5.4 Understanding Learning Disabilities & ADHD

[Parts of this section were adapted from the pamphlet "College Students with Learning Disabilities", Association on Higher Education and Disability, Columbus, Ohio, 2011.]

Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities (LD) is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of communication, reasoning, or mathematical skills.

  • Learning Disabilities are a presumed neurological disorder which affects the manner in which individuals with average or above-average intelligence have an unexpected difficulty taking in, retaining, and expressing information. It is commonly recognized as a significant deficit in one or more of the following areas: oral and signed expression, written expression, basic reading skills, reading comprehension, or mathematical calculation.
  • Manifestations of LD vary from individual to individual. Specific subtypes include: Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, and Non-Verbal LD.
  • Learning differences are not synonymous with LD. Differences in approaches to learning are the norm rather than the exception.
  • Test scores alone do not determine the presence or absence of an LD. Ability-achievement discrepancy scores should not be the sole determinant of an LD diagnosis.
  • LD does not result from poor instruction, cultural, environmental, or economic disadvantage; LDs can occur across a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
  • LD may persist throughout life but the problems manifested may change depending upon the learning demands and the setting. It may cause problems in grade school, seem to disappear during high school, and then resurface again in college. It may manifest itself in only one academic area, such as math or foreign language, or impact an individual's performance across a variety of subject areas and disciplines.
  • Because LD is not visible, teachers, parents, and peers often do not understand the challenges faced by individuals with learning disabilities. Consequently, many adults with learning disabilities often have to "prove" to others that their invisible disabilities are significantly challenging.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a diagnosis applied to children and adults who consistently display certain characteristic behaviors over a period of time. The most common core features include:

  • Distractibility (poor sustained attention to tasks)
  • Impulsivity (impaired impulse control and delay of gratification)
  • Hyperactivity (excessive activity and physical restlessness)

In order to meet diagnostic criteria, these behaviors must be excessive, long-term, and pervasive. As with other disabilities, ADHD substantially restricts one or more major life activities for the student. These criteria set ADHD apart from the "normal" distractibility and impulsive behavior of childhood, or the effects of the hectic and overstressed lifestyle prevalent in our society.

Characteristics of College Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficits

College students with learning disabilities and/or attention deficits are intelligent, talented, and capable. Typically, they have developed a variety of strategies for compensating for their learning disabilities. However, the degree of severity of the disability varies from individual to individual.

A. Cognitive Processing

Students with LD may have difficulty with the underlying cognitive processes that involve the acquisition, application, integration, and expression of information. These may include difficulties with:

  • Visual processing
  • Auditory processing
  • Speed of processing
  • Perceptual and quantitative reasoning
  • Expressive and receptive language

B. Executive Functioning

Students with LD may have difficulty with executive functioning tasks such as planning, organizing, decision-making, self-monitoring, and evaluating the effectiveness of learning. These may manifest themselves as difficulties with:

  • Working memory and recall
  • Managing time and space
  • Concentration/attention
  • Problem solving
  • Critical thinking

C. Academic Achievement

Learning disabilities can affect one or more areas of academic achievement such as reading, writing, expressive and receptive language, math, science, and technology.

Reading Skills

Students with LD may have problems in one or more of the following:

  • Slow reading rate and/or difficulty in modifying reading rate in accordance with material's level of difficulty.
  • Uneven comprehension and retention of material read.
  • Differentiating the main idea from supporting details.
  • Following multi-step written directions.
  • Difficulty reading for long periods of time.
Writing Skills

Students with LD may have problems in one or more of the following:

  • Getting started with writing assignments.
  • Difficulty planning a topic and organizing thoughts on paper.
  • Difficulty with sentence structure (e.g., incomplete sentences, run-ons, poor use of grammar, missing inflectional endings).
  • Frequent spelling errors (e.g., omissions, substitutions, transpositions), especially in specialized and foreign vocabulary.
  • Difficulty effectively proofreading written work and making revisions.
  • Generating compositions and essays of sufficient length.
  • Slow written production.
Expressive Language Skills

Students with LD may have problems in one or more of the following:

  • Inability to comprehend signed language when presented rapidly.
  • Difficulty in expressing concepts through sign language that they seem to understand.
  • Difficulty following or having a conversation about an unfamiliar idea.
  • Trouble telling a story in the proper sequence.
  • In conversation, find retrieving specific words challenging despite good comprehension of the words.
Math and Science Skills

Students with LD may have problems in one or more of the following:

  • Incomplete mastery of basic facts (e.g., mathematical tables).
  • Accurately reading numbers and symbols in assignments (e.g., confusing 6 for 9, or operational symbols such as  and .
  • Numeration (e.g., measurement, estimating size and distance, directionality, telling time, and performing conversions).
  • Following all the logical steps in problem solving.
  • Reading and comprehending word problems.
  • Self-monitoring for accuracy of the answer for a math or science problem.

