculty research led us to create the UCDS Math Vitamin.

continuumThe Math Vitamin is a multi-disciplinary approach that allows each student to enter a math task from an area of strength and requires them to work in areas of challenge. Working in one's area of strength as well as in one's areas of challenge is the key to the Math Vitamin process as it builds actual understanding for each math concept that appears on our Online Math Continuum.

The Math Vitamin approach begins with students working on a task rather than the teacher delivering a lesson. Students and teachers then debrief their ideas, process and strategize as a class at the close of the math session. This format allows students to do the initial thinking about the steps required for solving the problem and lets the teacher see the entry points each student prefers, follow their thinking, coach each student individually and assess their understanding as they work.

Each Math Vitamin has the following components:

An overarching, often complex story:


These fun stories are the entry point for all children but are especially designed for those students in the classroom who require meaning in their work. These are the students who like to know why you are asking them to do a project in the first place, the big picture thinkers. Typically, there are a few students in each class who also need to bond with the characters in the story. At UCDS, we usually link the Math Vitamin stories and characters to literature books that are being read. All students begin the Math Vitamin by reading the story (or having it read to them). From that point, they may start solving the task using a variety of approaches; usually in their area of confidence and/or strength.

Talking and Walking:

MV Some students begin work by talking through their ideas with peers or a teacher. Deciding the salient information embedded within the story is part of this important skill. There are students who need to verbally process their thinking and move around the room as an entry point into their work. In fact, we encourage all students to move around the classroom, look at others' work and discuss their different approaches. Our research about learning style entry points has led us to the fact that ideal math learning is not a quiet activity. Kids need to discuss, listen, look and move while thinking mathematically.


MV Some students choose to begin solving a task using their sense of touch and constructing their thinking with items; in math we refer to these items as manipulatives. Many students thrive on illustrating their thinking visually. The manipulatives serve as their ideal way to better understand and communicate their solution. It is important to have several types of manipulatives available in your classroom for students to use. We have provided a link with photos and descriptions of the various manipulatives as well as a chart noting the levels of difficulty (called levels of abstraction) for each manipulative.

Writing an expression/equation:

MV Some students in each classroom prefer to start their math work by writing an equation. If abstract thinking is their area of strength, let them begin their work in this way. Some students will even request to solve the equation they create with a calculator...great! Remember, this is only one part of their Math Vitamin work. Once they create an equation they are still required to build, record and discuss their thinking before coming to prove their thinking with a teacher.

Drawing and Recording:

MV Documenting or representing work artistically is another entry point for students. Some students will begin by drawing the story characters and the task to be solved. Embedding art into math projects does not need to be elaborate; rather this is a way for students who are artistic in nature to start processing the information found in the story.

In addition to artistic representations, each student is required to document the model they constructed to prove their thinking and overall solution. Documentation can entail drawing or tracing the manipulatives they used for the task, and students should include a label next to each item that makes their work understandable to others. Younger children with less developed fine motor skills will often glue die-cut paper shapes of the manipulatives they used onto their Math Vitamin sheet as their recording.

One of the most important aspects of the student recording process (and one of the most important assessment tools) is to make sure that what they record actually matches the other components of their Math Vitamin work (what they built, drew and said and the equation they wrote). For instance, consider a Math Vitamin story that is about five dogs that each eat three boxes of food each day. The student's drawing of five dogs, each eating three boxes of food, should include labels recording the type of blocks the student used and specify which blocks represent the dogs and which blocks represent the food. In addition, the numeric equation needs to match these components as well.

For this example, the correct multiplication equation for the story above would be 5x3=15 (five sets of three) and not 3x5=15, as the story is not about three dogs that each eat five boxes of food. While the product 15 is the same in both equations, only one matches the story (5x3). This multi-component assessment places the emphasis on the entire Math Vitamin process rather than only focusing on a correct "answer." In addition, the Math Vitamin process lets teachers hone in on each students' current level of understanding for the math strand and operation being explored.

Note, students in second grade and beyond also begin to write sentences about their thinking process and strategy used as this writing serves as a resource for them during future Math Vitamins.