I am currently reflecting two educational experiences that have made me question if there's research around this particular topic.

1) A few years ago, I was an adjunct instructor for a Trigonometry class and a Calculus 1 class. I taught those classes for a few semesters and I had several students come up to me on the first day and say something along the lines of "I haven't been in a math class in forever. I graduated high school, went out and got a job for the past 10 years and now I want to change my career. They said I have to take this class but I don't remember much of anything about math." Some of those students did struggle, but I was actually surprised at how many of those students ended up earning top marks, pointing connections out to me that I had not even thought of, or thinking of novel ways to solve a problem that wasn't in the book.

2) Another anecdotal point is that I once had to be a TA for a summer class aimed at advanced high school students. The instructor of the course told the class about his personal journey: He was never 'good at school' and barely scraped through 9th grade. He dropped out in the middle of 10th grade and got a job. After a while, he eventually wanted to get a GED but feared having to relearn the math. But all of sudden, the math...just made sense. Some stuff he struggled with of course, but he was able to figure it out and progress. Currently he has a PhD in math and has such great intuition for complicated problems that I don't even understand.

So both of those stories made me think about the way we try to motivate math. Often times we are faced with the "when am I ever going to use this?" question. I am honest in my response. I say something like "honestly, you probably won't. But getting an understanding of this problem, will help develop logic and problem solving skills you'll need for future unknown problems." Society tries to advertise math to students by saying that "studying math will develop critical thinking skills needed elsewhere." But the two stories I shared have me thinking in the opposite direction:

Is there research that shows if the critical thinking skills and experience that people develop when dealing with the real life issues that come with work, families, finances, etc. will help them be 'better at learning math' than someone who just finished high school?

And I know my experience in story 1) might not be typical. I've seen plenty of 30, 40, and 50 years-olds taking very remedial math classes and not understanding fractions.

Is there any research on what helps returning adult learners more successful in math?

  • $\begingroup$ These are interesting and hard questions. I'd recommend they be split up into separate questions. Hopefully others in the community agree with that. $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2020 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ "When Are We Ever Going to Use This?" $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    Apr 7, 2020 at 6:55

1 Answer 1


In the

Encyclopedia of Mathematics Education. Lerman, Stephen, ed. Dordrecht: Springer, 2014.

there is an article entitled "Adults Learning Mathematics" by Diana Coben and John O’Donoghue (Springer link), which says

"Adults learning mathematics is a young field of study and research, emerging towards the end of the twentieth century"

The article has ~70 references, so it might respond to your Q2 (research), but scanning it I do not see that it addresses your interesting Q1 (life skills $\rightarrow$? math skills).


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