The Differences Between Dyscalculia and Poor Mathematics Learning

What are the differences between dyscalculia (mathematics disorder) and poor mathematics learning? Here are three things to keep in mind.

Dyscalculia is normally very hard to distinguish from run-of-the-mill student problems in Mathematics. Having either can result in poor standing and below-average achievement in school Mathematics. Student confidence can also be undermined by both, and would result in similar problematic class behaviors. How can we differentiate between the two?

Mathematics is a hard subject. If you’re one of the millions of people who have already forgotten their university Calculus then you understand what it means; it’s a chore to comprehend and apply Mathematics concepts, especially if it’s something that we don’t use everyday. We reach out for calculators just to do simple arithmetic, and it’s just so much easier to jot down a number than memorize it. Fractions are something we dread, and splitting the bill can sometimes be an arduous task.

Of course, these difficulties can be surmounted if we work hard enough; a quick Google search or hitting the right books would do the trick. This is not so for people who have dyscalculia. The specific learning disability for mathematics, dyscalculia is the catch-all clinical label used to identify the condition in which a person has very specific problems in mathematical thinking. Symptoms of the condition include an inability to understand and make use of basic mathematical concepts, insufficient mental calculation ability, a poor memory for numbers, and a handicapped number sense. Although subject to further assessment, the diagnosis is also given under the condition that only Mathematical thinking is hampered – daily routine and other school subjects are not as affected.

A closer look at the symptoms will make us see similarities with poor mathematics learning. If a student doesn’t study his lessons well then certainly he’ll have difficulties that are as potent as those of the learning disability. What cold help us distinguish one from the other?

Dyscalculia is not just a school problem

There’s a big difference between a child who doesn’t want to study and someone who just isn’t able to perform daily numerical tasks. Dyscalculia is not just a case of misplacing integer signs or forgetting to calculate fractional lowest terms, it also shows itself by way of difficulties even outside of the school subject. Activities that are supposedly simple such as adding up grocery items or recalling street numbers—anything with numbers and measurement involved--might prove difficult for someone who has the learning disability. A consistent history of math-related difficulties both at home and in school is also a good indicator that something’s amiss. 

Dyscalculia is not just about forgetting what you learned

If it’s not part of our daily work, chances are we’ve already forgotten our high school Calculus. It’s actually normal to do so, because what you don’t practice gets shelved into other parts of your brain. It’s quite different with dyscalculia though, because the forgetting is more of a boon; actually, it would be quite hard to learn Calculus (or even Algebra and basic arithmetic) in the first place.

Dyscalculia means employing different solutions

Mathematics is almost always about procedure, mental calculation, and pattern-matching; we just follow steps to accomplish different mathematical tasks. Acquiring a sense for these procedures can be learned either by practice or by learning from previous mistakes. Since we follow a set number of steps, mistakes can be easily understood because errors will also have their own patterns. If the procedure that was learned was wrong, then it will show itself by means of the patterns of error that a child commits when tackling a problem. With dyscalculia, it’s different – the errors committed are quite different from what’s expected and retracing the steps may not be enough to understand what the person was thinking. If the child answers with seemingly random solutions consistently then we may need to dig deeper about his situation.

Remember the Three

Again, how do we differentiate between dyscalculia and poor mathematics learning? in addition to the normal checklist symptoms of dyscalculia, there are three things that we could look out for when trying to distinguish the disorder from poor mathematics learning. First, dyscalculia symptoms are not limited to school situations, any numerical task may be affected. Second, dyscalculia is not the same as having no practice in mathematical tasks. Third, dyscalculia involves having different error patterns than the norm.


Saddock, B.J. & Saddock, V.A. (2003). Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry: 9th Edition. Philadelphia, USA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Steven, C. & Ashcroft, R. (2006). Mathematics for Dyslexics (Including Dyscalculia). UK:Wiley-Blackwell.


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