Teaching Strategies for Faculty:
Working with students with learning differences

By Stuart N. Robinson, Ph.D.
Lecturer in Psychology
Southern Methodist University
Dallas, Texas

> In Class

  1. Include audio/visual aids in each lecture. At least put your lectures on PowerPoint. Students deserve to both see and hear the information they are required to learn.
  2. Use In-Class Demonstrations at least one a week, even if they limit the total amount of material covered during the semester. They do not have to last more than 5 minutes. Give students the opportunity to participate in brief activities that demonstrate key concepts. These can be at their seat or in the front of the class. They extend the passive learning of a lecture into an active learning experience and are often critical to the success of students with learning differences.
  3. Use videos and guest speakers, but not for entire lecture time, just 10-15 min each. Lecture time is too valuable to devote a major portion of any lecture to any topic, but students do deserve better than to be forced to hear all topics presented in just one format. This is especially true when that single format is someone standing up in front of the class and lecturing for 50 minutes.
  4. Find out your students career interest, or better yet their passions (career or non-career) and do your best to incorporate examples that relate to a topic in a specific lecture. This customizes and personalizes your lectures to individual students without compromising your curriculum objectives.
  5. Minimize in-class distractions by requiring students to sit in an alphabetical or randomly assigned, seating chart – anything but next to a close friend. Leave the first row vacant for anyone who prefers to sit up front. Many LD students prefer to sit up front, but are embarrassed if the front row is designated for LD students only. This way you end up having a mixture of students up front for a variety of reasons.
  6. Further minimize in-class distractions by establishing, and strictly enforcing, a “No talking to your neighbor during lecture” rule.
  7. Optional: Don’t require attendance, but take attendance to track and identify students with major attendance problems and to be able to show individual students how performance drops relate to their lapses in attendance.
  8. Encourage students to visit you for help or guidance.
  9. Write personal notes of encouragement or concern on exam booklets or answer sheets after you grade them offering praise, support and guidance.
  10. Answer your emails.
  11. Encourage students to come to your office to review the questions they missed after each test, but not actively with you – by themselves in a quiet room near your office. Their goal is to determine where the information was located that they failed to study well enough to answer the question correctly – from the text, from the lecture, if from the text was that part of the text highlighted, if it was highlighted why wasn’t it learned, if it was from the lecture was it on a day they missed and if not, why did they fail to note it during the lecture, etc. This exercise helps identify how he or she can study differently for the next exam. Again, students with learning differences are often the first to take advantage of this opportunity.
  12. Keep the identities of students with learning differences confidential.
  13. Meet with each student with learning difference at the beginning of each semester to show your support, explain how their accommodations should help in your class. Equally important, this meeting gives you the opportunity to outline and elaborate any incidences when, where and why their accommodations will not help, so students will not have unrealistic expectations and will be able to prepare in advance.
  14. Meet with students with learning differences periodically during the semester, again to show your support, to monitor their progress and to make any necessary course-corrections.
  15. Facilitate Peer-Tutoring by identifying high performing students in class willing to tutor and by arranging opportunities for them to get together with students who want help. This can be no more than making an announcement at the beginning of class suggesting students who are interested to stay a moment after class and make their own arrangements.
  16. Encourage and facilitate study groups.
  17. Account for students messing up an exam. Allow students to drop their lowest grade on a test or exam, making sure there are enough tests or exams remaining to accurately measure student performance for the semester. This is critical for students with learning differences, but a good policy with all students as well.
  18. Frequency builds and focuses attention. I give frequent study guidance and hints in class, especially on Fridays. These help maintain attention to the course and help keep the students focused on preparing in advance.

