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March 7, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 19

Improving the Odds for Diverse Learners in Math

Instructional Strategies
There are different types of students who, over time, come to believe that they aren't good at math. For students with diagnosed learning disabilities (LD), various challenges can affect their ability to learn and thrive, and that ultimately can influence their motivation for future classes. We should know—not only are we educators who work with a variety of students, but we also both went through school as students with learning disabilities. Based on our experiences from both sides of the issue, here are seven recommendations for making math more accessible to students with LD. Teachers can use these tips to support student motivation and a strong math culture, while reducing stress for diverse learners in the classroom.
  1. Break It Down. For some reason, there always seemed to be a lot of steps required to complete a math task. My working memory is limited, so trying to remember them all was difficult, and I often felt overwhelmed. For example, I remember learning long-division: having to multiply, divide, subtract, bring down the next digit and repeat. I was constantly afraid I was missing a step or mixing up the order somehow. I needed these steps broken down, either in how the worksheet was designed or having a breakdown of the steps somewhere. This resource would have supported my confidence that I could solve the problem and my motivation to complete the task.
  2. Slow It Down. Some of the math teachers I had always seemed to be going a mile a minute when it came to their instruction. With my reduced processing speed, I often felt a step or two behind the class. I can remember in secondary math the teacher would pose a question, and while I attempted to write down notes, process the information, and formulate a response, the class had long since moved on. It was difficult to remain motivated when I knew that, despite my best efforts, I was not able to meaningfully participate in the time provided. I felt left out: The class was moving on without me, and only those who could keep up were able to learn. Regular check-ins could have helped ensure that everyone was on the same page.
  3. Mix It Up! The math classes I learned best in were those that offered multiple modalities to learn the material. It is really hard with my challenges in attention to listen to the teacher talk for 30 minutes or more at a time. Providing some oral instruction with visuals followed by a class activity to solidify that knowledge really helped me stay engaged and learn better. It was also fun when we could act out the concept being learned, particularly in the elementary/primary grades with fractions or word problems. Everyone was learning together, and it made the concepts easier to remember.
  4. Reduce Memorization. With my memory challenges, I always hated how much I needed to memorize in math class. It started with basic math facts (e.g., addition and multiplication) in the early years and grew to formula memorization in the secondary grades. In high school, it always took me hours to memorize formulas, which detracted me from me actually learning how to use them. I did not feel supported in my learning and was always anxious when test time came. It never seemed to be a test of my math ability, but rather my ability to memorize content. Teachers can reduce the stress of memorization by allowing students to access formula sheets during tests so that they can focus on how to solve the equations rather than memorizing formulas. Providing calculators can also be valuable to students who struggle with basic math facts but understand how to work with formulas.
  5. Choose Your Words Carefully. With my challenges breaking down the sounds in words, my vocabulary was never on par with the rest of the students. This issue made word problems a reading test. I remember learning decimals in grade 6; although I knew how to round, I didn't know what the word hundredth or thousandth was, so I had to guess which decimal place to round to. I felt discouraged when I knew I could do the math but couldn't understand the question. Remove linguistic barriers by ensuring that math vocabulary is accessible to all students. Try saying "to the second decimal place" instead of "thousandth." Or if there is new vocabulary, make sure to review that vocabulary before including it in worksheets or tests. Keep in mind that some students might need more review than others.
  6. Be Mindful of Praise. I remember the time I got a test back in 4th grade. The teacher usually had a comment or two as she handed back tests, but this time, she simply placed the paper face down on my desk. Her silence was deafening, and turning the test over revealed lots of red ink. Years later, I still carry the discouragement and shame I felt from this experience. This teacher's approach to feedback made me want to give up for fear of future mistakes and more red-pen marks. Teachers need to be mindful of the amount and nature of the feedback they are providing, especially for struggling students. Acknowledge effort or growth and provide focused, constructive feedback on a few areas for improvement.
  7. Tracking Progress. I remember when my class did "mad minutes" in 3rd grade. This task requires the students to try to recall 30 math facts in 1 minute, and it seemed so daunting. To make matters worse, the teacher posted students' scores each day on a giant board in the class to show their progress over time. This board always made me feel dumb, and I never wanted to go to math class. This format did not support collaboration but rather competition. Instead, teachers can allow students to track progress individually. For example, the inside page of a math notebook can be used for students to graph their own progress. This approach keeps achievement data private and provides an opportunity to apply graphing skills.
These recommendations highlight important considerations for teachers. It's not that a student is bad at math, but rather, teachers must build the right supports so that students feel motivated and engaged in class, within a positive environment where every learner is championed to succeed.

Lauren D. Goegan is a doctoral candidate in psychological studies in education at the University of Alberta.

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