While the term “learning-disabled” applies legally only to a few students, many accommodation strategies can help all students learn better. All students have learning strengths and weaknesses, and some types of teaching allow them to process information more effectively than do other types. Moreover, psychological studies have shown that people process information more effectively when it is initially presented in a clear framework, when it is broken into parts, and when these parts are clearly related to each other. Many techniques often recommended for teaching students with learning disabilities will be helpful even if you do not have a single formally diagnosed student in your course. Making your expectations explicit, highlighting the most important information in the course, and varying your presentation will benefit all your students. The following principles and techniques aim to promote clear teaching and help all students learn and demonstrate understanding of our course material.
Specific Teaching Strategies
Make your syllabus clear and specific. Specify the due dates for each assignment and test and discuss the requirements, necessary study skills, and final course objectives. Make it clear what the students need to do for each assignment and why they need to do it. Hand out the syllabus at the beginning of the course or post it online using Instructional Toolkit and make sure students understand it.
Provide sufficient time for students to ask questions about individual or group assignments.
If you give semester-long assignments, show how and when these assignments divide into smaller parts. Give students guidelines for how long the project should take, and give feedback (and grades if you like) on component parts.
Present assignments both orally and in writing.
Provide study questions or lists of key terms to help students focus on the most important elements of assigned readings. Or use a textbook with a study guide that provides such questions. Identify the most important parts of the readings, those that must be read especially carefully, and those that can be read more quickly or skimmed.
Emphasize the study skills necessary for each assignment. Tell students what they need to do (such as analyze a graph or a text) and what they should not do (such as recapitulate the plot of a book).
When possible, give examples of the kind of product you expect. Distribute (or post on Instructional Toolkit) anonymous copies of a model student paper, lab report, or case study from an earlier term.
Reinforce oral information by providing written handouts. Emphasize key instructions or information. Use italics, underlining, bolding, or capitalization to highlight key words and dates for assignments. Stress particularly important ideas, outlines, or instructions by using a textbox or different font or use colored handouts to distinguish important outlines or assignments. If you use transparencies (or slides), use color to emphasize important ideas and instructions.
Discussion and Lecture:
Look at students when you speak. When you emphasize key ideas or complicated points, pause long enough for students to write them down. Studies show many teachers speak too quickly for their students—whether learning-disabled or not—to be able to take effective notes.
Emphasize key ideas, making sure that the students understand that these are the most important points.Writing important definitions and ideas on the board provides visual emphasis and helps the student with a learning disability affecting spelling to spell better. Remember that students will write in their notes whatever you put on the board. Write clearly in letters large enough to be seen from the back of the room and space out the ideas on the board. When videotaped, many teachers are astonished to discover how small or illegible their writing actually appears to students in the back of the room.
Place new or important ideas in context to explain how they are used and why. Use concrete examples to show how theories work. Stress the relationship between new ideas and previous ones.
Periodically review main ideas.
Provide structural cues that help students organize their lecture notes: When you lecture, briefly REVIEW relevant material from previous classes, PREVIEW the day’s lecture by explaining what you will be talking about, EXPLAIN your material, and then SUMMARIZE briefly what you said. Outline the main parts of your lecture on the board, in handouts, or through overheads.
At key points in discussions, outline and review the material covered. End the class and/or begin the next one by restating or having students restate the main points previously discussed.
Supplement oral presentations with other types of information, such as visual diagrams. Help students see what you are talking about, as well as hear about it. Also explain orally any visual charts, graphs, and so on. For fields such as engineering, physics, chemistry, you can also provide tactile models.
Encourage students to go to the Writing Center. You may require a student to attend the Center regularly if you think it is necessary for success in the course.
Encourage your students to use spell-check when typing an assignment. Studies indicate that students with learning disabilities often improve significantly once they start writing on a computer, for a variety of reasons. The spell-check function, for instance, makes them aware of misspelled words and working on a computer also helps all students revise, thus improving their final drafts.
Encourage, or require, students to consult about early paper drafts with you or with course TAs or graders.
Assessment and Exams:
Avoid extremely complicated wording on exams, particularly double negatives, convoluted phrases, and series of parenthetical remarks or questions embedded within one another.
If a student has trouble understanding an exam question, encourage the student to rephrase it using his/her own words and clarify or correct the paraphrase as necessary. Note that you do not give students the answers, but rather allow them to make sure they understand the questions.
Provide frequent evaluations of the students’ progress. Instead of one or two large exams or assignments due at the middle and end of the semester, consider providing more frequent quizzes or brief written assignments that weigh less heavily toward the final grade but show you and the students how they are doing. Evaluate your students’ progress well before midterm, and inform any student who is not progressing sufficiently about specific weaknesses and remedies.
Include midterm and final review sessions. Discuss sample questions when appropriate, and explain what a good response is and why. Clarify what different kinds of questions ask students to do (describe, analyze, synthesize, compare and contrast, and so on). Connect the information required for exam questions to the information presented in class.
Provide group work opportunities, such as for review or problem solving. Such group interaction can help students with learning disabilities see how others address the problems.
Depending on course content, class size, and structure, consider having students collaborate on a formal note-taking system. Students could sign up to take notes for each day and distribute them electronically or on paper by the beginning of the next class. These notes would not be a substitute for being in class, but would be a clear, organized, one-page distillation of the key points and their interrelations. Such an assignment can help students take responsibility for their learning and learn how to sort information. This technique, however, may not be appropriate for all courses, since it depends on a small class with strict attendance rules, and close supervision by the teacher (you may need to coach the first few sets of notes until the class understands what you want).