Working with College Students with Learning Disorders

The number of college students with learning disorders is increasing on campuses everywhere. Because a learning disorder is not readily visible, these students are often overlooked or misunderstood. However, as these numbers increase, it is important for faculty and staff to understand the implications of learning disorders and to learn to teach and accommodate these students.

There are many types of learning disabilities. They may impact students in one or more of the following areas:

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

As a result of these learning disorders students may require accommodations related to their specific functional limitations. The Office of Accessibility Services may have approved specific accommodations for some of these students; others may not have requested services yet. The following information is meant to provide you with insight as to the types of functional limitations students may be experiencing, as well as accommodations and instructional strategies which may provide these students greater access to the educational experience.

Functional Limitations

  • Auditory Perception/Processing: difficulty processing information communicated in class through lectures or discussions; may have difficulty distinguishing between subtle differences in sound or knowing which sounds to attend to
  • Visual Perception/Processing: difficulty distinguishing subtle differences in shape (b or d), determining which image to focus on when multiple images are displayed, tracking words or sections of text when reading, judging depth or distance, processing information on overhead projector or video, reading charts and graphs, processing information online or in emails
  • Information processing speed: may process visual or auditory information more slowly than the average person; may read more slowly due to additional time required to decode and comprehend written material, may need to clarify auditory information more often
  • Abstract reasoning: difficulty understanding content that requires high level reasoning skills such as philosophy or logic
  • Memory (long-term or short-term): difficulty with storing or recalling information
  • Spoken and written language: difficulty with spelling or speaking
  • Mathematical calculation: difficulty manipulating numbers, converting word problems to mathematical expressions; may invert numbers or not see certain numbers at all
  • Executive functioning: difficulty organizing, managing time, breaking large projects into smaller tasks, creating and following time lines, and meeting deadlines
  • Reading comprehension: difficulty understanding written language or unfamiliar words/phrases


Classroom and Assignments:

  • Note taker: assist the student in finding an effective peer note taker
  • Recording lectures: allow the student to tape record lectures
  • Additional time for in-class writing assignments: especially writing assignments
  • Provide feedback: regular feedback allows the student to gauge their progress and study strategically

Examination Accommodations:

  • Additional time: typically 1.5x or 2.0x
  • Distraction-reduced room
  • Oral exam administration
  • Scribe or use of word processor
  • Use of spellcheck or dictionary for essay exams
  • Use of calculator
  • Scratch paper or graph paper

Universal Design

While planning course curriculum, instructors can implement a number of strategies to make their course more accessible to all students.

  • Include a syllabus statement instructing students with disabilities on how to access needed accommodations with contact information for the Office of Accessibility Services.
  • Point out campus resources such as tutoring centers, skills labs, counseling centers, computer labs, etc.
  • Clearly define course requirements at the beginning, announce exam dates and due dates, avoid last-minute changes to the syllabus or course requirements, give advance notice when changes must be made.
  • Provide printed material early to allow students sufficient time read and comprehend material. Students with disabilities may need these materials in alternative formats and this process can take time.
  • Use multi-modal teaching methods to include all learning styles and strengths (auditory, kinesthic, visual) and provide important information in both written and oral formats.
  • State learning objectives and the start of a lesson, review previous lessons and summarize periodically.
  • Demonstrate information in more than one way.
  • Read anything you write on the board or present on overhead out loud.
  • Keep instructions brief and uncomplicated; repeat them word for word.
  • Allow time for clarification of instructions and information.
  • Use captioned videos and know how to turn the captioning feature on. While captions are typically used for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, they are also helpful to students with learning disabilities and English language learners. Allow students to view videos more than once by making it available online or in the library.
  • Provide study guides or review sheets.
  • Use multiple methods of assessment: exams, papers, presentations, and other projects/assignments.
  • Stress organization and ideas rather mechanics when grading in-class writing assignments and assessments.
  • Design distance learning courses with accessibility in mind. Avoid real-time chat sessions, as some students cannot type/respond fast enough to fully participate.