A learning disability (LD) is a problem in the way that a person’s brain processes information. Simply stated, a learning disability is an information processing problem. LDs are considered “non-apparent disabilities” because a person with a learning disability shows no signs of being disabled. LD is a condition to be understood and managed. The most common learning disabilities include dyslexia — a severe difficulty with reading, dyscalculia — a severe difficulty with math, and dysgraphia — a severe difficulty with written expression.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not a Learning Disability but it can resemble one in many ways. In fact, Allegheny gives similar accommodations for students with ADHD as it does for students with LD. For purposes of this section, we are including ADHD as a learning disability.
Although there are no known causes of many learning disabilities, researchers agree that they are not caused by visual, hearing, or motor disability, mental retardation, cultural disadvantage, or emotional disturbance. Generally, learning disabled students have the capacity to learn and perform at or above their age levels. However, learning is affected by perception and integration difficulties. A person must gather, integrate, and express information in adaptive ways. Students may compensate for lack of these abilities by developing alternative learning methods. Learning disabilities can be the most challenging of all the disability groups in the college setting. However great the challenge for college personnel, it cannot equal the challenge that achieving a college education presents for a student with a learning disability. The reason for this challenge is that the kinds of cognitive deficits found in people with learning disabilities involve skills that represent the essence of what higher education is all about -absorbing information through reading, listening, and observing; remembering, processing, organizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and applying information; communicating information through the written and spoken word; and being evaluated primarily through written language on the ability to use all of these skills. Yet, despite their deficits and the difficulties encountered by learning disabled students, many of these students are able to succeed, and many have succeeded far beyond the minimum level of just “getting by.” We all have strengths and weaknesses in our learning styles. Students with learning disabilities, like visually impaired students, simply need alternative ways to learn.
Students with LD have a weakness in one or more of the following:
- understanding what is read,
- listening effectively because there is difficulty,
- distinguishing among similar sounds, symbols, or objects,
- comprehending mathematical concepts,
- retaining information,
- expressing thoughts through writing,
- spelling correctly,
- expressing thoughts through speaking,
- maintaining a level of academic performance relative to cognitive evaluations.
The following descriptions of problems in specific learning processes are summarized from the work of Scheiber and Talpers.
Visual Perception Problems: Though students with these problems may have perfect eyesight, they may see letters incorrectly or in reverse order; may fail to see some letters, words, or even whole paragraphs; may confuse letters and symbols that are similar (b and d, g and q); may omit ends of words; may jumble spaces between words; or may misinterpret facial expressions that convey boredom, approval, skepticism, or the end of a conversation.
Auditory Perception Problems: Even with normal hearing, students with learning disabilities may have difficulty differentiating between familiar sounds (hear “crashed the car” for “washed the car” or “ninety minutes” for “nineteen minutes”); may be acutely sensitive to background noises and unable to screen out traffic, rustling of paper, whispers, etc., when listening to a lecture or conversation or taking an exam; or may be unable to catch the subtleties in different tones of voice (e.g., with anger, sarcasm, questioning).
Spatial Perception Problems: Students with these difficulties may be unable to judge distance, differentiate between left and right, or follow directions. They can get lost in familiar territory.
Memory Problems: Some LD students have difficulty retrieving information stored by the brain. They typically have more problems with short-term memory than with long-term memory. They often search endlessly to find words, names, dates, and thoughts that seem lost inside their heads.
Sequencing Problems: Students with sequencing problems may have difficulty with the order and arrangement of letters and numbers (spelling and mathematics), following step-by-step outlining, choosing priorities, organizing notes, and keeping track of important materials. They may also experience more general difficulties in understanding the structure of a lecture or a reading passage or in seeing the relationship of main ideas to subordinate ideas. Some students with sequencing problems find their own method of organization. Their minds may work better when they are free to think nonsequentially or to follow the flow of their own thoughts. Some develop original ways of arriving at conclusions. Others benefit greatly from learning how to structure tasks and how to set up orderly systems of self-management.
