Working with Students with a Learning Disability

The term “learning disability” is a broad term that emcompasses various types of disabilities.  Overall, a learning disability is a type of neurodevelopmental disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills (i.e., reading, writing, math) that are the foundation for other academic learning.¹ Learning disabilities often impact student abilities in one or more of the following categories:

  • Spoken language—listening and speaking.
  • Written language—reading, writing, and spelling.
  • Arithmetic—calculation and mathematical concepts.
  • Reasoning—organization and integration of ideas and thoughts.²

The impact of a learning disability on a student’s academic performance may change in response to various student, environmental, and curricular factors.  Factors such as a student’s abilities, the classroom setting, method of instruction, or task demand may impact the types of accommodations a student needs in order to be successful in your course.³

Often, learning disabilities are “invisible disabilities,” meaning they are not readily observable.  Without the proper supports, students with learning disabilities may be overlooked or misunderstood because of the “invisible” nature of their disability.

Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are the medical terms used to describe learning disabilities in reading, writing, and math, respectively.

Tips for working with students with a Learning Disability

Depending on the student’s specific needs, the following tips may be helpful in supporting the student’s academic success:

  • Create inclusive instructional materials.
  • Clearly spell out expectations before the course begins (e.g., grading, material to be covered, due dates).
  • Reinforce directions and written lecture materials verbally and sequentially.
  • Allow the student to take tests in a distraction-reduced environment.
  • Allow the student to record class lectures.  This will allow the student to listen to the lecture later and may improve their processing of the information.
  • Allow the student to use scratch or graph paper during exams.
  • During exams, allow the student to use a calculator or formula card.
  • Allow the student to use a word processor (with spell checker and/or word completion) for written assignments, including note taking and classroom assignments.4
  • Create an inclusive atmosphere that removes stigma associated with the use of accommodations and assistive technology.
  • Acknowledge the rights of students with dignity and respect.
  • Maintain the integrity of academic standards.
  • Maintain student confidentiality at all times.
  • Allow students to disclose their disability (if they choose to) in an appropriate and confidential place.

Resources

Information was adapted from the following resources:

1 International Dyslexia Association – Provides an overview of information about dyslexia

2 University of Washington DO-IT Program – Provides examples of academic accommodations for students with learning disabilities

3 Learning Disabilities: Issues in Higher Education – Publication from the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD)

4 ACCESS Project at Colorado State University – Provides a set of modules designed to acquaint instructors with common types of disabilities.

5 Strategies to Support College Students with Learning Disabilities – Article from Higher Ed Jobs

6 Learning Disabilities of America – Highlights the rights and responsibilities of students and staff when working with students with learning disabilities