Teaching and learning Maths: multiple representations of mathematical concepts

Multiple representations

The representation of mathematical concepts and objects plays an important discipline-specific role. Doing Maths relies on using representations for otherwise inaccessible mathematical objects. The concept of multiple representations (MR) has been introduced to teaching and learning of mathematics in the 1980’s (i.e. Janvier, 1987). Some primary school curricula (e.g. Germany) highlight MR as a key mathematical idea (Leitidee) (Walther, Heuvel-Panhuizen, Granzer, & Köller, 2012), while the Australian Curriculum (v8.2) includes specific references to some year-level proficiency standards (ACARA, 2016). This could reflect that different mathematical content domains apply particular kinds of representations (Dreher & Kuntze, 2015).

Benefits and difficulties

Research emphasises both the importance of MR to developing mathematical understanding and the difficulties that can be faced by learners (Ainsworth, 1999). Multiple representations can make all facets of mathematical objects visible. The ability to move between different representations is key to develop multi-faceted conceptual mathematical thinking and problem solving skills (Dreher & Kuntze, 2015). The difficulty with MR is that no single representation of a mathematical object is self-explanatory. Each representation requires understanding of how this representation is to be interpreted mathematically, and how it is connected to corresponding other representations of the object. These connections must be made explicit and require learning that engages higher cognitive levels. Interpreting individual representations, making connections between MR of corresponding mathematical objects, and changing between MR can present significant obstacle to learners (Ainsworth, 1999).

Sequencing the introduction of multiple representations

Booker, Bond, Sparrow & Swan (2015) highlight the importance of gradually sequencing the introduction of MR from the concrete to the abstract over time and identify the functions that MR can serve in developing mathematical understanding.

One such sequence is illustrated for content domain ‘geometry’ (compare ACMMG137) by applying the five ways of working (Battista, 2007).

Step 1: Visualisation of spatial arrangements – Students are provided with the following A4 template and are asked to cut out Tangram pieces along the blue lines and arrange them in one row by size.

A4 tangram template for students to cut out

Step 2: Development of verbal and written communication skills – Students are asked to discuss and describe their size order using explicitly taught concepts of ‘area’ and the small triangle as ‘1 unit’.

Tangram pieces sorted by size

Step 3: Symbolic representation through drawing and model making – Students are asked to colour their tangram pieces and puzzle the objects of projected image below (rotation, transformation)

Example colours for student tangrams

Step 4: Concrete and abstract logical thinking – Students are asked to create a column chart of the number of units (triangles) within each shape (colour). Students are allowed to cut one set of shapes into triangles (working in pairs).

Column chart depicting number of triangle units for each (coloured) tangram piece

Step 5: Application of geometrical concepts and knowledge – Students are asked to investigate how many different parallelograms they can form and the number of units required. Next, they measure and calculate the base unit and apply multiplication to calculate the areas.


Smallest possible parallelogram consisting of 2 small triangle units

2 units, 2 x 8 cm2 = 16 cm2

Largest possible parallelogram consisting of 16 small triangle units

16 units, 16 x 8 cm2 = 128 cm2


  • Ainsworth, S. (1999). The functions of multiple representations. Computers & Education, 33(2), 131-152.
  • Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2016). Home/ F-10 Curriculum/ Mathematics.
  • Booker, G., Bond, D., Sparrow, L., & Swan, P. (2015). Teaching primary mathematics. Fifth edition. Pearson Higher Education AU.
  • Battista, M. T. (2007). The development of geometric and spatial thinking. In Lester, F.K.Jr. (Eds) Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning, Volume 2. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 843-908.
  • Dreher, A., & Kuntze, S. (2015). Teachers’ professional knowledge and noticing: The case of multiple representations in the mathematics classroom. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 88(1), 89-114.
  • Janvier, C. E. (1987). Problems of representation in the teaching and learning of mathematics. Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur l’Apprentissage et le Développement en Education, Université du Quebec, Montréal. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Walther, G., Heuvel-Panhuizen, M. V. D., Granzer, D., & Köller, O. (2012). Bildungsstandards für die Grundschule: Mathematik konkret. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Institut zur Qualitätsentwicklung im Bildungswesen.