Going to university or college is a big accomplishment for a young person, especially for someone who has struggled with learning in elementary and high school. Universities continue to develop services for students with learning disabilities to accommodate challenges. They may offer alternate exam spaces with extended times, or to have someone take notes for you. Often, students with learning disabilities find they have to study and work much longer on assignments than their fellow students. Students with a math learning disability find they spend a lot of time on their math assignments, but deficits seem to persist, leading to failing grades or dropping out.
Researchers at Florida State University (Prevatt et al., 2010) wanted to better understand the nature of math difficulties for students with learning disabilities. They specifically looked at the effects of memory and anxiety on math performance. Past research has found that individuals with math disabilities have difficulty storing math facts in memory, as well as accessing previously learned facts. Since past research has also shown that greater anxiety reduces memory capacity and ability, Prevatt and her colleagues set to clarify what roles academic anxiety and memory play in math performance.
Long and Short-term Memory is Affected
The initial results were consistent with past research: long-term and short-term memory skills impacted math performance, as did academic anxiety. When they investigated further, the researchers found that math and memory was linked for students with low anxiety, but that students with high anxiety math performance did not change with respect to memory. Basically, when anxiety was present, it impacted math performance more than problems with memory. What happens is that when we are worried about something (in this case, how we are doing on math problems) we start to focus on our worry rather than giving our full attention to the task we are trying to complete. So, when students are feeling stressed about their math performance, it becomes even more challenging to recall facts they have studied and very difficult to use any memory strategies they have learned.
If anxiety is not a problem for a student with a math disability, working on memory strategies will be an important way to help with math performance. But, if a student has high anxiety when it comes to doing math, it’s especially important to work on reducing anxiety before or in addition to improving memory skills.
Prevatt, F., Welles, T., Li, H., & Proctor, B. (2010). The Contribution of Memory and Anxiety to the Math Performance of College Students with Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 25(1), 39-47.