Dyscalculia in Further education


There are students who will be re-taking maths to achieve the maths exam result and qualification that enables them to apply for jobs. There will be students who find that their chosen course has aspects of maths as a vital and important component of the topic they are studying. Obvious examples will be courses in engineering or construction. Less obvious examples will be psychology and hairdressing.

Some students will have a long history of low achievement in maths, so regaining motivation will be a big issue. These students will not be motivated by 'more of the same'. The time span for studying is relatively short and expectations may be high, as in, trying to achieve a 'pass' grade in maths in one year, having spent the last 10 years of schooling not understanding the topic at a level that generates exam success.

Thirty years ago it was hard to find books and materials for English that were at the correct level of intellectual challenge, yet age-appropriate in appearance. That has been addressed, but the same has not yet happened for maths. This is exacerbated by the culture in maths teaching that views manipulatives, such as base-ten blocks, as unnecessary for older students (and that often applies in secondary schools, too).

Alternative qualifications to GCSE may have maths set in a more functional and practical way, but they are often much more wordy, so that the challenge is as much about reading and interpreting the paper as it is about the maths content.

Worksheets need to be both age and level appropriate and set up to generate success. Motivation is more likely to come at any age, but especially this age and after a history of failure, if meaningful success can be experienced. Worksheets should also have enough content to provide experience, but not over-face the student and create avoidance.

Note: It may be helpful to read the previous sections, irrespective of your age.

At home

Key issues, as the perception of students as independent learners increases, are likely to be personal organisation, especially time and timetables. Some useful apps are listed under Resources in the HE section. Negotiating extra time for assignments may help, but it is important to remember that time is finite and that life needs balance.

The individual (socially/ emotionally/ behaviourally)

(Much of the advice for secondary age students applies here). Maths in the context of the subject being studied, for example, carpentry or hairdressing, is now real and has consequences if it is wrong. Not in appraisal via a score or a tick or cross, but in the success of doing the task. Being able to estimate before and after the task helps set up the task and then appraise it. This needs to be in addition to any precise calculations. For example, a painter may need to estimate how much paint to buy for a specific job or how much time the job may take in order to provide an estimate of the cost. A hairdresser will need to calculate the correct dilution for a hair colouring. Not surprisingly, the standards required, and tested, for calculations in nursing are very high. This can raise the levels of debilitating anxiety. The use of estimations in combination with precise calculations can provide some level of reassurance. In education (on learning / attainment / behaviour)

When a student has to gain a maths qualification in order to access and pursue a career and that student has a track record of failing to achieve this, then it will not be surprising if there are emotional consequences. Individuals will show different behaviours, but creating motivation will have to deal with that range of behaviours. As with so many issues in maths, there will not be one approach, one solution. I am always wary of the person who advocates a teaching strategy because 'It worked for me'. As with the comments in the Secondary age section, attributional style may provide some helpful strategies. In some respects, I find that source broader than Mindset and thus more useful across a range of situations. There is a (free) maths anxiety questionnaire on this website. The questionnaire in my book 'More Trouble with Maths' is only standardised to age 16 years, but may still offer useful and pertinent information. Often, initiating relaxed conversations about affective issues is far more revealing than simply an 'anxiety score'.


The key goal for those re-taking GCSE or Functional Skills will be to restore motivation. It is likely that that will mean a different approach combined with providing experiences of success. This may well include discussing what the student's goals are and why he thinks these have not been reached and what he remembers as something that did help. It is a constant theme in this section on dyscalculia that visual images, linked appropriately to the pertinent vocabulary and the symbols has a strong chance of success. However, there are rarely 'quick fixes' so it may be a case of finding the relevant strengths, the topics that are best understood by the student and focusing on those rather than attempting to master the whole syllabus. It is likely that input for maths test anxiety will help. Students may need to learn exam techniques and strategies. They may need to jot down key information before starting to answer questions. This can help direct the mind to the maths and may give a secure source of information that stress might block as the test/exam progresses.

As with any age of learner, asking them to explain how they are trying to solve the problem (meta-cognition) encourages understanding and success. Asking if the student can see another way of solving the problem may help, but make sure this doesn't create stress. It is important to always keep in mind that no one approach works for all. The goal is to make this routinely automatic for students to do for themselves. It is important to refresh the memory for strategies that access basic facts, so that the access becomes as close as possible to automatic. For example, 15% can be calculated by working out 10% (divide by 10), halving that 10% to get 5% and adding the two percentages. This is an example of an approach that uses two (or more) easy steps to replace one impossible step.

There is often a need to go back to the basics to ensure that they are secure. Maths is a very developmental subject and the foundations must be sound and automatically accessible.

Useful sites/ resources

  • dyscalculia-screener.co.uk/ , which claims to be, 'the World's only post 16 screener'.
  • Mathematics Pro - a GCSE revision app.
  • Moorcraft, P. (2015) 'It Just Doesn't Add Up: Explaining Dyscalculia and Overcoming Number Problems for Children and Adults' Original Paperback
  • www.mathsexplained.co.uk (tutorials that address topics in a non-age specific way)
  • stemreader.org.uk is a Windows application with tools to help read and explore equations. With STEMReader you can hear equations read aloud and see the transcript on screen, break down equations into simple chunks to make them easier to understand and check the meaning of unfamiliar symbols.

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