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Instructor's Handbook: Accommodating Students with Disabilities
7.5 Students With Learning Disabilities
It is estimated that learning disabilities occur in 10% of the general population. Due to early recognition and support in the school system, more students with learning disabilities are successful in gaining admission to post-secondary institutions. This creates a challenge for instructors since learning disabilities are diverse and, at times, difficult to understand.
It helps to know what a learning disability is, and what it is not. Individuals with learning disabilities have problems processing certain types of information, such as visual or auditory, due to a known or assumed permanent neurological deficit. The difficulties taking in, retaining and/or expressing information are NOT due to: low intelligence, poor educational backgrounds, poor motivation, emotional problems, or vision or hearing impairments. For a diagnosis of a specific learning disability to be made, a significant discrepancy between academic achievement and assessed intellectual capacity must be seen, with deficits in one or more of the following:
- receptive language (reading, listening)
- language processing (conceptualizing, integrating)
- expressive language (writing, spelling, talking)
- mathematical computations and reasoning
It is important to recognize that students with learning disabilities are not of low intelligence or overall cognitive ability, but struggle to process certain types of information as accurately and efficiently as their peers. Given appropriate accommodations, the impact of a student's processing impairments can be lessened, and a more valid measure of his or her knowledge and ability can be obtained. For example, a student with a learning disability who reads extremely slowly will need extra time for examinations and reserve readings.
Diagnosis and Testing Process
Learning disabilities must be diagnosed by a professional, typically a registered clinical psychologist, on the basis of standardized test results. Thorough testing and empirically-based criteria identify information processing deficits that may be impeding a student's ability to perform at a level commensurate with general intellectual functioning. Students at Queen's who self-identify as learning disabled must submit a recent and comprehensive psycho-educational assessment report documenting their diagnosis. Additional assessment may be required for inadequate or incomplete documentation.
Due to the demand for assessment, there may be some delay in getting confirmation of a learning disability, and this can result in diagnoses and recommendations for accommodations not being made until late in the academic year. Once a student has been referred for assessment, they are scheduled for an intake interview covering previous diagnosis/testing, academic functioning (reading, writing, speaking, listening, math, memory, other), organization and time management, laterality, spatial skills, attention and concentration, hyperactivity and impulsivity, school history, medical history, personal and social information, family information and writing sample.
If the interview suggests that the student has a long-standing pattern of markedly uneven abilities likely due to information-processing problems (rather than low ability, inadequate education, psychological problems, sensory impairments), then he or she completes seven hours of standardized psychometric tests which measure:
- Intelligence (Verbal-conceptual, Perceptual-organizational, Sequential symbolic-numerical)
- Motor Speed
- Processing Speed (Sequential information, Spatial information)
- Memory Skills (Verbal, Visual, Attention and concentration, Long-term)
- Attention and concentration
- Personality and emotional factors
- Arithmetic (Written, Mental)
- Reading (Decoding, Speed, Vocabulary, Comprehension, Word Discrimination)
- Writing (Basic Skills, Expression, Speed, Handwriting)
If assessment results indicate the presence of a specific learning disability, then recommendations for appropriate accommodations are made, consistent with identified areas of weakness. For example, the amount of extra time needed is based on results of normed tests of processing speed, writing speed, and reading speed. Many students also receive recommendations for learning support counselling, remediation work and/or counselling to reduce the impact of contributing emotional factors. Although the underlying information-processing problem in a learning disability is permanent (neurologically based), most students benefit from guidance on how to use their cognitive strengths to help offset their weaknesses, applying a range of compensatory and/or learning strategies. Learning disabled students can work with the Learning Disabilities Strategist to develop and strengthen techniques that allow them to perform more effectively at university. For some students with learning disabilities, having reading materials (books, articles, etc) available in electronic format is another useful resource.
Using some instructional strategies for course preparation, presentation of lectures, preparing assignments and exams will not only help the students with learning disabilities in your classes succeed, but will be useful to all your students.
