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Specific Learning Disability

A specific learning disability (SpLD) is the result of a neurological disorder which causes the learner to receive and process some information inaccurately. SpLD can have a significant impact on learning.

Research indicates that at least five per cent of higher education students have a learning disability which can cause significant difficulties for perceiving or processing auditory, visual or spatial information. The most common learning disability found in the higher education environment is dyslexia. Other learning disabilities are dysgraphia, discalculia, aphasia and less commonly dysmusia.

Manifestations of the disability can vary over time. Often, a student who was diagnosed with SpLD as child will have established avoidance, protective or compensatory strategies, which may not be appropriate at university.

SpLD is a ‘hidden’ disability. Often, the first indication for staff will be a discrepancy between the knowledge or ability a student demonstrates in class, and results of written assignments or exams.

Although making generalisations about any disability is unhelpful and can perpetuate stereotypes, there are a number of characteristics common to students with SpLD. Difficulties resulting from errors in perceiving and processing information manifest particularly in written work in the form of:

  • unusual and inconsistent spellings
  • reversals or transpositions of letters in words, or numbers in figures, formulae, dates and symbols (such as in mathematics or music)
  • omission of parts of words or sentences, or omission of auxiliary verbs, pronouns and prepositions
  • lack of proper order or demonstrated sequence in writing, mathematical calculations or music notation.

Students may also mispronounce or misread words and have difficulty acquiring new vocabulary or a new language. Their reading rate is generally slower than average, though not necessarily in all areas.

Research indicates that making changes and adjusting to new situations is especially difficult for students with learning disabilities. Students may begin post-secondary study with an unclear understanding of their own disability, though some will be very clear about their particular strengths and weaknesses. It is important to recognise that a student with perceptual or processing impairment will have difficulty with some academic tasks but not with others. Performance may appear uneven.

Impact of Learning Disabilities

The learning processes of students with learning disabilities may be affected in a number of ways:

  • deficiencies in short-term memory and cognitive processing limitations are common. This means that students may have difficulty following sequences or complicated directions and with integrating material from a number of sources.
  • problems following or creating a sequence will interfere with many things in the learning environment: following and understanding the structure of a lecture; remembering facts presented chronologically; seeing the relationship between a main idea and subordinate ideas in a text.
  • students with a learning disability sometimes report information overload and confusion resulting from having more ideas (and having to hold on to them) than they can manage to translate into acceptable words or structures. They may have difficulty in moving from the role of writer to that of reader, and objectively viewing the ideas, organisation and style of their written assignments, and achieving coherence in writing.
  • students may have difficulty with the ‘search and locate’ strategies required in library work and in independent learning generally.
  • When reading rate and reading comprehension are slow, difficulties are compounded when large amounts of material must be dealt with in a short space of time, or when many new words or concepts must be learned and incorporated into understanding.
  • visual memory skills may be poor. By comparison, oral language and discussion skills are often exceptional, though students are likely to be extremely reluctant to read aloud.
  • manual dexterity or coordination problems may be evident, often as a result of difficulties in judging distance. Students may also have difficulty interpreting two- or three-dimensional models or diagrams and following maps or directions.
  • heightened anxiety levels are common in test or performance situations. Anxiety about performing in front of others may affect participation in tutorials. Students will deal with anxiety in any number of ways – from medication to meditation, or simply by avoidance.

Teaching Strategies

There is a range of inclusive teaching strategies that can assist all students to learn but there are some specific strategies that are useful in teaching a group which includes students with learning disability:

