Guest Column: Understanding math gaps

With the beginning of school, I’d like to share information about learning math.

What is a learning gap?

A math learning gap refers to any math skill that a student should have previously mastered but didn’t. Examples of learning gaps include a fifth grader who didn’t learn what the numerator in a fraction means, or a tenth grader who doesn’t know when the commutative property applies in algebra.

How do learning gaps happen?

Learning gaps occur for all kinds of reasons. Some common ones include:

  • A child missed a lesson due to illness or family circumstances.
  • The teacher did not adequately cover the concept.
  • The math curriculum does not cover the concept in depth enough.
  • The math instruction went too fast.
  • The child learned to solve problems using an algorithm but lacks conceptual understanding.
  • Child felt sick or stressed while the concept was being taught and didn’t retain the information.
  • Child got a rudimentary understanding of the concept but didn’t master enough to understand how and when to apply it.

Why are Learning Gaps a Problem?

Math skills build upon each other. Some skills are called foundational. Without mastering foundational skills advancing in more difficult concepts becomes almost impossible.  For example, a child who hasn’t learned to count backward will struggle with subtraction. This is especially true for those who have the learning disability, dyscalculia. The learning gaps often lead to an apathetic attitude, anxiety and behavior problems.

How Should Learning Gaps be Addressed?

Effective instruction aimed at the missed or poorly understood concept is the best remedy for a learning gap.  Students need the opportunity to apply the concept in a variety of situations and to ask questions to clear up any misunderstandings. Fixing a learning gap due to a conceptual misunderstanding takes time and practice.

When do Learning Gaps Close?

Learning gaps close when they are addressed.  This can be a week or years after the learning should have occurred. The more quickly a learning gap is addressed the fewer problems it will create, but it is never too late to close a learning gap.

Vipul Bhatt,
Mathnasium of Glen Mills


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