- select well-organized texts with aids such as chapter summaries, glossaries, indexes
- make book lists, assignments and other materials available well in advance
- provide a role model for organization: present overall plans for the course, unit and lecture
- preview the material to be covered, provide the information, and then review the most salient points
- indicate main points before viewing videos or films
- clearly indicate the main points of your lecture, using written and oral techniques to emphasize them
- emphasize the relationships between ideas, using visual as well as verbal methods (e.g. concept maps, diagrams)
- use overhead projections, diagrams and charts whenever possible to supplement your oral presentation of information (lecture)
- explain assignments clearly, both orally and in writing, with set deadlines and criteria for grading / evaluation
- modify test questions to avoid double negatives, extremely complex sentence structure, and questions embedded within questions
- encourage group work when feasible (e.g. brainstorming, assignments)
- do not pressure students to read aloud
Some students with learning disabilities are reluctant to discuss their disability with their instructor, fearing that they may be somewhat diminished in the eyes of their instructors. This is sometimes based on negative past experiences with teachers, or the result of their own struggles to accept their disability. Disclosing a disability and discussing it can make a student feel nervous, alienated and even ashamed. Therefore, it is important for instructors to become knowledgeable about learning disabilities, discuss their concerns about the validity of the diagnosis and appropriate accommodations with the Learning Disabilities Strategist (not the student), and communicate with the student in an open and approachable manner.
It is helpful at the beginning of the course to invite any students with disabilities to introduce themselves to you individually during office hours. Then you may find out, in a non-challenging way, as much as the student can tell you about his or her learning style, strengths and weaknesses, and recommended accommodations. It is important to treat these conversations as well as any documentation about students as strictly confidential. The decision to disclose rests with the student, not the instructor, however well intentioned.
Some students may not be aware of having a learning disability, but you may observe a significant discrepancy between their apparent understanding of material and their ability to express that knowledge on tests or assignments, or their ability to learn from readings versus lectures, labs, etc. In this case, it may be helpful to privately discuss your observations with the student, suggest available learning supports such as tutoring if appropriate, and/or consult with the Learning Disabilities Strategist about the value of a referral for an interview.
Finally, it is important to be aware that the student has responsibilities as well, including:
- to contact you in advance to make arrangements for accommodations on exams not handled by the Exams Office (e.g. midterms)
- to attend classes, even if they have been assigned a note taker
- to fulfil the essential requirements of the course
While some students with learning disabilities struggle with organizational and time management skills, it is nonetheless their responsibility to meet the demands of their course load, via learning support available at Disability Services Office; possibly a reduced course load, careful course selections, peer mentors, and so on. Sometimes, just like their non-disabled classmates, students with learning disabilities don't fulfil their responsibilities. It may be useful to consult with the Disability Services Advisor at this point; however, the properly accommodated student should have normal consequences for missing deadlines, handing in poor quality work, etc.
- Allow recording of class lectures for students who have difficulty processing auditory information and/or listening and writing at the same time.
- Permit the use of spelling aids or calculators for students who understand the concepts, but struggle with sequential processing and rote memory.
It is helpful to give students written and oral information about their assignments, to be very clear regarding expectations, to provide examples of good and poor quality products, to be willing to discuss the assignments and look over drafts (class size permitting), and to offer choices whenever possible (e.g. oral presentations, essays, group format, etc.). Students who chronically struggle with the work load may do better to take fewer courses at a time, or extend their degree program over an additional year or two.
A number of exam accommodations are typically recommended for students with learning disabilities. These recommendations are based on psychometric findings, demonstrating, for example, slow processing, reading and/or writing speed. It is the responsibility of each department and/or faculty member to determine the essential requirements of a course and whether the recommended accommodations undermine or jeopardize these requirements. The Learning Disability Strategist is available for consultation when making such determinations.
Typical accommodations include:
- extra time for tests and exams
- writing exams in a smaller room with fewer distractions
- writing exams alone to allow for talking aloud, even fewer distractions
- access to a computer to allow for spell checking, sequencing written material, and production of legible results
- consideration (no penalty) for spelling or grammar mistakes when a spell-checker was not used
- a reader to read aloud the test questions and, infrequently, a scribe to write answers.
- answering multiple choice questions on the exam paper.
An additional resource available for download isCreating Opportunities for Successful Learning: A Handbook for Faculty on Learning Disability