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Why Do Students Struggle With Mathematics

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Apr 30, 2014

A major component of the child-centered, systematic teaching approach is content. The discipline of mathematics presents many challenges to dissimilar learners. Mathematics has often been termed the “gatekeeper” of success or failure for high school graduation and career success (National Research Council [NRC], 1989). It is essential that “mathematics . . . become a pump rather than filter in the pipeline of American education” (NRC, 1989, p. 7). A lack of sufficient mathematical skill and understanding affects one’s ability to make critically important educational, life, and career decisions.

Students fall below their expected level of mathematics achievement for a variety of reasons. When asked why they were not as successful in learning mathematics, many people reply that they “never understood math,” or “never liked it because it was too abstract and did not relate to them.” These reasons and others can be categorized, in general, as environmental or personal, individualized factors.

Environmental Factors

Instruction

Mathematics instruction must provide many opportunities for concept building, relevant challenging questions, problem solving, reasoning, and connections within the curriculum and real-world situations. Students who are taught in a way that relies too heavily on rote memorization isolated from meaning have difficulty recognizing and retaining math concepts and generalizations.

Curricular Materials

Spiraling the curriculum provides opportunities for learners to deal with content developmentally over time. Concepts can be built upon and related to previous learning throughout the curriculum as students become more proficient and experienced in mathematics. However, it is critical that the same content not be taught year after year, in almost the same manner of delivery. Students who do not “get it” the first time are not likely to “get it” the next several times it is taught in the usual manner. Moreover, underachieving students are frequently assigned repetitious and uninteresting skill-and-drill work each year in order to teach them “the basics.” This type of work often represents a narrow view of mathematical foundations and a low level of expectation of students’ abilities. It limits opportunities to reason and problem solve.

The Gap Between Learner and Subject Matter

When the mathematics content being taught is unconnected to students’ ability level and/or experiences, serious achievement gaps result. This situation may occur if students are absent frequently or transfer to another school during the academic year. A student may find the mathematics curriculum to be more advanced or paced differently than what was being taught in the previous school. Without intervention strategies, students could remain “lost” for the duration of their education.

Too few life experiences, such as trips to neighborhood stores or opportunities to communicate with others about numbers through practical life examples, can make math irrelevant for students. Gaps exist, therefore, not only in the curriculum but between the learner and perceived usefulness of the subject matter.

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