Students with a learning disability
A learning disability is any one of a diverse group of conditions that cause significant difficulties in perceiving and/or processing auditory, visual or spatial information.
"Learning disabilities can fall within the full range of intellectual ability, including average to superior intelligence."
They involve one or more of the basic processes used in understanding or using spoken or written language. Of presumed neurological origin, they cover disorders that impair such functions as reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia) and mathematical calculation (dyscalculia). They vary widely within each category in the patterns they exhibit.
- Identifying a student with a learning disability
- General tips
- Teaching strategies for students with a learning disability
- Alternative assessment strategies for students with a learning disability
Although it is estimated that 1 to 3% of undergraduates have a learning disability the condition has only recently been identified and still often goes undiagnosed.
The marked discrepancy between intellectual capacity, achievement and output (expressing information and responding) is what characterises a learning disability.
It is a disabling condition that is intrinsic to the individual and is not the result of situational factors such as a disadvantaged background, absence from school, ill health, emotional disturbance or socioeconomic disadvantage.
Identifying a student with a learning disability
Categorisation or definition of people with learning disabilities is not and never has been simple. When the disability is undiagnosed, a student may not even be aware that this is the cause of difficulties experienced with certain tasks. Identification of learning disabilities is necessary in order to provide adjustments that are reasonable for that student. Some indicators are:
- Academic achievement, as revealed by tests, does not correspond to ability.
- Student may show consistent success in some subjects, while doing poorly in another, despite comparable effort.
Some students may experience difficulty integrating information presented orally. This can contribute to difficulties in following the sequence and organisation of a lecture.
The student may not hear instructions or words accurately and might attempt to guess the meaning from the context. Blaming the student or accusing them of 'not listening' could be construed as harassment.
Some students with learning disabilities cannot write effectively or assimilate, remember and organise material while listening to a lecture.
- Accuracy, comprehension and speed in reading are all affected in students with any type of reading disability. The reading may be slow and laboured and comprehension may be impaired, particularly when dealing with large quantities of material.
- Students may not realise their errors; for example, when answering a question in an exam that differs from the one asked.
- Those with a reading disability due in part or wholly to visual perceptual dysfunction may experience headaches and visual stress.
- Legibility, writing speed and spelling may be severely hampered under the pressure of time constraints in a formal exam.
- Memory or sequencing may impede execution of complex instructions.
It is helpful to determine the student's ability to participate in class activities. While many students with learning disabilities are highly articulate, some may find it difficult talking, responding or reading in front of groups.
Some students with learning disabilities may have poor coordination or find it difficult to judge distances or differentiate between left and right.
- Problems with sequencing and organising may be reflected in poor study habits. Some students may seem to go off at a tangent in conversation and appear personally disorganised. Some may not perceive or discriminate patterns and arrangements as others do.
- The science laboratory can be especially overwhelming for students with learning disabilities. New equipment, exact measurement and multistep procedures may demand precisely those skills which are hardest for them to acquire.
Because of perceptual deficiencies, some students with learning disabilities are slow to grasp social cues and respond appropriately, they may lack social skills, or they may have difficulty sustaining focused attention.
- Refer to the Disability Services Officer about current assessments of students with learning disabilities.
- Consult with the Disability Services Officer about converting texts to a suitable format, such as tape or disk.
- Students may benefit from having extra time for reading.
- Provide students with chapter outlines or study guides that cue them to key points in their reading.
During the semester
- Maintain contact with the student.
- Communicate in the student's preferred mode/s; for example, a taped recording of a discussion may be more useful than written materials.
- Ensure you keep the student's attention and make the environment as distraction-free as possible.
- Use Plain English, short sentences, clear speech.
- Stay on the topic.
- Be prepared to repeat and rephrase information if necessary.
- Revise work covered previously.
- Provide summary to put lectures in context.
- Students may need assistance with note-taking.
- Some students may find it useful to tape lectures.
Teaching strategies for students with a learning disability
Some students with a learning disability may have experienced educational barriers prior to attending university. Once a student has been properly identified as having a learning disability by appropriately qualified personnel, and the nature of the disability is known, then strategies can be devised to help that student, usually in consultation with the student and the Disability Services Officer.
- Read aloud material that is written on the board or that is given in handouts or transparencies.
- Copies of overheads and lecture notes might be useful.
- Be aware that students may find it difficult to participate in small group discussions, or give presentations.
Laboratory and field work
- An individual orientation to the laboratory and equipment can minimise student anxiety, and provide an opportunity to talk about safety issues, and any specific needs the student may have.
- Label equipment, tools and materials clearly.
Flexible learning may suit some students.
- Reliance on reading and writing may pose difficulties for some students with a learning disability.
- Others may find the option of working at their own pace and in a familiar environment an advantage, especially where learning materials are in a suitable format.
Alternative assessment strategies for students with a learning disability
Some students with a learning disability or head injury, who can access auditory information better than visual information, may find a reader helpful when being assessed. If they present information better in oral form than in written form they may require a scribe.
- Allow extra time, particularly when an assignment involves significant demands on reading and writing skills.
- Provide assistance with essay writing or study skills from Learning Centre advisor.
- Practical task-driven course assessment may not present a problem.
- Provide alternative or supplementary assignments for evaluation purposes such as taped interviews, slide presentations, photographic essays or hand-made models.
- Make allowance for poor grammar or spelling.
Students may need encouragement to participate in tutorials.
Special arrangements for exams can be worked out with the student and the Disability Services Officer.
- Sitting exams in a separate, quiet room with natural lighting. Fluorescent lighting can cause visual disturbances in some students (e.g. strobing effects) that make reading slow and difficult.
- Extra time.
- Use of simple language in exam questions.
- Allowing plenty of time for students to assimilate new knowledge before testing.
- Aids such as dictionaries, computer spell checks, a proof reader; in mathematics and science, a calculator, and access to mathematical or scientific tables.
- In mathematics, a student with a learning disability may understand the concept, but may make errors by misaligning numbers or confusing arithmetical facts.
- Arrangements to use a reader, writer (scribe), word processor, tape recorder or typewriter, specific software package.
- Consider alternative exam design formats. For example, some students may find essay formats difficult.
- Consider alternative or supplementary assignments that may serve evaluation purposes, such as taped interviews, slide presentations, photographic essays or hand-made models.
- Be aware that misreading of a key word is much more likely for students with a learning disability. For example, if an answer is well framed but seemingly not relevant to the set question, a flexible attitude to assessment may be necessary.
- Poor handwriting or spelling may not necessarily indicate an immature or uninformed exam answer.
- Exam papers may sometimes need to be printed on soft contrast paper to avoid visual difficulties according to individual colour preferences and/or by modifying print sized type.
- Students may prefer to dictate their exam answers to a scribe who has a good working knowledge of the subject.
Changes to the physical environment
Some students with a learning disability are better able to concentrate and learn if changes are made to the learning environments. For example,
- replacing fluorescent lighting;
- using of coloured paper and blue transparencies;
- providing access to a photocopier;
- modifying print;
- using standard font to size 14 and A3 paper instead of A4 avoiding the use of italics;
- using thick paper so the reverse side does not bleed through;
- taking care with layout;
- reducing extraneous noise levels in classes.