With the sudden proliferation of online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators around the world are adopting innovative teaching strategies in order to keep up with their ever-changing circumstances.
It's paramount that these strategies not only include the growing population of college students with learning disabilities, but also directly assist and benefit them.
Here we'll review the various types of learning disabilities, how online learning affects students who have them, and what steps can be taken to make improve the online learning experience for students with learning disabilities.
What Are Learning Disabilities?
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, learning disabilities are caused by certain genetic or neurobiological factors that alter brain functioning in such a way that it affects one or more of the cognitive processes connected to learning.
These processing issues may interfere with basic skills, such as:
They can also interfere with higher-level skills, such as:
- Time planing
- Abstract reasoning
- Short or long-term memory
Oftentimes, learning disabilities are diagnosed during an individual's school years as the signs and symptoms become recognizable to their teachers or parents. However, other individuals don't receive an evaluation until they are in post-secondary educations or the workforce. Unfortunately, there are also people who live their entire life without ever having an evaluation or an understanding of the root of their difficulties.
Types of Learning Disabilities
Some of the most common learning disabilities are:
- Dyslexia: a learning disability that affects reading and other language-based processes
- Dyscalculia: a learning disability that affects an individual's ability to understand numbers and math
- Dysgraphia: a learning disability that affects an individual's fine motor skills and handwriting
- Nonverbal Learning Disabilities: learning disabilities that affect an individual's coordination and ability to interpret nonverbal cues such as body language or facial expressions
- Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit and Oral/Written Language Disorder: These learning disabilities affect an individual's ability to understand what they have read or heard through spoken language
How Does a Learning Disability Differ from Other Disorders?
Although there can be many points of overlap, learning disabilities are classified separately from learning problems that are primarily the result of the following:
- Intellectual disability
- Hearing, motor, or visual handicaps
- Emotional disturbance
- Cultural, environmental, or economic disadvantages
Several related disorders include:
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
- Executive Functioning
Attending College with a Learning Disability
More learning-challenged students are choosing to attend college than ever before.
Let's start with a big-picture view using these statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the National Center for Learning Disabilities:
- Of the undergraduate students who self-reported a disability, 11% of them reported having a learning disability
- More than 200,000 students who entered college in 2017 had a learning disability
- In a 2014 survey among high school students with learning disabilities, 54% planned to go to college and an additional 43% planned to complete some sort of vocational training course
The difficulties students with learning disabilities face in higher education are profound. Some of the barriers that exist between these students and their college-level studies include:
- Additional time spent reading (often 2-3 times more than other students)
- Trouble with expressive language, particularly recall and organization
- Trouble meeting deadlines due to the extra time it takes to complete reading and writing tasks
- Trouble following or organizing a sequence of tasks
- Poor performance under pressure for timed assignments
- Time management and organizational difficulties
- Fatigue from extra workload and stress
Modified teaching strategies, dedicated support from staff, and individual accommodations are essential for helping these students reach success in higher education.
Reasonable accommodations are any adjustments to an academic program or job that enable individuals with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to participate.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, postsecondary institutions are responsible for providing reasonable accommodations when a student reports a disability. The purpose of such modifications is to create a level playing field by significantly reducing or eliminating any barriers related to disability, including learning disabilities.
Despite this law, the number of college students with learning disabilities who take advantage of such accommodations is extremely low. While 94% of high school students with learning disabilities receive some form of assistance from their school, that number drops to 17% for college students.
This statistic is likely related to the high dropout rates of students with learning disabilities. According to one NCES report, only 34% of students with a learning disability completed a four-year college degree eight years after their high school graduation.
It's still largely unclear how the recent COVID-19 pandemic will affect these numbers.
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Higher Education as a Whole
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc on the economy, workplace dynamics, the physical and mental health of the nation, and education of all kinds.
Once-bustling college campuses have been replaced in many students' lives by screens. This is because the majority of colleges and universities across the country canceled in-person classes early on and made a shift to online learning.
However, COVID-19's impact on higher education goes far beyond this format change. Here are some of the most significant challenges:
- A steep decline in freshman enrollment (13.1% overall, 43% for international students), which led to many schools waiving SAT/ACT requirements and extending their admission deadlines
- Unexpected costs of campus closures, including refunds for room and board and technology costs, have resulted in pay cuts or furloughs for staff and changes to financial aid
- Deferred student loans through federal guidelines
- Disruption to collegiate athletics
- A lack of student support and resources, including housing and dining
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts Learning-Challenged Students
Students nationwide are grappling with mental health issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the switch to remote learning. In a recent study, a whopping 71% of participants said that their stress and anxiety levels had increased because of the pandemic. Students with learning disabilities are no exception to these statistics.
Depending on individual circumstances, these students may also experience unique positive and negative effects as a result of the shift to remote learning.
