Why decimals are difficult

Why decimals are difficult

Recently a couple of primary teachers admitted a little furtively to me that they “never got decimals”. It got me wondering about what was difficult about decimals. For people who “get” decimals, they are just another number, with the decimal point showing. Clearly this was not the case for all.

So in true 21st century style I Googled it: “Why are decimals difficult”

I got some wonderfully interesting results, one of which is a review paper by Hugues Lortie-Forgues, Jing Tian and Robert S. Siegler, entitled “Why is learning fraction and decimal arithmetic so difficult?”, which I draw on in this post.

You need to know

For teachers of statistics, this is important. In particular, students learning about statistics sometimes have difficulty identifying if a p-value of 0.035 is smaller or larger than the alpha value of 0.05. In this post I talk about why that may be. I will also give links to a couple of videos that might be helpful for them. For teachers of mathematics it might give some useful insights.

Whole numbers and rational numbers

Whole numbers are the numbers we start with when we begin to learn maths – 1, 2, 3, 4,… and 0. Zero has an interesting role of having no magnitude in itself, but acting as a place-filler to make sure we can tell the meaning of a number. Without zero, 2001 and 201 and 21 would all look the same! From early on we recognise that longer numbers represent larger quantities. We know that a salary with lots of zeroes is better than one with only a few. $1000000 is more than $200 even though 2 is greater than 1.

Rational numbers are the ones that come in between, but also include whole numbers. All of the following are considered rational numbers: ½, 0.3, 4/5, 34.87, 3¾, 2000

When we talk about whole numbers, we can say what number comes before and after the number. 35 comes before 36. 37 comes after 36. But with rational numbers, we cannot do this. There are infinite rational numbers in any given interval. Between 0 and 1 there are infinite rational numbers.

Rational numbers are usually expressed as fractions (½, 3¾) or decimals (0.3, 34.87).

There are several things that make rational numbers (fractions and decimals) tricky. In this post I focus on decimals

Decimal notation and size of number

As I explained before, when we learn about whole numbers, we learn a useful rule-of-thumb that longer strings of digits correspond to larger numbers. However, the length of the decimal is unrelated to its magnitude. For example, 10045 is greater than 230. The longer number corresponds to greater magnitude. But 0.10045 is less than 0.230. We look at the first digit after the point to find out which number is bigger. The way that you judge which is bigger out of two decimals is quite different from how you do it with whole numbers. The second of my videos illustrates this.

Effect of multiplying by numbers between 0 and 1

The results of multiplying by decimals between 0 and 1 are different from what we are used to.

When we learn about multiplication of whole numbers, we find that when we multiply, the answer will always be bigger than both of the numbers we are multiplying.
3 × 4 = 12. 12 is greater than either 3 or 4.
However, if we multiply 0.3 × 0.4 we get 0.12, which is smaller than either 0.3 and 0.4. Or if we multiply 6 by 0.4, we get 2.4, which is less than 6, but greater than 0.4. This can be quite confusing.

Aside for statistics teachers

In statistics we often quote the R squared value from regression. To get it, we square r, the correlation coefficient, and what is quite a respectable value, like 0.6, gets reduced to a mere 0.36.

Effect of dividing by decimals between 0 and 1

Similarly, when we divide whole numbers by whole numbers, the answer will be less than the number we are dividing. 100 / 5 = 20. Twenty is less than 100, but in this case is greater than 5.  But when we divide by a decimal between 0 and 1 it all goes crazy and things get bigger! 100/ 0.5 = 200. People who are at home with all this madness don’t notice it, but I can see how it can alarm the novice.

Decimal arithmetic doesn’t behave like regular arithmetic

Addition and subtraction

When we add or subtract two numbers, we need to line up the decimal places, so that we know that we are adding values with corresponding place values. This is looks different from the standard algorithm where we line up the right-hand side. In fact it is the same, but because the decimal point is invisible, it doesn’t seem the same.

Method for multiplication of decimals

When you multiply numbers with decimals in, you do it like regular multiplication and then you count the number of digits to the right of the decimal in each of the factors and add them together and that is how many digits to have to the right of the decimal in the answer! I have a confession here. I know how to do this, and have taught how to do this, but I don’t recall ever working out why we do this or getting students to work it out.

Method for division of decimals

Is this even a thing? My immediate response is to use a calculator. I seem to remember moving the decimal point around in a somewhat cavalier manner so that it disappears from the number we are dividing by. But who ever does long division by hand?

Okay teacher friends – I now see why you find decimals difficult.


The paper talks about approaches that help. The main one is that students need to spend time on understanding about magnitude.

My suggestion is to do plenty of work using money. Somehow we can get our heads around that.

And use a calculator, along with judicious estimation.

Here are two videos I have made, to help people get their heads around decimals.


4 thoughts on “Why decimals are difficult

    • I think we need to be careful of messages of blame. These are very capable teachers who have one area they find tricky. Many teachers who struggle with maths put a lot of work into supporting their learners so that they do not have the same problems they do.


  1. “Recently a couple of primary teachers admitted a little furtively to me that they “never got decimals”.”

    This is surely a sign of a failure of our mathematics education system.

    The place where students should “get” decimals is NZ curriculum levels 3 and 4, with standard form and significant figures added in at curriculum level 5. That’s the content we get through in roughly years 6 to 10. We’re done ‘teaching’ decimals by Year 11 for most students, and well into using decimals as part of bigger ideas like rates, interest, tax, and ratios.

    These primary teachers went to university – so they got NCEA Level 1 numeracy (at least 10 credits) showing some understanding at level 6 of the curriculum or above, or something equivalent. Yet they never got decimals? We failed them somewhere if they slipped through 13 years of school and didn’t get one of the key ideas of the middle of the maths curriculum somewhere along the way.


    • I’m glad you pointed the finger at the maths education system and not the individuals. As it happens, one of the teachers is near retirement, so did not attend Uni, and is a very capable teacher. The other is from the UK and is one of the best teachers I know.
      I believe we have problems in our maths education system, and we need to look at what messages we send about mathematics. This is why our mission as a social enterprise is “A world of mathematicians”, as we believe that all learners – children and adults – have a right to feel competent at mathematics.


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