The term learning disability includes a heterogeneous group of syndromes which stem from information processing problems caused by a known or assumed neurological dysfunction. The processing problems result in learning problems and failure to achieve in basic skill subjects (i.e., reading, written, and/or spoken language, spelling, grammar, and mathematics).
The ultimate result for the post-secondary student with a learning disability is that he/she may encounter problems with various aspects of their courses, e.g., acquiring information from lectures, and in completing assigned readings, labs, papers, and exams. They may also have problems with time management, attention span, listening and taking notes simultaneously, and understanding verbal and/or nonverbal information. Social and emotional difficulties may also result due to failures encountered as a consequence of the learning disability.
While a learning disability cannot be cured any more than a physical or visual disability, a student with a learning disability can be greatly assisted through instructional intervention and compensatory strategies. A variety of instructional modes that incorporate audio, visual, and/or hands-on interaction can enhance learning for students with learning disabilities, as well as for other students.
Accommodations for students with learning disabilities vary and are determined by the form of learning disability, the student’s coping strategies and the manner in which course material is being presented an/or assessed. Discussion with the student often provides the most useful information regarding accommodation strategies.
Gravitying disabilities may include difficulty with:
- Reading or understanding printed material,
- The processing of auditory information, particularly in a limited-time situation such as a lecture,
- Producing written material, particularly when writing under strict time constraints such as those present in examination situations,
- Computational skills,
- Remembering details, even when concepts are understood and can be integrated, and,
- Coordination, which may interfere with activities such as writing or reading.
Gravitying disabilities should not be confused with mental retardation, autism, deafness, blindness, and behaviour disorders. None of these conditions are learning disabilities. Students who have had a lack of educational opportunities (frequent changes of schools or attendance problems), or students who are learning English, do not necessarily have a learning disability.
Suggested Instructional Strategies and Accommodations
Instruction plays a key role in determining whether students with learning disabilities will successfully complete a diploma or degree program. Several aspects of instruction are addressed: course preparation and design, presentation of content, accommodating to individual needs and making assignments.
Course preparation and design
- When selecting texts, choose well organized texts with reader aids (e.g., chapter summaries, glossaries, indexes).
- Make course descriptions, book lists and other materials available well in advance.
- Prepare an advanced reading list, and if possible, an alternate, less demanding reading lis written at a simpler level.
Presentation of content
- Help students organize by providing yourself as an organized role model. Present overall plans for the course/unit/lecture.
- Emphasize the “Tell them what you are going to tell them, Tell them, Then tell them what you have told them” approach.
- If using films or videos, indicate the main points to be noted before students view the material.
- Clearly indicate the important points of your lecture. Use written and oral techniques to identify main ideas, i.e., make parallel visual and verbal presentations of key lecture points.
- Use overhead projections, diagrams, and charts as much as possible.
- Provide lecture outlines, teach definitions and terms, emphasize points, and clarify relationships.
- Instead of presenting detailed masters for overhead projectors (they can be overwhelming), present a basic outline and add information as you lecture. Contrasting colors can help.
Suggestions for mathematics instructors
- Give frequent cumulative tests and quizzes. (Frequent quizzes provide students with feedback on their understanding of specific topics, incentives to study and review, and opportunities to combine new skills with those previously learned.) Analyze errors. Look at process as well as product. Vary format of questions.
- Structure each class session:
- Begin each session with a summary of the previous lesson and an overview of the new topic.
- Model the process of note taking by writing the steps for procedures on the board.
- Summarize the lesson at the end of the class.
- Encourage students to put homework problems on the board.
- Provide students with strategies for monitoring errors. Give instructions on how to avoid common pitfalls.
- Clarify all relevant vocabulary. Be consistent in use of language to describe procedures. Avoid lengthy, complex sentence structure.
- Provide visual cues. Use techniques such as color coding, underlining, and boxing to call attention to exponents, variables, operational symbols, etc.
- Vary activities and method of presentation. Teach concepts and applications. Provide concrete examples.
- Be flexible.
Accommodating to individual needs
- When teaching, actively encourage students to learn from each other, to form study groups, and to use the services of the various resource centres on campus.
- Allow recording of lectures and/or make outlines of lecture materials available.
- Help students to find a volunteer note-taker for lectures and/or encourage students to pair up with good note-takers and form study groups.
- Provide opportunities for oral participation, questions, discussion and clarification of lecture material.
- Incorporate review sessions into lecture schedules, and where possible, provide study questions prior to tests and exams.
- Explain assignments clearly, both orally and in writing, with clear deadlines.
- Provide alternative assignments to allow demonstration of competence, e.g., allow oral presentations, and allow taped/scribed papers to supplement or occasionally replace written ones.
- Allow plenty of time for completion of assignments.
- If class size permits, consider having some papers handed in twice, first in rush form for your input, then in final form.
- If a student has difficulty with clarity because of significant writing problems, allow him/her to pass in a cassette recording along with their written assignment.
- Encourage students to use computers, word processors, or other such technical aids that may be appropriate.
- For students with the most severe written language disabilities, suggest the use of scribes or typists on computer in preparing their assignments.
Writing tests and examinations
Be aware that an exam is particularly stressful for learning disabled students. Where required, allow learning disabled students to have special examination conditions, such as in Accessibility Services. The provisions suggested here will greatly enhance the learning disabled student’s potential for achievement during examinations.
Providing alternate arrangements
- Ensuring minimum distraction is essential for some learning disabled students. This can be achieved by providing a separate “quiet” room free from visual and auditory distractions such as is available in Accessibility Services.
- Some learning disabled students will require extended time. One-and-one half times the length of the regular exam is an accepted standard. Discuss with the Accessibility Advisor the time extensions which will be reasonable for specific students. Permit the use of computers, word processors, and other such technical aids as may be appropriate.
All of these arrangements can be made through Accessibility Services.
- Modify test questions to avoid double negatives, complex sentence structure, and questions embedded within questions.
- Accessibility Services can provide readers for students with severe reading disabilities.
- Provide an alternative to computer-scored answer sheets (e.g., allow students to supplement multiple choice tests with short answers).
- Provide alternate exam formats to accommodate to specific needs (e.g., students with visual processing difficulties may increase their performances by taking essay exams rather than multiple-choice exams, and students with severe written language disabilities may profit from the multiple-choice format).
- Allow students to have test questions clarified.
- Allow students to use dictionaries and simple calculators.
- Allow students to use a spell checker.
- Allow students to write with the type of support that most allows them to demonstrate their knowledge of what is being examined, e.g., write their essay, then dictate what they wrote to a scribe (hand in both their and the scribe’s version)
- Write using a computer to enhance organization, legibility, and monitoring for errors.