The Boulder on his Shoulder: Understanding Students with Learning Disabilities


What's harder than trying to make friends, navigate bureaucracy, manage time well, get good grades, and become an adult all at the same time? Doing it all with a learning disability!

The good news for students with learning disabilities is that colleges have become better and better equipped to deal with students for whom the primary boulder in the road is not laziness or a lack of ability but simply a brain that's wired a little differently than most. The bad news is that the system is still far from perfect. Not all professors are experts in learning disabilities, and even for those who are, the sheer number of disabilities that are now being diagnosed make expertise in every one of them a statistical impossibility.

Additionally, some students may arrive at college with undiagnosed learning disabilities. A student like this may have had trouble in a particular subject in high school but chalked it up to simply being "bad at math" or "a slow reader." These students have often made up for deficiencies in one area by excelling in others, which can work beautifully once a student is employed in a career that suits his strengths but can be detrimental when it comes to something like fulfilling core requirements.

That's exactly what happened with Andy, a student of mine who entered college with undiagnosed dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is basically the numbers version of dyslexia, a common reading disability, and while Andy was one of the best writers I have ever seen, math was incomprehensible to him. However, in order to graduate, Andy had to pass two math classes. When he came to me, he was despondent. He had already failed his first math class twice, and despite making As in all of his other courses, his math professor had told him point-blank that perhaps he was not "college material" after all and should probably just leave the University. Andy and I brainstormed possible solutions, and I told him I would talk about his problem with some of the other math professors. Professor Kalinsky, a brilliant man who had worked with students with dyscalculia before and professed to have a bit of a learning disability himself, immediately recognized Andy's symptoms as classic signs of dyscalculia. He agreed to take Andy on for two semesters as an independent study, thereby fulfilling his graduation requirement in math. Andy graduated with a 3.65 GPA.

According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Learning Disabilities, these disabilities fall into broad categories based on the four stages of information processing used in learning: input, integration, storage, and output. (NICHY, 2004.)

A brief tutorial...

Input: This, not surprisingly, is the process by which a person receives sensory information. Students who have difficulty with visual perception may have trouble processing certain words or shapes, and those with difficulties in auditory perception may have trouble screening out competing sounds in order to focus on one of them, such as the sound of a professor's voice.

Integration: This is how information entering the brain gets interpreted, sequenced, and labeled. Students with disabilities related to integration may have trouble understanding how a piece of information connects to a broader concept; in other words, they tend to miss the forest for the trees.

Storage:  And the layperson's term for "storage" is...remembering things! These are the students who might write A+ papers all semester but fail the final exam, or who may thrive in courses that emphasize discussion and creative output but suffer in those in which memorization of terms or formulas is key.

Output: We send information out of our brains and back into the world through words, as when we speak, and muscle activity, as when we write. Students with disabilities related to output can be like locked treasure chests: the educational gems they've accumulated are all there inside, but they have trouble communicating what they know. A student like this may go blank when asked to answer a question on demand, or she may speak easily but have trouble turning her thoughts as spoken into words on a page.

Sometimes, as with Andy, the solution lies in finding a professor familiar with a specific type of learning deficiency, but there are many ways in which success coaches can help students with learning disabilities get the resources they need to succeed. And when students succeed, everybody wins. Students realize that all those times they had been judged (or had judged themselves) to lack the intellectual capacity for higher-level work or to be simply lazy are now forever behind them, and coaches remember that with a little detective work and a lot of passion, this "success coaching" thing really does change lives.

An early Apple slogan once said, "Think Different." Many of our best students already do.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.

Blog, UncategorizedSusan Marion