Helping adults with maths learning difficulties

This week’s guest post from educator Sarah Jarvis covers a topic on which it can be difficult to find in-depth information: adult math learning difficulties. We are very pleased to feature Jarvis’s informative article on the Dyscalculia Blog!

There are many reasons adults have difficulties with maths
There are many reasons adults have difficulties with maths. Photo credit: attercop311 via Visual hunt / CC BY

I have worked at Bracknell and Wokingham College in the Learning Support Department for 8 years, supporting those aged over 16 who have maths learning difficulties.  I also taught GCSE and Functional Skills adult maths classes for a number of years.

The reasons that learners leave school at 16 or older without the requisite ‘C’ grade at maths can be numerous.  It is only by understanding the roots of the difficulties, as well as the person’s strengths, that it is possible to assist them to overcome their difficulties.  Assessment is therefore an extremely important part of my job.

The reasons adults may have difficulties with maths include the following:

  • Poor schooling. This can result in creating misconceptions which become more embedded as the person gets older and are therefore harder to unearth and resolve.
  • Poor attendance at school due to health or other reasons. For example if a student happens to be away when division is covered then it can be very difficult to catch up and then understand fractions.
  • Maths Anxiety. Maths anxiety is a very real phenomenon and adults, in particular, can have severe anxiety about maths, coupled with very low self-esteem, making it difficult for them to even try for fear of failing.
  • Language difficulties. It isn’t just adults who speak English as a second language that can find difficulties with the maths language.  Many people can struggle with what to do in a ‘wordy’ problem even though their arithmetic might be good.  Specific teaching in which operation to use when is imperative.
  • Poor motivation. For example: “why do I need maths when I’m studying Performing Arts?”  If the motivation to learn maths is absent then any learning can be very difficult.
  • Fixed mindset. Some adults believe that they “can’t do maths”.  However, there is no maths gene.  It is a skill like any other that with practice can be acquired.
  • Dyslexia or other difficulties.  Difficulties with maths often occur alongside other difficulties such as dyslexia or autism.
  • Weak memory. Short term and working memory affect the ability with mental arithmetic and long term memory is needed to remember maths facts and procedures.  Any difficulties in these areas will affect an adult’s ability with maths.
  • Cognitive or thinking style. A mismatch between a  tutor’s and adult’s thinking style can affect learning.  Some adults may be able to estimate and get to an answer without knowing how they got there, whilst others may use a sequential, step by step, ‘inchworm’ approach and be unable to estimate.
  • Visual stress difficulties. Adults may have difficulties with ‘seeing’ or writing numbers due to visual stress.  I had a very interesting student who had no problems with wordy maths problems but when faced with numbers on their own she struggled to read them.  She also wrote some numbers in their mirror image.  After discussions and diagnostic tests we found that a coloured overlay completely cured her ‘supposed’ maths difficulties.

I haven’t yet mentioned dyscalculia.  There are many reasons adults have difficulties with maths and having dyscalculia is only one potential reason.  Adults who might be considered dyscalculic will have very limited number sense, which is generally thought of as the ability to understand and manipulate quantities.  For example they will struggle with understanding basic numerical concepts, will use immature methods, will struggle to retain facts and won’t know whether an answer makes sense.  This is particularly difficult when out shopping and knowing whether they have the right change, for example.

Adults who might be considered dyscalculic will have very limited number sense, which is generally thought of as the ability to understand and manipulate quantities.
Adults who might be considered dyscalculic will have very limited number sense, which is generally thought of as the ability to understand and manipulate quantities.

Dyscalculia research and diagnosis is still in its infancy and when the adults I see were at school it is likely that the school would not have even heard about dyscalculia.  There is also no formal, agreed diagnosis for dyscalculia in adults yet.

However, for the vast majority of the adults I see a diagnosis is not important.  What these adults need is to build their confidence in maths in whatever way they can.  I have seen people whose school told them that they can do nothing more for them with maths.  Imagine how this makes them feel?  One adult was a very talented photographer and I worked with her on visual representations of numbers using dominoes.  Passing her first ever maths exam was a huge milestone for this student.

Another adult I saw struggled with directions and couldn’t go anywhere new on her own.  She could not remember her pin number and always bought the wrong size clothes for her children.  I worked with her on ways to remember her pin, by visualising a pattern on the keypad for example.

Adults differ from children by having more concrete experiences to draw on.  By utilising these experiences and making maths relevant to them, adults are able to make more sense of a concept.  Ultimately adults need to be supported in their maths so that they can become independent, prepared for and supported in the workplace.  In my experience, teaching adults which operation to use when and how to use the calculator on their phone successfully is much more useful than, for example, being able to do column subtraction.

Connections should be built between the symbols, language, mathematical image and particularly the context of any concept.  Although this connective approach originated for primary level children it can be applied extremely successfully with adults who seem able to grasp concepts that may have been difficult for them in the past, particularly when coupled with a context that means something to them.  Different people may need a different set of resources to represent the same concept depending on their specific strengths and weaknesses.  I have found that the use of manipulatives such as base 10 blocks, beads and even Numicon can work extremely successfully with adults.

One of the most important maths skills that adults need in work and life is estimation.  Therefore this should be a key skill practised.  Exact answers can always be found later with a calculator.

Finally I would recommend the following when working with adults who have maths difficulties:

  • Assess where the strengths and difficulties lie and always work from areas of strength.
  • Always use a context that the adult can relate to and combine this with maths language, symbols and an image or manipulatives to embed the concept.
  • Encourage a Growth Mindset i.e. “I will be able to do it with practise”.
  • Welcome mistakes. As Jo Boaler says, when you make a mistake your brain grows.
  • Encourage and practise estimating and flexible thinking skills.
  • Give praise and encouragement for trying.

sarah-jarvisSarah Jarvis has worked at Bracknell & Wokingham Further Education College for 8 years as a qualified maths lecturer.  She taught adults Functional Skills maths from Entry level to Level 2 for 5 years and has also taught maths GCSE for learners aged 16+.  She has an Advanced Diploma in Overcoming Barriers to Learning Maths and is currently providing maths support for learners, aged 16+, who find maths particularly challenging.  Sarah presented a session entitled “Meeting the Challenge of Adult learners” at The National Conference for Dyscalculia and Maths Learning Difficulties in 2015.  She has also presented sessions on “Maths learning difficulties and Dyscalculia” to the West Berkshire Dyslexia Association and a local PATOSS group.

Prior to attaining qualified teacher status she worked for 15 years in the Project Management software industry where her passion for teaching and supporting adults led her through various Consultancy roles to become Education and Training Manager.

Connect with Sarah Jarvis in the comments below or on her Twitter page.

One thought on “Helping adults with maths learning difficulties

  • February 18, 2017 at 5:34 am

    Thank you Sarah Jarvis for a wonderful article. I am 58 years old and struggle with Math. I am working on a Bachelors degree in Business Administration now and have a difficult time understanding the concepts of Algebra. I have always had difficulty, even as a child. I teach in Early Childhood, and I know how important those manipulatives are for a child to learn. As a child I didn’t have those stepping stones and believe that that is part of the puzzle.

    Debbie Ingles


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