Why Students May Struggle with Mathematics

A major component of the child-centered, systematic teaching approach is content. The discipline of mathematics presents many challenges to dissimilar learners. Many believe that mathematics is an “all or nothing” content area; many students believe that they either can “do” mathematics or they can’t and that they have little control over their abilities. If students struggle, they often stop trying to understand the subject matter and/or feel that their deficiencies won’t really matter in daily life. However, most of us would never think that “I’m bad at reading,” is a good excuse to stop taking English classes, so why is it ok, even normal, to say “I’m bad at math”?

A survey in 2010 conducted by Change the Equation found that three out of 10 Americans said they consider themselves bad at math. Over half of the 18 to 34-year-old bracket find themselves regularly saying they can’t do math. Almost one-third of Americans reported they would rather clean a bathroom than solve a math problem. However, success in mathematics is due to hard work and perseverance, not an inborn talent or natural ability 

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2 male students in class

Personal and Environmental Factors Affecting Achievement

Personal factors can include students’ moving from school to school and therefore experiencing gaps in content delivery. As well, attitudes learned that support the “I’m not good at math” can negatively impact learning. Environmental factors are most often those related to curriculum. Gaps between content and student understanding need to be addressed and strong instruction is relevant and connected to interests and high expectations for all learners.

Personal or Individualized Factors

Locus of Control: Some students believe that their mathematical achievement is mainly attributable to factors beyond their control, such as luck. These students think that if they scored well on a mathematics assignment, they did so only because the content happened to be easy. These students do not attribute their success to understanding or hard work. Their locus is external because they believe achievement is due to factors beyond their control and do not acknowledge that diligence and a positive attitude play a significant role in accomplishment. Students might also believe that failure is related to either the lack of innate mathematical inability or level of intelligence. They view their achievement as accidental and poor progress as inevitable. In doing so, they limit their capacity to study and move ahead (Beck, 2000; Phillips & Gully, 1997).

Instructor and StudentMemory Ability: Some students lack well-developed mental strategies for remembering how to complete algorithmic procedures and combinations of basic facts. However, strategies to improve capacities for remembering facts, formulas, or procedures can be taught. Repetition games such as calling out fact combinations and having students solve them and then repeat those that were called before their turn can help. For example, the teacher would call out “3 x 5” and a student would respond with “15.” That student would then ask a number question such as “7 – 5” of the group. The responder would reply, “3 x 5 = 15 and 7 – 5 = 2.” The game continues as each player calls out a new fact and each responder answers with all the previous combinations and the new answer. Students’ ability to organize their thinking and use it to recall data will affect success throughout the curriculum.

Attention Span: Students may be mentally distracted and have difficulty focusing on multistep problems and procedures. Dealing with long-term projects or a number of variables or pieces of information at one time can interfere with achievement. Effective teachers should use attention getters such as drawings and learning aids. Students who work in pairs can help each other stay on task.

Understanding the Language of Mathematics: Students are confused by words that also have special mathematical meaning, such as “volume,” “yard,” “power,” and “area.” Lack of understanding of mathematical terms such as “divisor,” “factor,” “multiple,” and “denominator” seriously hampers students’ abilities to focus on and understand terms and operations for algorithms and problem solving. Memorizing these terms without meaning and context is not productive and does not lead to retention.