In addition to the difficulties of the pandemic, students with learning disabilities are facing novel academic barriers. They include:
- Disruption to Routine
For many neurodiverse people, developing and sticking to a routine is essential. When in-person routines for college students went out the window, it caused issues for many with disabilities.
- Fewer Opportunities to Build Important Skills
Online learning takes away many opportunities for students with learning disabilities to grow their academic, professional, and social skills.
- Technology Troubles
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, Americans with disabilities express lower comfort levels with using technology than their counterparts. Another survey showed that 23% of adults with disabilities say they never go online, compared to only 8% of non-disabled adults.
- Limited Learning Styles
Remote learning may cater well to teaching theoretical content, but it can often miss the mark when it comes to teaching practical content. This includes:
- Participating in labs
- Performing physical exercises
- Engaging with physical materials, such as 3D models
For students with learning disabilities that are also kinesthetic or tactile learners, remote learning that only includes visual or auditory instructional materials is insufficient.
Although remote learning poses many challenges, some aspects of it may actually benefit students with learning disabilities. Here are some examples:
- Recorded Class Sessions
Due to their online format, the vast majority of online classes can now be recorded through video or audio, even if they're originally carried out live. This gives students with learning disabilities the ability to pause sessions when needed and engage at their own pace. This new setup ensures that vital information won't be skipped over.
- Decreased Social Anxiety
Often, social situations can prove to be stressful for individuals with learning disabilities or other disorders. Some students may find that interacting with students or giving presentations online is less daunting and anxiety-inducing than doing so face-to-face.
- More Fruitful Dialogue
Several anatomy professors noted that a virtual format fostered closer relationships and dialogue between students, especially with students who have intellectual disabilities or other learning difficulties.
- Accelerated Development of Accommodations
The pandemic served as a stimulus for the development of new learning technologies that can better serve and support students with disabilities. Hopefully, these new measures can roll out this year and eliminate many of the current barriers to learning.
Strategies for Teaching College Students with Learning Disabilities Online
Fortunately, there are steps educators can take to make reasonable accommodations for students with learning disabilities. Here are a few useful strategies:
1. Utilize Assistive Technology
Assistive technology refers to any kind of equipment, product, software, or system that is specifically designed to help individuals with disabilities. As the new normal for higher education is increasingly technology-based, using assistive technology is crucial for learning-challenged students. Common forms of assistive technology include:
- Speech-to-text/talking word processors
- Digital recorders
- Reading pens
- Communication boards
- Accessibility apps
Many schools offer these kinds of resources through their assistive technology program or center. Schools that are ahead of the curve are offering assistive technology support specifically geared towards online learning — for students and instructors alike.
Colorado State University, for example, offers the following services through their Assistive Technology Resource Center:
- Free assistive technology
- Web or phone appointments
- A way to report an electronic access barrier
- Accessibility support and tutorials for instructors
2. Offer Relevant Workshops
To help with the transition to online learning, consider creating workshops tailored to students who are struggling with remote learning.
The University of Southern California pioneered this concept by offering the following workshops:
- "Thriving as a Trojan online"
- "Successful Online Learning Strategies"
- "How to Build a Schedule for Productivity"
- "Meaningful Activities to Help You Fight On"
3. Create Customized Schedules
For students with learning disabilities, developing a schedule or time management system that maximizes productivity can be life-changing. You can help your students get a head start by consistently filling your course platform with important information, including:
- A calendar showing all due dates
- A weekly schedule
- Long-term projects that are broken up into chunks
4. Encourage Wellness
Promoting the mental and physical health of every single student is among the most important duties of educators during the pandemic.
Because of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted students' health, many higher education institutions are creating full-time positions dedicated to helping students maintain healthy lifestyles. Among other duties, these trained professionals can provide additional support to students with learning disabilities by providing:
- Learning access programs
- Wellness and health education
- Counseling Services
- Assistive technology centers
5. Promote Awareness
There is a striking gap between the number of students with learning disabilities and the number who seek out resources or accommodations from their college or university. One way educators can combat this problem is by promoting awareness. This can be done by:
- Establishing ways to distribute information about learning disabilities to students, faculty, and staff
- Disseminating information regarding the resources available at your school, such as in the online syllabus
- Becoming familiar with the policies governing reasonable accommodations for students with learning disabilities
The academic barriers students with learning disabilities face are already great, and the switch to online learning has the potential to create even more.
However, with the right resources and support, these students can thrive.
At Caduceus International Publishing, we want to do just that. One example of how we help institutions provide reasonable accommodations is by extending all timed activities for students who have been approved by their disability resource center. This includes accommodations for all of the following:
- Quizzes and exams
- Matching activities
Moreover, our instructional materials are compatible with various forms of assistive technology. For more information, contact us today.