Skip to main content
Common grade and middle school math difficulties and how to avoid them
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 26, 2014 11:09 AM

Every year, students in grades 1-8 across the U.S. take state-mandated achievement assessments that not only test their English/language arts and science knowledge, but also their mathematical skills. For many grade-schoolers, math can be a difficult subject to master, especially now that many school districts implement the rigorous standards of the Common Core (CCSS).  However, teachers and parents can help young students identify some of the most common math mistakes. By helping children understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie, whether those strengths and weaknesses are conceptual, procedural or comprehensive, parents and educators will help students perform better on the state-mandated tests. Here are four of the most common math difficulties that elementary and middle school children face, and how parents and teachers can help students overcome them:

1. Underdeveloped understanding of number facts
Errors in solving simple arithmetic equations are based on an incomplete understanding of basic number facts. Whether the students need to add triple-digit numbers or multiply single-digit numbers, they need to memorize the basic computations they were taught early in elementary school. Being able to quickly recall these simple facts will help students later on as they learn more advanced mathematical procedures. No quick remedy exists to learn basic facts of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Adding 8 to 4 will always equal 12. Multiplying 3 by 6 will never equal anything but 18. Consistent practice at this early stage in development will allow students to retain this knowledge as they age.

2. Transferring knowledge
Some grade school students have a high degree of difficulty making associations between abstract and conceptual mathematics and the real world. Teachers and parents can help students create relationships between the symbols they learn in class and the objects, shapes and figures they see in reality. For example, children understand that a triangle with equal sides is called an equilateral triangle better when an adult physically shows them the shape. Allowing them to hold and inspect an actual equilateral triangle will enable them to develop a much deeper understanding of the abstract idea. Assigning relationships between mathematics and the real world, and constantly comparing and contrasting mathematical concepts with reality, will strengthen students' ability to create associations as they learn more advanced math.

3. Unrefined computational skills
While many grade school students find understanding mathematical concepts challenging, others find it difficult to master basic computing procedures. Some students may attribute incorrect definitions to signs. The symbols for addition, multiplication, subtraction and division can only be used correctly once the student recognizes the value of each one. Many teachers notice that some children carry numbers the wrong way, or have difficulty writing numbers clearly enough so that computation can be done properly. Students challenged in this way often find themselves in remedial classes even though they possess great potential for higher mathematics. Receiving instruction on how to properly write during the computing process, paired with consistent practice, can help students overcome this obstacle in their development.

4. Inability to recognize visual and spatial aspects of math
One of the most debilitating problems students may encounter revolves around spatial recognition and perception of objects in three dimensions. Teachers and parents will recognize that some students may have a difficult time assessing the sizes of multiple dissimilar shapes. In addition to visualization challenges, some children might be challenged by questions of perceptual logic. For example, parents and educators might work with children who cannot predict what a shape will look like when it is rotated in three-dimensional space. Remedying this issue can be difficult, as mathematical problems such as these require a great degree of memorization. Students faced with questions that deal with three-dimensional rotation often rely on higher-level cognitive skills. One way to help students overcome this challenge is to reinforce the initial learning experience by verbally explaining or writing down a description of the math concept.