Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities

A learning disability is a disability of neurological origin that affects specific areas of learning and behavior. A learning disability is a general term used to describe a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of reading, spelling, writing, math, comprehension, memory and attention. Other limitations that may impact a student with a learning disability include deficits in processing, oral language, organizing, study skills and social skills. These disorders are individual-specific, inconsistent, and most of all frustrating to the student who may be very bright, but is dealing with a learning disability. Learning disabilities are not a single condition but a group of related and overlapping conditions that lead to low achievement by students who have the learning potential to do much better. Students with learning disabilities have specific needs that can be met by providing learning strategies and accommodations.

The following suggestions may be helpful in working with students who have learning disabilities, Asperger's Syndrome, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, brain injuries, or psychological disabilities.

  • Students with learning disabilities may have processing deficits, may take longer to complete exams and may need extended time.
  • Students with learning disabilities may take longer to complete assignments, so it is particularly important to provide a detailed syllabus at the beginning of the class. The syllabus should list all assignments and due dates.
  • If possible, provide frequent opportunities for feedback: for example, weekly quizzes on assigned reading, instructor reviews of early drafts of essays, and an error analysis of tests. If a student's written exams seem far inferior to the student's class work, the two of you can meet during your office hours for a discussion of the exam questions. This discussion may give you a better idea of what the student really knows and may suggest ways of helping the student produce better exams or other written work.
  • Encourage students to contact you in order to clarify assignments. Communicating via email in order to clarify assignments is an effective option.
  • Submit your book order to the campus bookstore according to the established University deadlines. Most students with visual impairments need their books to be converted to accessible formats (electronic), using a screen reader to listen to the text auditorally. This process is time intensive, so it is crucial that faculty honor the Academic Senate policy on "Timely Adoption of Textbooks, Course Readers, and Course Materials." Also, it would be helpful when you talk with publisher representatives to ask if the text you have chosen is already available in an accessible format (i.e. electronically, large print, Braille, CD, etc.).
  • Be sensitive to students who, for disability-related reasons, may be unable to read aloud or answer questions when called on. If a student makes you aware of these difficulties, you and the student can discuss other ways they can meaningfully participate in class sessions: for example, volunteering comments or making short presentations.
  • Use multi-modal aids and strategies during your lectures, such as videos with captions, overhead transparencies, modeling, and demonstrations. Some students with learning disabilities may be approved by Accessibility Services to tape record lectures or receive a copy of a classmate's notes. Additionally, some students may be approved by Accessibility Services to use a spelling or computation aid during exams.

Compose exams in a way that makes them accessible for students with learning disabilities:

  • Make sure the exams are clearly written or typed, in large black letters or numbers, with spaces between lines and with double or triple spaces between items. To avoid visual confusion, avoid cramming too many questions or math problems onto one page. Print questions on only one side of the paper.
  • Group similar types of questions together: for example, all true/false, all multiple-choice, all short-answers. Leave several spaces between multiple-choice items.
  • Allow students to use extra paper in preparing answers to essay questions. (Encourage the students to turn in preliminary outlines or scrawled notes with the completed exam blue books.)
  • Suggest that math students use graph paper (or lined paper turned sideways) to ensure neatness and avoid confusion when performing math calculations.
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