  • provide reading lists well before the start of a course so that reading can begin early. Consider tailoring reading lists and providing guidance to key texts. Allow work to be completed on an in-depth study of a few texts rather than a broad study of many.
  • whenever you are introducing procedures or processes or giving directions, for example in a laboratory or computing exercise, ensure that stages or sequences are made clear and are explained in verbal as well as written form.
  • students may benefit from using assistive technology.
  • use as many verbal descriptions as possible to supplement material presented on blackboard or overhead. Students with a learning disability often have a marked preference for an auditory mode of learning.
  • present information in a range of formats – handouts, worksheets, overheads, videos – to meet a diversity of learning styles.
  • use a variety of teaching methods so that students are not constrained by needing to acquire information by reading only. Where possible, present material diagrammatically - in lists, flow charts, concept maps etc.
  • keep diagrams uncluttered and use colour wherever appropriate to distinguish and highlight
  • ensure that lists of technical/professional jargon which students will need to learn are available early in the course
  • recording lectures will assist those students who have handwriting or coordination problems and those who write slowly as well as those who have a tendency to mishear or misquote
  • students will be more likely to follow correctly the sequence of material in a lecture if they are able to listen to the material more than once
  • repetition is important for students with a learning disability. Wherever possible, ensure that key statements and instructions are repeated or highlighted in some way
  • students with a learning disability will benefit from discussion on time management and organisation issues. Such discussions can be built into tutorial activities
  • extra tutoring in subjects where processes and sequences are important may be desirable
  • students with learning disability may benefit from having oral rather than written feedback on their written assignments
  • do not make students over-anxious about making mistakes, asking questions, getting through the work or meeting learning goals
  • it may be helpful for students with a learning disability to have an individual orientation to laboratory equipment or computers to minimise anxiety.

Assessment Strategies

Students with learning disabilities may need particular adjustments to assessment tasks. Once you have a clear picture of how the disability impacts on learning, you can consider alternative assessment strategies.

In considering alternative forms of assessment, equal opportunity is not a guaranteed outcome, it is the objective. You are not expected to lower standards to accommodate students with a disability but rather are required to give them a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.

Students with learning disability may need particular adjustments to assessment tasks. Once you have a clear picture of how the disability impacts on performance, you can consider alternative assessment strategies:

  • allow extensions to assignment deadlines if extensive reading has been set.
  • students with learning disability may take longer to organise thoughts and sequence material. In drafting an essay some students will write, read on to tape, listen and then correct. This all takes time. Students will benefit from discussing their outlines with particular attention being paid to appropriate relationships and connections between points.
  • encourage the student to submit an early draft of assignments to allow the opportunity for feedback to the student as a formative process.
  • students with learning disability will need extra time in an examination for reading and analysing questions, and for planning their answers. Some students will request that examination questions be read to them. Some students may prefer to dictate their answers to a scribe. They will need a venue which is quiet and distraction-free.
  • many students with a learning disability will prefer oral assessment to written. Allow students to read written examination responses aloud and correct as they read. Some students need to hear what they have written in order to determine whether they have written what they intended. An oral examination is not an easy option for students. Give the same time for an oral examination as for a written exam but allow extra time for the student to listen to and refine or edit taped responses. In your assessment, allowance should be made for the fact that spoken answers are likely to be less coherent than written answers.
  • keep short your written examination instructions and sentences within examination questions. Questions using bullet points, lists or distinct parts are more likely to be correctly interpreted.
  • because students with learning disability find it difficult to read multiple-choice questions in a way that allows them to appreciate subtle changes in the arrangement of words, short-answer questions will be a better test of their knowledge.
  • many students with learning disability are chronic misspellers and use dictionaries only with great difficulty. Allow students to use a word processor in examinations so that they have access to a spell-checker.

Further information

Opening All Options: Specific Learning Disability Resource

Opening All Options logo of an opened book

Opening All Options (OAO) is a comprehensive resource for disability practitioners, academic and teaching staff to support students with Specific Learning Disability (SpLD) in the post-secondary education sector.

OAO provides advice and tips for Disability Practitioners and Teachers and Academics on how best to support post-secondary education students with SpLD to achieve success in their studies. It includes information on pre-screening, reasonable adjustments you can make, teaching strategies, study skills, assistive technology, and universal design solutions to assist you address the learning barriers faced by students with an SpLD.

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