Written by Sasha Blakeley
What Is Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is a learning disability characterized by persistent difficulties grasping and retaining mathematical concepts. In the DSM-V, dyscalculia is officially known as ''specific learning disability with impairment in mathematics.'' However, ''dyscalculia'' is still considered correct terminology. In most cases, dyscalculia symptoms present in early childhood and notably impact how students manage their elementary and secondary education. According to researchers, around 5-7 percent of elementary-aged children are estimated to have dyscalculia.
Symptoms of dyscalculia can present later, though these later manifestations are usually due to traumatic brain injury. In some cases, individuals might not receive a formal diagnosis of dyscalculia but might still suspect that they meet the diagnostic criteria. For students with dyscalculia who are interested in pursuing a college degree, many resources and tips can make that transition smoother. While dyscalculia can present some challenges, it is not something that will necessarily limit students' ability to pursue their educational goals, provided they have adequate support and resources to draw from.
Diagnosis of dyscalculia must be made by a medical professional. To determine if an individual has dyscalculia, doctors will usually ask a series of questions about the individual's past experiences with mathematics and education in general. The diagnosis process may also involve having the individual complete math tests to determine their ability to learn and retain mathematical concepts. There is no single test for dyscalculia, and each case is handled individually. Doctors may also request information from students' teachers to better grasp their difficulties in school and to rule out other possible learning disabilities or differences. Learning disabilities are specific medical diagnoses according to the DSM-V, while learning differences are other factors that can influence a student's educational experiences.
Receiving a dyscalculia diagnosis can have many benefits, including opening access to numerous accommodations that might not be as readily available without a formal diagnosis. Some people might choose not to get a dyscalculia diagnosis, as the diagnosis process is deeply personal and expensive. Each individual will need to make their own choice about how to engage with the diagnosis process for dyscalculia and at what age to pursue a diagnosis, if ever.
Dyscalculia and Other Learning Differences
Dyscalculia is often compared to dyslexia, another learning disability that impacts reading ability. It is also sometimes referenced in conjunction with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While there are some similarities between these learning disabilities and dyscalculia, all three are distinct. Students with dyscalculia will not necessarily have any other learning disabilities. However, there is some evidence that these learning disabilities can be comorbid, meaning students with one disability might be more likely to have another.
While dyscalculia specifically impacts mathematical ability, some coping mechanisms that work for dyscalculia may be helpful for students with dyslexia and vice versa. In many cases, students with dyscalculia perform very well in other academic subjects. However, they struggle disproportionately with math lessons, which can be a strong diagnostic indicator for those who suspect that they experience dyscalculia.
Learning Math with Dyscalculia in College
One confusion that can arise is the distinction between dyscalculia and math anxiety. Math anxiety is a general term for severe anxiety and nervousness that some students develop around studying mathematics. Students who develop math anxiety struggle with math in some way, sometimes because they have dyscalculia. Others might have ADHD, auditory or visual processing disorders, or other learning disabilities. They might also have no diagnosable difficulties with mathematics but still struggle with the subject and experience anxiety and distress.
Whatever the cause, math anxiety can compound a student's difficulty with mathematics, particularly if that student also has dyscalculia. This math anxiety can carry over into a college environment and is something that students should be aware of. Accessing dyscalculia accommodations and finding ways to manage their learning disability can go a long way to alleviating math anxiety in students.
How to Manage Dyscalculia in College
Learning math with dyscalculia in college can certainly be challenging, but it is a challenge that does not need to prevent students with dyscalculia from achieving their educational goals. Dyscalculia should not be dismissed or downplayed, but neither should it be treated as a kind of academic death sentence. There are many accommodations that college students can access to provide them with the support they need to succeed. There are also individual study tips that students can implement in their courses of study to make college courses less overwhelming and improve the students' odds of success.
Combining these official accommodations with individual study tips can allow students to meet the academic standards for their chosen degree, and make the experience of learning math with dyscalculia much less frustrating and demoralizing.
Choosing the Right Major
Succeeding as a college student with dyscalculia often starts with choosing the best major. Many students with dyscalculia elect to pursue college degrees with few or no math requirements, like arts and humanities degrees. Students with dyscalculia usually find their difficulties are specific to mathematics, so a course of study that emphasizes other skillsets may allow students to play to their strengths. It is, however, by no means a requirement that students with dyscalculia avoid degrees in math-heavy academic areas. Students with dyscalculia can succeed in a STEM degree or another college major with significant mathematics requirements. The important thing for students to remember is that they should carefully consider the requirements of whatever major they choose. Those who choose degrees with math requirements should ensure that they have a support system in place to help them through those courses.
Dyscalculia Accommodations in College
Because dyscalculia is considered a learning disability, students can access dyscalculia accommodations in college with a medical diagnosis (accommodations for students with ADHA are also available). The best way to access these accommodations is usually by going through the office for students with disabilities (OSD) to discuss the accommodations a college has available. Depending on a student's needs and experiences, they may receive exemptions from some college mathematics courses or may be offered less challenging courses to fill the same credit requirement. Some students might also receive extra time on exams to compensate for their learning disability.
Students who struggle to take notes during math lectures might benefit from the services of note-takers or recorded lectures. Students whose dyscalculia has caused math anxiety may also want to use mental health services offered by the college. Each individual's experiences and needs will vary; these options are just a representative sample.