Motor Coordination Problems: Poor gross-motor (large-muscle) coordination can result in clumsiness — knocking over things, bumping into people. Participation in many sports is difficult. Poor fine-motor (small muscle) coordination can result in poor handwriting and difficulty manipulating small objects. Visual motor coordination problems make it difficult for the hands or feet to obey visual commands in such activities as copying from the board, cutting a pattern, typing, or writing. Auditory motor problems interfere with following spoken directions or listening and taking notes at the same time.
Having a learning disability does not mean being unable to learn. It does mean that the person will have to use adaptive methods to process information so that learning can be accomplished. A learning disability exists when information is absorbed through the senses but inaccurately transmitted to the brain or inappropriately expressed. LD students must receive and transmit information in forms that work best for them.
Few learning disabled college students will have deficits in all these abilities. LD college students vary widely in the extent to which they experience these problems. Most LD students who enter college have developed varying degrees of compensatory skills and have learned coping strategies that enable them to circumvent or at least manage some of their deficits. A word processor and an electronic dictionary are excellent examples of the tools available to assist LD students.
All students have preferred learning styles that work best for them, and learning disabled students are no different. Many LD students develop unconventional methods of learning out of necessity, because traditional methods may not work effectively for them. Tutoring in spelling and math are usually required. Students with learning disabilities can generally learn better when as many senses as possible are used in the teaching and learning process — visual, auditory, and tactile.
It is not uncommon to find LD students who are very creative or talented in music, poetry, art, dance, athletics, mechanics, computer programming, or other subjects. Too often, however, their special skills and talents are overshadowed by their struggle with traditional academics. When their special abilities are recognized and encouraged, the satisfaction derived from these skills may ease their frustration with academics and motivate them to capitalize on their strengths instead of focusing on their deficits.
Some students go to great lengths to hide their problems for fear that they will be regarded as mentally handicapped and illiterate. The ones who are more likely to succeed in the college environment are those who understand and come to terms with their disabilities, confront them openly, take advantage of the resources that can help them, and recognize and capitalize on their strengths.
Tips for Positive Communication
- Stress the importance of good study habits and effective time management.
- Give timely feedback to the student; errors need to be corrected as soon as possible.
- Give praise when merited; it builds confidence.
Suggested Classroom Accommodations
Special accommodations will need to be individually tailored because LD students will vary depending on their types and degrees of learning difficulty. Usually, a combination of adaptive methods is the best approach. Many adaptations used for LD students are the same as for some other disabilities.
- Be open to students’ tape recording lectures; agreement forms are available from the Learning Commons.
- Encourage the use of word processor that will help LC students compose, edit, and spell more accurately.
- Use as many senses as possible when presenting subject matter; it enhances the many ways in which LD students learn. (Varied approaches are good for all students.)
- Concepts can be strengthened by using sounds, smells, and visual aids.
- Use the chalkboard, handouts, videos, group discussions, role playing, overhead projectors, etc.
- Prepare handouts and review technical terms used in your class.
- Point out the organizational items in textbooks, e.g., chapter summaries, sub-headings, graphic design, charts, maps, and indexes.
- Give all assignments and course expectations in written and oral form.
- Incorporate “hands on” and lab experiences when they are appropriate.
- Consult with the student and the staff of SDS coordinator when assistance is needed in solving problems.
- Use audio textbooks and other material when appropriate.
- Give students a clear syllabus, listing tests and assignments with due dates noted.
- Use demonstrations and hands-on experiences.
- Use overhead projectors or PowerPoint presentations. Break down difficult concepts into steps or parts.
- Give assignments verbally and in writing.
- Outline the day’s lecture on the chalkboard, overhead, or PowerPoint.
- Give a brief review of the material presented and emphasize key points.
- Include a time for questions and answers.
- Give students study questions for exams that demonstrate the format as well as the content of the test and an explanation of what constitutes a good answer and why.
- Encourage all students to take advantage of the Learning Commons tutoring services.
- Suggest that students use consultants in the Learning Commons.
Test Accommodation and Administration
- Allow extra time for test taking (usually time and one half).
- Arrange for individual proctoring of tests in quiet, separate rooms.
- Permit oral tests.
- Explain difficult concepts more fully.
- Permit the use of dictionaries or spell checkers and thesauruses with word processors for writing assignments.
- Permit the use of word processors.
- Go over failed exams with students.
- Permit the use of calculators for math tests.
- Explain directions more fully.