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Students with learning disabilities

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Accommodating your learning style

To succeed as a dyslexic sufferer in higher education, you need to self-advocate. This means being aware of, and comfortable with, your needs, and sharing them with tutors so you can work with them on successful learning strategies. For example:

  • How extensive is your dyslexia and what cognitive areas does it affect?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Michelle Lintner, the 2006 winner of the from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, embarked on studies to become an engineer. She believes strongly in the importance of being a good self-advocate, and that if you are open and honest with teachers and employers, they won't think any differently of you but will be willing to help:

"Self-advocacy means being willing to tell the truth ... if you show an interest in learning, then your teachers will help you achieve your goal."

The nature of the accommodations will obviously vary according to your disability and the following list is a generalized one. Some will need to be made with the help of your tutor, so you may need to present them with the ideas. Build on your strengths: people with dyslexia tend to be good at multisensory and kinaesthetic learning, which means they learn through all the senses, including those associated with sight and touch.

Classes and lectures

  • Lecturers can help students with dyslexia by using colour on their slides and providing other visual aids such as diagrams and flowcharts. This stimulates multisensory learning.
  • Sit at the front of the class – there will be less to distract you.
  • Ask your tutor to leave points on the whiteboard or overhead projector for as long as possible, to give you more chance to take them down.

Note taking

  • Ask the lecturer to provide notes beforehand.
  • Use mind maps to take notes, whether from books or from lectures – you can use visual imagery, and mind mapping is a non-linear technique.
  • Borrow someone else's notes.
  • Tape or record the lecture. You may feel uncomfortable about this and you should always get the tutor's permission, but you will find it invaluable to be able to listen to something time and time again so that it stays in your head.

Spelling and grammar

  • Work on non-phonic ways of spelling such as visual or lexical methods which entail "seeing" words.
  • Use mnemonics or strategies based on a personal connection with the word.
  • It helps in learning rules to work on words and sentences from your own work, so you can work from example to principle rather than the other way around.

Writing

  • The linear sequencing of ideas may be a problem. Try brainstorming your ideas in a mind map so that you are sure to capture them, you can then put them into a structure.
  • When it comes to making revisions, deal with proofreading difficulties by having someone read your work to you, or better still, revise it for you.

Time and organization

People with dyslexia tend to take longer over academic tasks, and it is important that you and your tutors understand this.

  • Ensure that you have a copy of the syllabus/course outline, as well as reading lists, before the start of the course.
  • Negotiate a longer deadline for assignments.
  • Break your assignment down into manageable chunks.
  • Check your understanding of the assignment title with your tutor.

Feedback

It can be very demoralizing to get your assignment back covered in red; you might arrange with your subject tutor that you will work on spelling etc. with your special needs tutor, and that she concentrates on the content of your essay.

Reading

  • Skim the text first of all to get an idea of what it is about – when you have a focus, it's easier for the individual words to stand out. Use "PQ4R": Preview the text, raise Questions, then Read, Reflect, Recite and Review to check your understanding. (Also referred to as "SQ4R": Survey … ) If possible, get someone to read the book out to you.
  • To avoid too much reading, try and identify (you may need to ask your tutor to help you do this) the main texts, and concentrate on these.
  • Some people have a particular sensitivity to light, known as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS). If you notice difficulty reading under particular types of light, experiment with different lighting conditions, or use filters placed over the page, for example a blue plastic filter.
  • You may find it easier to use "talking" versions of textbooks where they exist.
  • Be a strategic learner.

"Sometimes I do my own research if I haven't followed everything the tutor says in class, by looking things up on the Internet, for example if it's something about a new telescope. I do my own research and I can get the computer to read to me. At first, this took a lot of time – about 5-6 hours. But after a while I got the formula sorted out. You need to understand how much studying you need to do. You get quicker at looking things up online. Knowing how much you need to know is all important. For example, I recently took a history exam, and I asked the teacher, how many questions would there be on each chapter [of the set text]. I reckoned not to spend a lot of time on the chapter with one question, and more on the chapter with ten questions. You learn how to weigh things up and give and take. Once you get the hang of it, you become proficient at studying" (Michelle Lintner).

Mathematics

Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects skill at mathematics – difficulties manifest themselves in understanding of concepts, symbols, basic facts about numbers, procedural steps, arithmetical skills, and problem solving. Business and management students thus afflicted may struggle with the more numerically based subjects, such as statistics and quantitative research methods, and arts graduates on postgraduate courses may be coming up against this difficulty for the first time.

  • Recognize that you need to proceed from the concrete to the semi-concrete to the abstract, rather than starting with an abstract rule and applying it to examples.
  • Draw on kinaesthetic skills – for example using calculators, plus things that you can manipulate.
  • Break problems down into small steps.
  • Relate to real life examples where possible – for example, most statistics textbooks include "real" case studies and examples.
  • Make sure you have plenty of practice.
  • Use graph paper so that the numbers can be kept in line.

Group work

  • For group assignments, try and take on the tasks that you are good at.
  • In a group discussion, make sure that you understand the question.
  • In a group assignment, as with an individual assignment, you need to pace yourself to avoid putting yourself under pressure and break the assignment down into manageable chunks. However the problem with groups is that the pace is collective, and you are at the mercy of the learning and work styles of other people, some of whom may be able to stay up all night to do something at the last minute. Try where possible to work in groups where there are other members with dyslexia.

Assessment and examinations

Examinations, and the stress they induce, may prove particularly problematic for people with dyslexia, who may have difficulty producing their best work under timed conditions.

  • Negotiate a longer time for the exam.
  • Investigate the possibility of dictating your answers, or using a computer to word process.
  • See that you are provided with an examination paper with large type.
  • In the case of multiple choice questions, you should be presented with one option at a time.
  • If exams simply cause too much stress even with the above provisions, investigate alternative methods of assessment – it may be that you can choose a course which does not have an exam.