Learning Disabilities

The most common type of disability among students registered with DRS is learning disability. Each learning disability affects disparate aspects of cognitive processing, and each student with a learning disability will encounter a unique set of challenges. Faculty who understand some of the functional limitations that a student with a learning disability may face can structure their courses to provide options that allow students with a learning disability to work around their own limitations.

What is a Learning Disability?

“Learning disabilities” is a general term that refers to a variety of significant deficits in the capacity to process information – as, for example, problems understanding written or spoken symbolic communication (words, numbers, signs) or expressing one’s own ideas (in words, numbers, or signs). A student with a learning disability may experience problems in one or more main areas, but not in others.  For instance, many students with dyslexia have difficulty decoding text, but not spoken words; an individual with dysgraphia may not be able to write legibly by hand but may express herself in writing on a computer more effectively.

Individuals with a learning disability have average to far-above-average intelligence. Their processing difficulties have a neurological basis; they are not due to developmental disorders, lack of effort, substandard elementary education, or any other cultural or environmental factor (although any of these may also be operating). Learning disabilities can also be found together with a disability of another type, whether it be ADHD, mental illness, or a motor/perceptual disability.

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Potential challenges, strengths, and strategies

The impacts of learning disabilities differ from one individual student to the next, and it is important to discuss these impacts with any student who self-identifies as having a learning disability. By the time they enter college, many students with a learning disability have already developed strategies that capitalize on their learning strengths and minimize the effects of their disability. Faculty can remove barriers to the success of such students by making sure they have options, whenever possible, that incorporate their strengths. 

For instance, a student who has a print-related disability may have excellent aural comprehension; having the textbook available in recorded form will make the book accessible for learning.  Likewise, a student who struggles to encode thoughts into writing may be skilled at using dictation software that renders speech as text. Activities and assignments that allow for the use of that software remove the barrier represented by the requirement to write. 

The table below lists some of the issues that may affect whether a student with a learning disability can fulfill his/her potential in your course. The second column offers a variety of strategies that can help to remove barriers to learning and well-being for a student with a learning disability. 

Beside many of the strategies are the letters “UDL” highlighted in yellow. This indicates that the strategy is consistent with Universal Design for Learning. The instructor implements the strategy for the whole class, so that not only the student with a disability benefits from it. This also assures that a student with a disability is not singled out or identified as needing special provisions.

Potential Issues Strategies
In-class cognitive issues Strategies for cognitive support
It takes some students with a learning disability a longer time to organize their thoughts or to grasp the meaning of spoken or written words. This can make it difficult to take accurate and complete notes during a lecture.

Post a copy of your lecture notes (and/or PowerPoint or other presentation tool) on Blackboard prior to the class, so that any student, including one with a learning disability, may preview the topics and structure of the lecture. UDL

Before class, post a skeletal outline, graphic organizer, or other structure for students to fill in or expand on when taking notes. UDL

Incorporate a system in which several students each day – on a voluntary or required basis – post their notes for that class on Blackboard (a wiki or discussion board works well for this). UDL

Capture your class sessions or record your voice on a digital recorder and post it on Bb as a podcast. UDL

Allow the student to record lectures and other important informational segments. UDL

Avoid lecturing for the full class session. Break the lecture into segments of 10-15 minutes, punctuated by activities that require students to think about, organize, practice, or use what they are learning. Allow time for students to review their notes, fill in gaps, and ascertain what is unclear. UDL

After posing a question, allow sufficient time for each student to formulate a response. Invite students to write down/type/record their thoughts during that time. UDL

Use Think-Pair-Share activities to check understanding or elicit questions.  Instruct students to

  1. Think of their response to a question or problem;
  2. Pair up with a partner to discuss the responses; and
Share their conclusions or ideas with the larger group.


Learning disabilities affect different capacities to process communication.  Some students with a learning disability will find verbal instructions challenging to follow, while others may be confused by complex written instructions.

Provide instructions for assignments and activities in both written and oral modes. UDL

Use simple, clear, direct language in both cases. Break more complicated processes down into steps. UDL

Use a flow chart or other graphic organizer to explain major or multi-phase assignments. UDL
Assessment Challenges Assessment Strategies

Although they may know the material being tested very well, some students with a learning disability (e.g., dysgraphia, dysphasia, dyslexia) may not express their thoughts effectively in written narrative form, as required on an essay test, for example.

For assignments in which proficient written expression is not an element of the learning objectives, offer all students options as to what form their final product will take: e.g., video, podcast, concept map, etc. UDL

If writing skill is a factor you want to assess, structure the test or assignment so as to permit students to use a computer (with or without assistive technology). UDL
Students with a learning disability often do not process words or numbers as quickly as their peers, so they might not finish tests or quizzes in the allotted time.

A typical accommodation for many learning disabilities is extra time for tests. However, take-home tests offer an untimed format for everyone. UDL

Alternative means of assessment are also worth considering. These can often feature flexibility of product and process, meeting the needs and preferences of students with and without disabilities. UDL
Organizational Problems Strategies for Organization
Time management may be a problem for a student with a learning disability. 

Provide a calendar at the beginning of the semester, showing all dates for exams and important assignments, as well as interim dates for completing stages of a complex process (e.g., writing a paper or completing a project). UDL

Give your student with a learning disability specific deadlines instead of open-ended time frames.
Needs for Assistive Technology Use of Assistive Technologies
Many students with a learning disability use one or more types of assistive technology.  These often require use of a computer.

Every document you distribute for use in your class should have an electronic version posted on Blackboard. This allows students to download it and use assistive technologies to read it. UDL

When creating assignments and activities, build in the potential for students to use computers and assistive technologies to complete the work. UDL

The online article “Academic Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities” offers additional universal design measures that are responsive to functional limitations often associated with learning disabilities.


DO-IT Faculty Room, “Academic Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities.” This article describes a range of learning disabilities, accommodations, and universally designed instructional and assessment features.

DO-IT Faculty Room, “Learning Disabilities.” Provides links to case studies, FAQs, and Resources related to learning disabilities.

Learning Disability Association of America (LDA) resources for teachers.

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Stage, F.K., et al. “Invisible Scholars: Students with Learning Disabilities,” J. of Higher Education 67.4 (1996): 426-45.

Swanson, H.L., et al. “Experimental intervention research on students with learning disabilities: a meta-analysis of treatment outcomes,” Review of Educational Research 68.3 (1998): 277-321.

University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability: Learning Disabilities Module. Each topic section contains brief explanatory text along with quality references.