Learning Disabilities and How They Affect Mathematics Performance

The following article was submitted by Daniel Daley, Assistant Professor at Lyndon State College and presenter at the 2009 NEOA Annual Conference. The information provided is a modified version of the workshop presentation. 

In the context of learning math, a student may have a specific math disability or a disability in other areas that may affect their ability to obtain, process, remember, and/or demonstrate math knowledge.  Understanding how a disability influences math learning is essential to plan appropriate instruction.

Three areas that have the most effect on learning math are information processing, reasoning, and memory.

Students must process math information both auditorally and visually.  Auditory problems make it difficult for students to learn from lectures, follow oral instructions, remember steps or their order before writing them down, and can contribute to poor reading skills, making textbook use difficult.  Visual problems may affect the ability to use and manipulate signs, symbols, and numbers, calculation speed, ability to recall what material “looks like”, and can affect such areas as graphing, comparing size and shapes, and locating decimal points.

Deficits in reasoning may affect associative learning (what’s related to what), abstract reasoning, and problem solving.  Students may not know how to attack problems or are unable to realize they are using incorrect facts or algorithms.  Difficulties may also occur when abstract reasoning is needed to transfer a math concept from its property or principle to its application.  Reasoning skills are essential for learning in upper grades where material becomes more complex and abstract.

Memory difficulties make it challenging to retain material over a long period of time.  Short-term memory is important for allowing students to retain information long enough to be processed or understood.  Long-term memory acts as an information source for formulas, vocabulary, algorithms, and recognition of problem types.

Below are some ideas for instruction of math students with learning disabilities.  One size does not fit all, so these may be modified as needed.  It should be emphasized that many of these are effective for all students.

General Suggestions:

1. Establish clear course structure and requirements.
2. Structure each class session.
3. Start at point where student’s knowledge begins.
4. Model effective strategies for learning math.
5. Give frequent assignments/quizzes/tests to monitor progress.

Strategies for auditory-processing deficits:

1. Use many concrete and visual examples.
2. Give opportunities for experiential learning.
3. Provide structured overviews or study guides.
4. Use Smart boards, tablets, LCD projectors, and/or colored chalk or markers.
5. Avoid straying for subject at hand; keep explanations clear and concise.
6. Limit number of directions given orally.

Strategies for visual-processing deficits:

1. Teach students to use graph paper or grids to block off numbers to keep work neat and organized.
2. Allow discussion of rules/procedures when possible and encourage students to explain in their own words.
3. Encourage group problem-solving.
4. Reduce student copying and adjust pen/pencil tasks accordingly.
5. Try old-fashioned recitation of math facts.

Strategies for reasoning deficits:

1. Present problems using concrete examples.
2. Teach in small steps.
3. Teach students to break down problems in manageable steps.
4. Provide the student with activities involving the concept that gradually get more complex.
5. Teach students to estimate so they can check the reasonableness and accuracy of their answers.
6. Teach study skills and strategies directly.
7. Use the student’s preferred method of learning (auditory or visual) when possible.
8. Insist that processes as well as products be checked when problems are solved.

Strategies for memory deficits:

1. Material is more apt to be remembered if it is meaningful for students.
2. Supply students with strategies to help organize and remember information.
3. Provide the student with visual and/or auditory cues to help remember information.
4. Progress from simple to more complex in an organized systematic way.
5. Capitalize on patterns and other associations to promote retention.

The author welcomes the opportunity to discuss these strategies and ideas in more detail. He can be reached at daniel.daley@lyndonstate.edu.

Daniel Daley
Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science
Developmental Math Coordinator
Lyndon State College
Lyndonville, VT 05851

One response to “Learning Disabilities and How They Affect Mathematics Performance

  1. Pingback: Discalculia: 10 Great Articles on Math Disabilities | MathFour·

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