Prof studies math dyslexia

Prof studies math dyslexia

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Students who dreaded their math homework may find an explanation in new research by a Western professor. It might have been math dyslexia.

Daniel Ansari, a psychology professor, is studying the condition known as developmental dyscalculia. The neurological disorder is like dyslexia with numbers, making it difficult to process numerical values and acquire basic math skills.

The disorder affects five per cent of the population and can hinder the development of fundamental math skills in children. According to Ansari, unattended cases of dyscalculia can drive students away from math-related subjects and potentially limit their future careers and education options.

“A consequence of being bad at math is you develop math anxiety,” Ansari said.

“People learn to avoid math because math leads to negative experiences – it leads to the experience of failure. You start to avoid math and you may exclude yourself from certain career paths that involve math because they feel they won’t be able to pass the math components of their degree program,” he continued.

Since 2007, Ansari has been working with graduate student Stephanie Bugden to examine how young students perform in mathematics.

Starting with first and second grade students, Bugden gave behavioural tests to examine their comparison and math skills. A year later, she gave the test to the same children again along with brain imaging. In the spring she’ll invite them back for another round of tests and an MRI scan to examine changes over time.

Ansari noted his research intends to help diagnose children with dyscalculia early on, in order to properly teach them fundamental math skills.

The development of basic math skills can have long-term effects on a child’s personal growth, according to math specialist Immaculate Namukasa from the faculty of education at Western.

“Many students who are weak at a subject would need much encouragement and support not to shy away from it. For younger children, especially where they get messages that mathematics is difficult, and it is OK to be bad at math, they increasingly lose interest and spend less time doing mathematics,” Namukasa said.

“There is a math poster that says, ‘Mathematics multiplies your chances.’ Unfortunately for many whose math anxiety is not altered before the end of elementary school, this multiplication might be by an amount less than one — a fraction, negative number or decimal,” she said.

“Many students that fear mathematics usually do not take mathematics courses before Grade 10 and you can see how that means a reduction in choices at colleges and universities.”

Ansari also pointed out that dyscalculia and math-related disorders are given far less attention than dyslexia and other reading disorders and further research in this field will significantly improve the ability for future youth to excel in math.

“We know so much more about reading than math and the existence of a disorder called dyscalculia is unknown to many people. That’s a reflection of how little awareness there is and one of the key goals is to raise awareness, to avoid this notion that people who are bad at math aren’t very bright,” Ansari commented.

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