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Signs & Symptoms of a Student Struggling in Math

by Susan Ozmore

Some symptoms of struggling with math are common to all academic subjects, but some are unique to math. With a few exceptions, math classes build on each other. A student who does not understand decimals can not convert decimals to fractions. A student who does not do well in basic arithmetic will have difficulty with algebra. Areas where trouble can arise include calculations, the language of math, reasoning and the symbolic nature of math. It is essential to catch problems with math concepts early to prevent future failure.

Trouble with Calculations

One of the most basic signs of trouble in math is difficulty performing basic calculations. This can show up early and persist if not addressed. According to the Great Schools website, this can involve an inability to remember basic arithmetic or multiplication facts, forgetting what symbols mean or problems with place value. Problems here may show up when a student has difficulty moving on to more complex problems where the basic facts are needed.

Understanding the Vocabulary of Math

Math has its own language. Even ordinary words, such as parallel, mean something specific in math. One common sign of this difficulty is when students have trouble writing equations to solve word problems. Another sign is trouble with symbols, for example those for “less than” and “greater than.” The "Misunderstood Minds" program on the PBS website lists signs of this difficulty. Two that are fundamental to success are difficulty understanding directions and asking or answering questions.

Mathematical Reasoning and Logic

Good reasoning and logic skills are helpful in other areas, but they are essential in math. The main sign of trouble in this area is difficulty putting things in the proper sequence, such as objects, mathematical expressions and steps in a problem. According to "Misunderstood Minds," a student might have difficulty understanding and applying mathematical rules, such as the order of operations, or they might have trouble deciding if their answer makes sense for the problem.

Difficulty with the Abstract Nature of Math

According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, many students have difficulty moving beyond simple arithmetic to understanding the symbolic nature of algebra and variables. For example, in the equation x+3=5, the variable x represents one number. However, in the expression x+7, the variable x can represent many numbers. The most common sign that a student is struggling with the abstract nature of math is difficulty understanding and solving word problems.

About the Author

Susan Ozmore has 25 years experience teaching and writing education materials for adults and teenagers in the areas of math, science, history and telecommunications. After receiving her education in applied mathematics, she spent 12 years in telecommunications before teaching high school math and biology.

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