Teaching Mathematics to College Students with Mathematics-Related Learning Disabilities: Report from the Classroom

By Sullivan, Mary M. | Learning Disability Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Teaching Mathematics to College Students with Mathematics-Related Learning Disabilities: Report from the Classroom


Sullivan, Mary M., Learning Disability Quarterly


Abstract. This article reports on action research that took place in one section of a college general education mathematics course in which all three students who were enrolled had diagnosed learning disabilities related to mathematics. The project emerged in response to a question about performance in a mathematics course in which making sense of mathematics would be a primary focus, explaining one's work would be expected, and discourse among members would be a routine occurrence. Implications for teaching similar courses to students who have a mathematics-related learning disability are discussed.

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Literature related to postsecondary students who have mathematics-related learning disabilities (LD) is scarce. As a result, there are few content-related teaching suggestions to guide student-centered college mathematics faculty who have students with diagnosed LD in their classes. Some faculty rely on campus learning centers to assist these students, others help the students themselves. Generally, college-level students with LD do not have access to the degree of support that existed for them at lower grade levels. Some students with LD become discouraged when they cannot keep up in their mathematics class, and withdraw. Others persevere; they expend great amounts of effort and time and take advantage of college tutoring services and faculty office hours, yet, fail the course. Some institutions have course waiver or substitution policies or offer special sections of their required mathematics courses, but many do not.

This article reports on an action research project situated in a section of a general education mathematics course that enrolled three students with diagnosed LD related to mathematics. All students had a history of multiple attempts to satisfy the college's mathematics requirements and, with the exception of mathematics and science, all had performed at or above average levels in their courses.

The author sought suggestions from the literature for teaching course topics to the enrolled students. While unsuccessful in locating teaching suggestions, the author noted that many LD specialists do not favor current reform efforts in mathematics (Jones & Wilson, 1997; Maccini & Ruhl, 2000; Miller & Mercer, 1997), preferring the more traditional "present, practice, and test" approach. Mathematics reform efforts, based on the premise that students must make sense of mathematics, have been central to the author's professional practice. She considered traditional forms of instruction guided by behaviorist psychology, the norm in previous studies, as necessary but not sufficient for mathematics instruction.

The question naturally arose: How would college students who have mathematics-related LD perform in a course where making sense of mathematics is a critical component, where explaining one's work is expected, and where discourse among members is common practice? This question provided the impetus for the project. In teaching the course, the author intended to utilize reform methodology, including use of manipulatives, journal writing, and multiple forms of assessment. In order to contribute to the literature on teaching college-level mathematics to students who have mathematics-related LD, she planned to document her course modifications and chronicle students' efforts in making sense of the mathematics in an environment based on constructivist principles.

This article reports the results of the project, which utilized qualitative methodology. After reviewing the literature related to characteristics of students who have mathematics-related LD and teaching strategies suggested therein, the institution and its mathematics course requirement are described. In the methodology section, the author relates the impact of prior research on planning the course, completed prior to knowledge of student profiles. Next, she describes the students, based on data they provided during the first class, and presents one unit of the course, the mathematics of finance, in some detail. …

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