Reaching Students With Learning Disabilities

October 25, 2005

How do you teach the use of a comma to a college student whose brain doesn’t process auditory instructions well?

“You can walk them through it,” said Brent Betit, executive vice president of Landmark College,  which serves students with learning disabilities. And he means “walk” literally. Betit said some teachers will have a student walk while speaking a sentence, “and then communicate the pause by having them stop,” he said.

A three-year, $1 million grant that Landmark was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education last week will help the college spread techniques it has developed in 20 years of teaching students with learning disabilities into other classrooms. Landmark will start by sharing that knowledge with five community colleges: Community College of Allegheny County , Community College of Vermont, Houston Community College, North Harris Montgomery County Community College, and Western Nevada Community College.

According to a report by the American Council on Education, the number of full-time college freshmen with learning disabilities -- dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactive disorder are among the most common -- more than doubled in the decade leading up to 2000, to nearly 27,000.

Betit said the spike is because more of those students are being identified than in the past, and that, now that colleges are recognizing their own students with learning disabilities, it is time to learn more about educating them. A large part of Landmark’s intent is to use the grant to make information about teaching techniques available online, so teachers at colleges that do not cater only to students with learning disabilities can easily access information. If it works at the five partner colleges, Landmark hopes to share its wisdom more widely. “We’ll never be a big college,” Betit said. “But we want to share what we know."

Many of the shared techniques will focus on expanding the available types of sensory input a student can use for learning. “I don’t know how many college classrooms have boxes of Legos” like Landmark classrooms, he said, noting that some students “are more tactile, and need to grasp an idea literally, rather than intellectually.”

But Betit said other colleges don’t necessarily need to go to Legos to better accommodate students with learning disabilities. He said sometimes easy adjustments, such as using more graphics, can help students who are visual learners. And other strategies that focus on basic skills that students with learning disabilities often have not developed -- such as time management, and study skills -- can benefit all of the students in a conventional college classroom.

One of the systems that Landmark uses, “master notebooks,” gives students a separate notebook for each course that is divided into sections like “ideas,” and “curriculum.” In the “notes” section, students use a two-column note-taking system that uses paper with a large left-hand margin, for students to organize major ideas of a course, and then they can fill in details pertaining to each idea on the right.

Betit encourages techniques as simple as a daily checklist to help teach time management. “Better time management is something all students can use,” he said, so it shouldn’t be difficult to incorporate into a conventional college classroom.

It isn’t clear yet exactly which new teaching methods will be carried out in classrooms beyond Landmark, but the partner colleges will start by educating their own employees. Charles Blocksidge, vice president of organizational development and the Frieda G. Shapira Center for Learning, which works with students with learning disabilities at Allegheny County, wants to adapt some of the training techniques of Landmark personnel to develop a training program for “our support services personnel,” he said, but also for faculty members.

Susan Trist, disabilities support coordinator at Western Nevada, said she works with around 100 students with learning disabilities, and hopes that, through contact with Landmark, she can be kept up to date on prevailing thought about teaching methods, “and especially on assistive technology,” she said. The students Trist works with are mixed in with other college students, and she will sometimes “have the exam read to them if they have a visual processing disorder, or get them textbooks on CD,” she said. Trist said she “is anxious to hear about” the techniques Landmark faculty use to accommodate students. “We need to start a community of people to share best practices,” she said.

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