Tutorials, Office Hours, and More
Dyscalculia can be a demoralizing experience for some students. In some cases, it can cause students to retreat from the challenges of a college education. In fact, withdrawing from the difficult aspects of one's college career is one of the worst decisions students can make, particularly if they have a learning disability or other
experience that makes some elements of education more challenging. Therefore, whenever possible, students should attend any available tutoring sessions, especially for classes that involve mathematics. Attending the professors' office hours can also make a big difference to students' understanding and can provide the opportunity for professors to help students with their individual difficulties. In general, being proactive about learning is the best way to get positive results, even when math anxiety because of dyscalculia can make seeking that help feel daunting.
Study Tips for Dyscalculia in College Students
The prevalence of dyscalculia in college students is similar to that in younger students, as dyscalculia is generally a lifelong experience. As a result, students with dyscalculia often have to take their study skills into their own hands, particularly as they get into their college years. Official college accommodations can make a big difference, but they should complement students' day-to-day study practices to be effective. Studying effectively with dyscalculia takes practice and requires students to go through a process of trial and error to find out what works best for them and what fits with their specific learning style and needs. Students who also have ADHD might also research ADHD study tips. The following tips can be an excellent place to start, either for college students with a formal dyscalculia diagnosis or for those who suspect that they have dyscalculia or other math difficulties.
Create a Study Schedule
It can be difficult to find the motivation to study a challenging and frustrating subject like mathematics for students with dyscalculia. One way to ensure that math courses do not fall by the wayside is to have a carefully maintained study schedule. Students should consider setting alarms to designate specific study periods as well as setting aside time each day or week to focus on math. In addition, some students might find it helpful to develop a system of accountability wherein a fellow student, a friend, or a professor can help them keep on top of their study habits with regular check-ins. Looking ahead and adapting one's study schedule can also help students cope with times in the year when they have more obligations, like midterm season.
Study groups can also be a big help for students with dyscalculia. These groups are usually created spontaneously for students who are in the same class and typically meet once or twice a week, often at the campus library. Having a sense of community can take some of the stress and frustration out of the studying process for students who struggle to self-motivate.
Work in a Productive Environment
The environment in which students choose to study can be as important as a study schedule in improving comprehension and retention. If possible, students should avoid studying while sitting in bed, working at a table or desk instead. Eliminating distractions like phones during study times can also make it easier for students to maintain the necessary focus to get through their school work. The ideal study environment should be comfortable, well-lit, and relatively quiet in order to help students focus and remain calm. Having a soothing study environment is especially important for those who have developed anxiety around studying math.
Use Visual Aids
Many students with dyscalculia may find it easier to absorb new mathematics concepts when they learn visually. Students who benefit from visual learning styles may want to incorporate certain visual learning techniques into their study schedules to help them learn more effectively. Something as simple as color coordination when taking notes or solving math problems can help lay the information out visually. Drawing or learning from diagrams can also make it easier to grasp what a mathematics problem is actually doing.
Students may want to watch videos that graphically explain the concepts they are grappling with or even play online math games to help solidify learning. Making a point to write out equations neatly so that they can be more easily picked apart can also help students notice their own mistakes and fix them.
In some cases, colleges will allow students to substitute audiobook versions of books or textbooks instead of reading the regular versions. Some students with dyscalculia might find listening to instructions or new information more effective than reading it. Other students might prefer to listen to an audiobook while also reading the text in a regular textbook. Using audiobooks for challenging courses can help students focus and retain what they are learning. Audiobooks are not for everyone; this is another area in which students will need to carefully examine their own learning styles to decide which strategies are most effective for them.
Find Time for Review
Students with dyscalculia struggle to learn and understand new math concepts, but they often struggle to retain concepts that they have previously learned. As a result, focusing extra time on reviewing previously learned concepts is a primary way that students with dyscalculia can close the gap between themselves and their peers regarding academic achievement. Over the course of the semester, it can be helpful for students to build in specific study sessions exclusively for reviewing previous concepts and finding specific areas of difficulty.
Because math instruction is often cumulative, finding areas of difficulty and resolving them can mean that students have less difficulty with more complex concepts as they learn. Review is an essential part of this process. When approaching midterms or finals, this review process becomes all more important. Students with dyscalculia will likely find that they need to dedicate more study time to math-heavy courses than to other courses, so good time management skills are essential for students to get the review time needed
Work with a Tutor
Tutoring is an important option for students who have dyscalculia. Many students choose to work with tutors over the course of their college years to maximize their ability to thrive in their chosen field of study. Tutors can provide extra support for students throughout their degree program by working on whatever is most pressing in a student's educational journey or focusing on a specific class or set of courses that are most challenging. Students generally meet with tutors one or more times per week, either in person or online. It is ideal if students with dyscalculia can find tutors who specialize in the kind of mathematics that they are studying. If they can't, they might look for online homework services. In addition, some tutors specialize in working with students with dyscalculia and other learning disabilities or differences. These tutors may be uniquely well suited to provide students with the academic support and understanding they need. Some colleges offer their own tutoring services, but many private tutoring organizations and individual tutors can help students working with varying budgets.
Dyscalculia can be a challenging experience that can make students' college careers more complicated than their peers. Students with dyscalculia who accomplish their educational goals, whether that means getting a passing grade on a math quiz or completing a math-heavy degree, should focus on rewarding themselves for their accomplishments. There are two primary reasons why these rewards are important. The first is practical: it is often easier to complete difficult tasks when there is a promise of a reward at the other end. Completing a difficult study session might be easier for students who know they can watch an episode of their favorite television show afterwards. Rewarding oneself is also important as a genuine acknowledgment of the effort involved in studying with dyscalculia. Pursuing a college education is a significant accomplishment for everyone, and students with dyscalculia are certainly no exception.