A Difficult Referral

When Shari Wilson suspects a student may have a learning disability, she finds her motives questioned.

December 18, 2006

An undergraduate student in my sophomore-level course has been periodically checking in with me during the semester about her class work. When she received a failing grade on her last out-of-class essay, she e-mailed me a complaint. I indicated that the paper had been a 70 percent or a C before I had to grade it down for being more than 500 words short of the required length -- in effect, her work had shown improvement, if only she had followed the minimum word or page count as indicated on the syllabus. Frustrated, she responded that she didn't know how to make her essay longer. I made a few suggestions, indicating that this was what we had been going over in class during these last six or eight weeks, and asked her to meet with me in person for help and clarification.

When she met me in my office the next day, she launched into a long list of vague complaints: that she should be doing better, that she'd gotten better than a C in high school, that a lot of what I was teaching seemed too difficult, and that she didn't see how her work was not a B level. When I asked her to be specific, she pulled out her last out-of-class essay, pointed to one of my comments and asked, "So, what's a single, unified, 'open' thesis statement?"

Dumbfounded, I realized that my student hadn't been able to comprehend simple, core concepts that had been reviewed many, many times in this course not only through lecture, but also with hands-on exercises that incorporated immediate feedback and a chance to rewrite. In theory, students were also required to understand this core concept as well as others in order to be passed in the course that preceded mine.

After explaining the concepts behind my comments, I gently asked, "Have you ever been tested for a learning disability?" Shocked, she mumbled something about never having such a difficult instructor before and that she didn't see why she would need to be tested. I replied, "Well, it just seems smart to rule out that possibility so we can focus on alternate methods to help you get this information more thoroughly." Listless, she folded up her paper, stuffed it into her backpack and mumbled something about having another appointment.

That evening, I received an e-mail message from the student, indicating that she had consulted a lawyer. Her reasons? Not only was I too hard in grading her work, but I had also insulted her by asking if she'd ever been tested for a learning disability.

I started to collect information about the process of referral to find that there is an interesting "gray area" that not only puts our professors at risk, but leave students who are suffering with undiagnosed disabilities in a state of confusion, unable to get help.

In short, although my university has many, many clear policies and procedures about what to do once a student has declared him or herself disabled, there are absolutely no guidelines for instructors who believe they might have a student in their classroom who exhibits signs of a learning disability.

In the case of my sophomore student, although she was passing with a C, she had always performed poorly in the classroom. Sometimes late, she always seemed disorganized and unable to collect her thoughts. The few times I called on her, she responded, "I don't know" -- no matter how many times I restated or simplified the question. Even if the textbook was in front of her, her eyes did not seem to focus on the area that we were studying, even if I held up my book up to the class with the area in question highlighted. During group work, she seemed to "ride on" other students' well thought out ideas-her participation limited to off-topic comments and whispered conversations about her personal life.

I wish I had linked these behaviors in my mind and alerted her sooner to the possibility of an undiagnosed learning disorder. I think I was distracted by her visits to my office; this seemed to indicate motivation on her part. If I had been sharper, or better trained in recognizing learning disabilities, I might have realized that professor-student conferences motivated by poor grades do not rule out underlying problems. Although it is heartening that this student could sense that she was not doing as well as she wanted, I hadn't yet been able to see that her inability to recognize areas that needed improvement and take suggestion was crippling her academic progress.

Her papers also fell short in every area: mechanics, structure, content and logic. No matter how much she revised these essays, her ability to produce sound writing was never realized. And with a university with very low admissions standards, a large percentage of my undergraduates equate time with grades. The ones who are willing to make the effort to improve their work often feel frustrated. Even when they spend hours reworking a major project, their final grade may not rate an A. In an instructor's mind, it simply is not A level work. At times I wonder if the high schools here are rewarding students for effort more so than the final product. Students coming out of these weak systems often think, "lots of effort equals an A" -- no matter how much their final work produced falls short of the grading rubric outlined and reviewed in core classes.

I sometimes combat this by making past student work available for current classes (with permission from the original authors, of course). Students are often shocked to see what garners an A or B in my course. Faced with an example that is far superior to their own work, they realize that the rubric does apply to their work-and the less than perfect grades are not to punish, but to motivate them to learn techniques and apply concepts that we've worked on all semester to produce a better end result.

After talking with my department chair, head of disabilities, compliance officer for the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the student's academic advisor, I've been told that as long as my intent was to help the student, I'm not at risk -- and the university will support my concern as stated. There is, however, an interesting implication here. I suppose that somewhere, at some college, a professor has referred a student to the disabilities office with the hope of pressuring the student to withdraw his or her request for a grade review -- but I have a difficult time imagining this. The idea that a professor would take something as difficult (and potentially embarrassing for the student) and use it against a student is shocking. I am hoping that my university is simply trying to avoid litigation and that this stance is not based on experience.

I will say that once identified, every university and community college I have worked for has done a wonderful job of supporting disabled students. After receiving documentation from the disabilities office on how to accommodate a student, I, like my colleagues, have always complied with enthusiasm. In one case, a student with low-vision needed to work at a front desk and used special lenses to see; I included her in projects without making her the topic of conversation. In one case, a student needed to bring her seeing-eye dog in class. Not only did I resist petting or distracting her service animal, but also made sure that she received all class lecture notes and learning materials in a format that she could review after class. We also scheduled a series of in-person consultations so she could review concepts integral to her success.

This semester, I have two students with learning disabilities in one of my sophomore-level English composition class. So that they are not "identified" in class as different, I not only make assignments available outside of class, but have created a two-tier system for specific work. They start timed writing assignments in class, I collect them as I do all student work, and then bring their materials to a private room in our academic skills center for completion. In some cases, they opt simply to do work privately outside the classroom, but this technique allows them to work alongside other students while in class. As they hand in materials, they enjoy swapping good-hearted complaints with other students, knowing that they will not be identified as "different" or "special" -- and know that their learning difficulty will not penalize their success in the class.

I recognize that some students feel stigmatized by their learning disability. Last year, I received a call from the father of a freshman student who was having difficulty in my class. Although I could not give his parent any information about his progress, the father shared with me that his son had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder -- which explained the 20-year-old's inability to focus in class, his tardiness, and ultimately his lack of attendance during the midterm.

I told the father that if his son could contact the disabilities office on campus, I could do much to him succeed in my course. When he indicated that his son was embarrassed to go to the disabilities office on campus, I suggested that the student simply bring me a letter from a doctor indicating his condition and what accommodations needed to be made. With the parade of students passing by my podium with excuses, questions and written notes from doctors and dentists, this would hardly be out of place. I even offered my address and e-mail information in case the student wanted the doctor to contact me directly. Still, the son resisted.

During a private professor-student conference in my office, the student simply told me that he couldn't deal with his disability. He hated being different. Even worse, he hated being treated differently in or outside of class. It was a heartbreaking case for everyone involved. In the end, I had to record a failing grade for this student. His father later called and thanked me for my efforts. I couldn't help but feel that I needed to do more.

I recently completed an online course on identifying different forms of disabilities. After reading through pages of information and examples, I finished a post-test to see what I had retained. Although I scored above 95 percent, I realized that on-paper learning and the ability to put into practice what I found out will be the real test. My hope is that I'll continue to make it possible for students with learning disabilities to succeed without making them feel plucked out of the crowd. And in a perfect world, the campuses where I work will help me draw the line between waiting for a student to identify a possible disability when it may be too late to recapture the learning experience, and the time when it may be appropriate for me to gently ask a leading question-with the intention of doing all I can to insure success not only in my course, but courses to come.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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