> On The Blackboard

  1. First, use the Blackboard.
  2. Post all your PowerPoint lectures preferably at the beginning of the semester, but since this is often not feasible, you can usually upload your lectures or make changes to an earlier upload, no less than two weeks in advance, and still provide most students with a major benefit. Providing lectures in advance of class is a major benefit to students and is especially critical to LD students. Without having a detailed outline, PowerPoint presentation, or a full set of lecture notes in advance, students are required to focus all their attention on multitasking during the lecture – listening to what you are saying, reading what is on the board, writing both what is on the board and key points that you are making verbally, etc. This is next to impossible for a student with a LD. The familiarity a student gains from reading a lecture the night before, however, and the opportunity of having a printed version of the lecture in front of them during class, or having it displayed on the screen of their laptop, gives them a major advantage. They are now considering the content for the second time instead of the first. They are far less likely to miss the most important concepts, and equally important, they can now concentrate on writing down examples that further explain or elaborate each key concept. Having the lecture notes in advance gives students the opportunity to acquire a deeper understanding of each concept included in the lecture and helps them acquiring a working knowledge of your subject.
  3. Post all reading assignments on the Blackboard as well as the PowerPoint lectures, making sure to align the reading that supports each lecture to the lecture schedule, further enhancing the opportunity for students to prepare in advance. Many students will not take advantage of this opportunity, but many will. Students with learning differences are usually the ones who appreciate and value the opportunity the most and are most likely to take advantage of it.
  4. Include a link to your textbook’s companion website. Most textbooks have a companion website. These are especially helpful to LD students because many include practice questions, other student resources like flashcards, and web links to sites that have additional A/V on the topics they are studying.
  5. Include links to audio/visual learning resources. Most publishers offer a variety of audio/visual resources on the Internet for your course topic, if not directly for your textbook. Including links to these on the Blackboard allows your students with learning differences to see, hear and actively learn versions of the same information they are required to read.
  6. These are not substitutes for reading assignments and are not full-blown books-on-tape texts. They are usually just brief media-file presentations and exercises that enhance learning that can be especially helpful to students with learning differences. In addition, you should do your best to select textbooks that are also offered as books on tape or discs.

  7. Include links to professional organizations that offer student memberships. These help students see that learning your subject is directly related to career opportunities and helps make reading assignments and attending lectures more personalized. You might also consider including classified ads for internship opportunities.
  8. Include a section on “How to do well in this course” that presents your personal guidance and suggestions on how they should study and how they should prepare for your exams. You know what is best for your course, and although you may prefer that students visit you in person to find out, students with learning differences have an exceptionally difficult time managing their time, planning in advance and getting to appointments on time. This section should include hints and suggestions on how to study for, and how to answer, unique types of questions – multiple choice, none of the above questions, etc. you should define how students can get feedback on questions missed on exams or how to dispute a wrong answer, and you should list sources of outside help.
  9. Redundancy helps. For most any assignment, announcement, last minute study suggestion, etc that I post on the course Blackboard, I also send out a duplicate to the entire class by email, and often have it posted on the screen in the classroom before class starts. Much of the information was included earlier in their syllabus, which I also handed out in class as well as posted it on the Blackboard. Most students, especially students with learning differences, need redundancy.
  10. List how and when students can reach you by email or visit you in your office, what you want them to see you about and what things you prefer they work on their own.
  11. Include a section that defines any extra credit opportunities.

> Attitude counts

Handle accommodations with encouragement, good cheer, and with as much empathy as possible. In many, you are not just encouraging a person to perform in school, but building the self-esteem and self-confidence that person will need in life. It is one of the few opportunities we can make a difference.

> Suggested reading

  • A Cornucopia of Strategies for Working with LD and ADD Students by Lois Burke, Patty Carlton and Tanya Kunze
  • Introducing Learning Disabilities to Postsecondary Educators by The Meighen Centre for Learning Assistance and Research

> Recommended articles

  • "Accommodations and Modifications for Students with Dyslexia in the College Classroom" by Shirley Jacob, et al.
  • "Dyslexia and the College English Teacher" by Thomas L. Franke
  • "Teaching Writing to College Students with Learning Disabilities" by Joan Rudel Pardes
  • "Teaching Adults with Learning Disabilities" by Cheryl Lowry

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