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Research Findings on Addressing Mathematics Difficulties

Numerous research studies have looked at the effectiveness of instructional strategies on improving achievement by students with mathematics difficulties. As expected, some strategies work better than others, and a particular strategy’s effectiveness can depend on the nature of the learning difficulties found in the individuals being studied. Three recent projects looked at more than fifty studies to determine which instructional strategies worked best for students with difficulties in mathematics (Baker, Gersten, & Lee, 2002; Gersten et al., 2006; Kroesbergen & van Luitt, 2003). Their meta-analyses focused on six aspects of instruction and their effectiveness with low achieving students in mathematics and special education students. Effectiveness of the strategies was determined by effect sizes (0.2 small effect, 0.4 moderate effect, and 0.6 or above large effect). Table 7.4 lists the six strategies along with the effect size for teaching low-achieving students with learning difficulties in mathematics and special education students.

Table 7.4




In these studies, systematic and explicit instruction provided consistently strong effects for both groups. The effect size of 1.19 for the special education students would indicate that more than 80 percent of the participants improved their test scores after the strategy was used. This strategy involved teachers demonstrating a specific plan for solving a problem and the students using that plan to find their way to a solution. These plans provided highly explicit models of steps and procedures or of the questions that students should ask when solving problems. Student think-alouds showed a strong effect size for special education students. This strategy encourages students to express their thinking by talking, writing, or drawing the steps they used to solve a problem. This process may be effective in part because it reduces the impulsive approach that many of these students use to solve problems. Strategies that involved the visual and graphic depictions of problems resulted in a moderate effect size (0.50) for special education students. Of particular interest was the finding that the specificity of the visual representation determined the effectiveness of the intervention. Effect sizes were much larger when teachers (1) presented graphic depictions with multiple examples, (2) helped students select which visuals to use and why, and (3) had students practice with their own graphic organizers. Although using peer-assisted learning and formative data improved the performance of both groups, the effect sizes were larger with low-achieving students than with the special education groups.


Baker, S., Gersten, R., & Lee, D-S. (2002). Asynthesis of empirical research on teachingmathematics to low-achieving students. Elementary School Journal,103,51–73.

Gersten, R., Chard, D., Jayanthi, M., & Baker, S. (2006). Experimental and quasi-experimentalresearch on instructional approaches for teaching mathematics to students with learningdisabilities:A research synthesis. Signal Hill, CA: Center on Instruction/RG Research Group.

Kroesbergen, E. H., & van Luitt, J. E. H. (2003). Mathematics interventions for children with specialeducation needs: Ameta-analysis. Remedial and Special Education,24,97–114.

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