D. Technology Skills

Given the proliferation of online and blended courses in college, competencies with instructional and learning technologies are essential for all college students, including students with LD. Students with LD may have problems in one or more of the following areas with technology and the use of the Internet:

  • Conducting an Internet search (e.g., knowing how to identify effective search words and phrases, knowing when to stop searching, not being distracted by links, animation, symbols, and pop-ups).
  • Deciphering authentic, peer-reviewed information from personal opinions posted online.
  • Resisting click-copy-paste of information without concerns for plagiarism.
  • Being able to remain focused and on-task amidst many distractions online.
  • Knowing how to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter safely and effectively.
  • Navigating the University's specific course authoring tools and online systems for course registration, financial aid, tuition payment, and online courses.
  • Being able to problem-solve common computer malfunctions.
  • Keeping positional memory while reading off a computer screen (e.g., not being distracted while having to scroll to find information).
  • Keeping up with specific requirements of online courses such as time-management, participation in real time discussions and pace of online postings.

E. Social Skills

Many students with LD may have limitations in social skills which spill over into relationships with others. Students with LD may have problems in one or more of these social-skill areas:

  • Interpreting what others are saying (e.g., interpreting information too literally).
  • Understanding non-verbal messages and detecting sarcasm or irony (e.g., body language)
  • Self-advocacy skills (e.g., speaking up for themselves with faculty, roommates, and other campus personnel).
  • Self esteem (e.g., demonstrating characteristics of learned helplessness by assuming that circumstances cannot be changed; feeling a lack of control over a situation).
  • Self-monitoring behavior, social perception, and social interaction. These may co-ocur with LD, but not, by themselves, constitute an LD.

University students with LD who have weak social skills often have parents who have managed their social agenda for them in high school and may feel obliged to do the same in college ("helicopter parents").

Suggestions for Faculty

Faculty play a critical role in helping students who may have learning disabilities and attention deficits by referring them to OSWD. Once identified, faculty can develop accommodations that will permit students with learning disabilities to fully access lecture and course materials.

  • Encourage students to make an appointment during office hours to self-disclose to you confidentially. Ask students who identify themselves how you, as a faculty member, can assist in facilitating course material.
  • Provide students with a detailed course syllabus. Clearly spell out course objectives and expectation, make well-defined links between objectives and specific assignments, provide detailed grading rubrics, and give topic timelines with due dates.
  • Communicate assignments in multiple formats to prevent confusion.
  • To assess student learning, include opportunities for students to demonstrate content knowledge and learning in multiple ways.
  • Anticipate diversity and create an instructional environment guided by the principles of Universal Design, with you as the designer.
  • Consider using digital tools to foster inclusive instruction with multimedia options such as podcasts, screen captures, YouTube videos, readings with hyperlinks, and embedded prompts.
  • Consider providing students with tips from the professor on characteristics of an "A" student.
  • Provide, in advance, study questions for exams that illustrate the format, as well as the content of the test. Explain what constitutes a good answer and why.
  • Include a link to software that helps students self-monitor for plagiarism, which can be a concern in the digital age.
  • Start each class with a review of material that was covered in the previous session and a preview of material to be covered in the current session.
  • Take steps to create a "community of learners" whether online or in face-to-face classrooms to help all students feel included. This can be accomplished by providing explicit guidelines for group work, collaborative projects, etiquette for email, and other forms of digital communication.
  • Incorporate evidence-based teaching practices that include: giving frequent and constructive feedback, engaging every learner, modeling and demonstrating good learning behavior, fostering metacognitive awareness by asking students to explain their reasoning behind use of a particular strategy, repeating information, and creating situations for positive encouragement, whenever appropriate.
  • Encourage students to work with OSWD about available support services.
  • Strategies for teaching the ADHD student:
  • Provide extra time for testing.
  • Allow testing to take place in a separate and quiet place.
  • Allow testing to take place in several sessions.
  • Realize the student may benefit from using Note-Taking services.
  • Give instructions in writing, so they can be referred to easily.
  • Offer student seating, where possible, in quiet areas, away from doors, windows, or other distractions.
  • Allow extra time to complete assignments.
  • Break long assignments into smaller segments.
  • Give assignments one at a time to avoid overload.
  • Acknowledge positive behavior in the ADHD student and classroom peers.
  • Review instructions on new assignments to aid comprehension.

Strategies for teaching the ADHD student:

  • Provide extra time for testing.
  • Allow testing to take place in a separate and quiet place.
  • Allow testing to take place in several sessions.
  • Realize the student may benefit from using Note-Taking services.
  • Give instructions in writing, so they can be referred to easily.
  • Offer student seating, where possible, in quiet areas, away from doors, windows, or other distractions.
  • Allow extra time to complete assignments.
  • Break long assignments into smaller segments.
  • Give assignments one at a time to avoid overload.
  • Acknowledge positive behavior in the ADHD student and classroom peers.
  • Review instructions on new assignments to aid comprehension.