College & Dyscalculia

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The reality. 

Remediation: Higher Education's Bridge to Nowhere (2012) a report by Complete College America.
Dyscalculia or math learning disability / disorder will prevent you from meeting minimum quantitative reasoning requirements at the college level.  For liberal arts majors, this usually means passing a class in College Algebra or Finite Math. Because a dyscalculic student will test into remedial math classes on placement exams, they will be directed to non-college level refresher courses, like Math 085, Elementary Math Concepts; and Math 095, Pre-Algebra and Elementary Algebra.  

Unfortunately, the fast pace,  large lecture format, and labs with peer support, are rarely sufficient to close the skill gap.  The dyscalculic is forced to repeat the remedial courses in the hopes of moving forward, but ends up running into trouble when repeated failure devastates the GPA and results in inadequate academic progress, academic probation, and ineligibility for financial aid and scholarships. Payment for remedial courses also uses up limited financial resources, and results in significant debt accumulation when student loans are used. 

The math skills of most adults with dyscalculia are arrested at the 4th grade level;  but even when testing at 4th grade, almost all will demonstrate deficient first, second, and third grade skills.  At grades 1 through 4, the adult usually knows what to do, but gets problems wrong because of "careless errors."  The dyscalculic is not being careless, however, because the dyscalculic has no awareness of their processing problems.  These processing errors affect visual-spatial input, auditory input, and touch input. 

Like with color blindness and the inability to see or perceive specific color differences, the dyscalculic sees fine, but the brain does not process quantitative information accurately.  This results in baffling, frustrating difficulties.  A dyscalculic may not be able to add a column of numbers and get the same answer twice because the mind changes the numbers, unbeknownst to the dyscalculic. 

The dyscalculic may not process auditory quantitative information accurately, and may not even process tactile quantitative information accurately. Some dyscalculics have difficulty discriminating the difference in size between coins and other objects, and have difficulty comparing groups of items to determine which contains more or less. 

The processing glitches present as output errors in counting,  decimal point and number alignment, lack of place value awareness, faulty recall of math facts, mixed up and missing signs and numbers, directional confusion during operations, inappropriate preservation of ideas, random number insertions, and abandoned processes. 

During processing, working memory is slow and insufficient, the mind switches inputs, acts on erroneous information, omits important information, loses track of operations, confuses sequences, is ambiguous about patterns and the association of meaning to symbols, and blanks out.  

The result is a student who is consumed with frustration, anger, and anxiety over the consequences of their inability to perform as expected. An anxiety or panic attack may ensue.  After extended traumatic experience with math, the dyscalculic will hate it, avoid it, and may experience an anxiety response at the thought of having to perform. 

Because the dyscalculic student can usually perform adequately in all areas except mathematics, they are prone to disgust and disbelief at their mysterious inability to demonstrate math competence. They will attempt to succeed through heroic persistence and determination. After all, they usually excel at reading, writing, and speaking, and most learning tasks come easily.  While this positive attitude, diligence, and investment of inordinate time got them mercy grades through elementary and high school math, it rarely works in college. The dyscalculic is stonewalled in college because professors cannot give grades for effort, and must grade solely on independent, summative exam performance.  

See Complete College America's report on dismal college completion rates for students who test into remedial classes. 

What can be done?

(1) Waive minimum quantitative reasoning classes that require calculation.

(2) Substitute courses that teach appreciation for quantitative reasoning and the greater world of mathematics, but do not require math calculation and memory of operations.  Dyscalculic students can successfully write, speak and create concrete demonstrations of mathematical ideas, and can learn the language of mathematics, but cannot perform successfully independently on cumulative exams that involve calculation.

(3) Pursue alternate paths to satisfy your College Algebra requirement and allow the use of just-in-time references during exercises and tests.  Algebra Tools.  Remedial Programs.

(5) Pass-Fail grading for all courses involving quantitative reasoning components, or accommodations or academic adjustments for those components. 

(6) Pass-fail grading for all remedial courses. 

Facts to share with the Disabled Student Services Office:

Developmental Dyscalculia (Specific Learning Disability in Mathematics, or Mathematics Learning Disorder) Diagnostic code: 315.1

A comprehensive assessment includes  a complete educational history, standardized intelligence and academic achievement tests, personal interviews, and a psychological battery. 

A Student meets the criteria for a diagnosis of dyscalculia, AKA specific learning disability in mathematics, when: 

(a) Student consistently performs well  average or above average on reading and writing tasks, and well below average on math tasks, and 

(b) deficits are specific to sequential math memory, math working memory, math fact recall, mathematical reasoning and problem solving, math calculation, and general storage and fluent retrieval of practiced math skills; slow and insufficient working memory; and 

(C) deficits are not due to inattention, illness, insufficient interest or motivation, anxiety, educational gaps, poor instruction, poor study skills, socio-economic circumstances, or other environmental causes. 

Research has proven developmental dyscalculia results from cortical abnormalities in regional neural organization in the left angular gyrus, particularly a reduction in grey matter in the left intraparietal sulcus; whereas acquired dyscalculia occurs after lesions to the left parietal lobe.

Student cannot overcome these cognitive impairments with typical approaches like tutoring and studying harder, alone, as these cannot lead to permanent math learning, math memory and math facility. 

While the MLD student may be capable of executing guided practice, and demonstrating mastery through extended exercises;  the dyscalculic is incapable of consistent retention of math material in long-term memory, and must relearn the concepts at each attempt.

The dyscalculic can learn of the nature of their mental glitches and the errors that result.  They can utilize tools and strategies to minimize the impact of these cognitive inefficiencies and mistakes of speech, reading, writing and demonstrating quantitative ideas. They cannot, however, eliminate the condition entirely, or control the natural stress response that occurs when diligent effort does not result in success. 


Given these limitations, it is only reasonable to require:

(A)  a dyscalculic's exposure to and demonstrated short-term and supported facility with the math course material required of his degree         program; OR 

(B)  waiver of the math courses that require calculation and for which the dyscalculic is developmentally unprepared,  AND

(C)  substitution of those classes with courses that expose the dyscalculic student to math concepts, math language, math history, and           math literacy without the need for exercises and assessments involving calculation. 

Option A:  
It is appropriate for the MLD student to cover required course material in a computer-mediated format, which tracks exposure and practice, requires demonstrated mastery of perquisite skills before introducing new concepts, does not require performance on a cumulative final assessment, is self-paced, has just-in-time help for vocabulary definitions, concept demonstrations (review), instant feedback, and ample scaffolded practice until independence is achieved, and has instant tools for measuring, calculating, and color-coding operations. 

Full course credit should be given for complete progression through the established curriculum, on a pass-fail basis (not calculated into GPA). 

An acceptable format is the ALEKS program used by the University of Wisconsin-Madison for distance education and independent learning.

See ALEKS Higher Ed Success Stories:

College Algebra Success: 

College Algebra @ U of Wisconsin:

Option B:
If the required math courses are not integral to the degree, the university may elect course waivers and substitutions. 

Option C: 
Math Literacy examples that can form the curriculum of a course that is substituted for College Algebra or other minimum college-level math classes requiring calculation.