Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Do students with specific learning disabilities create a specific teaching difficulty for you?

Cheryl Stickels
University Counselling Service
Glenn Neil
Curtin University of Technology
There is a steadily increasing number of students with specific learning disabilities who present at the Counselling Services, describing learning pressures which are over and above those of the general student body. These students describe anxieties about taking lecture notes, coping with the printed format (often finding it easier to learn aurally) and whose assessment results do not reflect the amount of effort they put into their study. They are also usually disadvantaged by the standard examination format

These students are often dispirited and on the brink of terminating their studies.

Do you know these students are in our midst? Have you been called on to assist them? Do you know what simple efforts and adjustments on your part will make all the difference to these students? Do you have experiences in this area that you would like to share with your colleagues?

This session will encourage you to share your experiences in working with a student/s who presents with these difficulties, or indeed to gain from the shared experience of others.

The co-presenter in this session is a student who is generously willing to share his story.


Do students with specific learning disabilities create a specific teaching difficulty for you?

Do you think you could recognise students for whom this is an issue, just by the quality of their work and by their results? Would you know how to best assist these students or indeed what allowances to make for them?

These are not easy questions to answer and are difficult to begin to address without an understanding that there are students in our midst who are not simply lazy, poorly motivated or of reduced intelligence - indeed, quite the reverse is more usually the case. These are students who inevitably work twice as hard, apply themselves diligently, put everything else aside to concentrate on their study and still fail or achieve results which belie the 'behind the scenes effort'. This dilemma session is about what happens when these students finally ask the system to help, when they finally break their silence and stop trying (usually on their own) to accommodate to the academic system which handicaps them.

What do we do when they ask for help?

This session will reflect the work and personal thoughts of a counselling staff member and of a current mature-age student, for whom a learning disability is a real-life issue. As the session is a "dilemma" session, the presenters are here to learn as well as to present and to provoke. Neither presenter can really know knows how it is for academic staff, their level of awareness that some students are struggling with this, their experience in this situation, the strategies they might have found useful or their sense of helplessness when confronted with these students.

We here to share our experiences and hopefully, encourage you to share yours.

The number of students who are presenting at university counselling services with descriptions of learning difficulties and histories of education experiences which have been traumatic and often humiliating for them, is increasing. In November 1994, of the total students who sought assistance form the Counsellor (Disability) at Curtin University, 4.7% presented with specific learning disabilities. In October 1997, this figure was 12.4% of the total number of students who sought assistance.

These students typically present with problems which occur daily and which involve the written word. They can't keep up with notetaking, they inevitably re-read the same text several time before they understand the meaning, they find words 'jumble' and they take twice as long as others to complete reading and writing tasks. As one student put it so vividly "others take the trip from Melbourne to Hobart by simply crossing the Bass Strait. I leave Melbourne and go around the world to reach Hobart!". In addition, there is an oft-repeated story of their education experience where the student was inevitably viewed as "idle, a troublemaker, slow". John O'Shea (1994) [1] puts it thus

Being a rebel or a disturbance in class became a necessity for me. At times I felt so inadequate that if I didn't do something, I thought I might explode. I can always remember feeling so useless and stupid, because deep down I knew all the answers but I just couldn't work them out or write them down.

I was catching a disease more dangerous than dyslexia; I was becoming scared to learn.

Students' histories of being the "troublemaker, the disruptive element and the outsider" is repeated over and over in the counselling environment.

There are more formal definitions and descriptions of specific learning disability. Monash University [2]cites the definition proposed by the The United States of America National Joint Committee for Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) in 1981, favoured partly because of its lifespan perspective:

Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the lifespan. Problems in self-regulatory behaviours, social perception and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate teaching methods), they are not the result of those conditions or influences (Hammill et al 1981, p. 336)
So what does all this mean to you here today and how does this touch your teaching life?

It touches your life because you have students in your classes who are experiencing significant learning difficulties which are well in excess of the usual student woes. It touches you because you can make a difference to their learning outcomes, just by being informed, thoughtful and accommodating.

How do these students get to university in the first place? What makes them throw themselves into the very pen and paper, reading and writing environment which has been the source of so much distress in their earlier life? Why do they come?

Glenn knows better than anyone and he is my teacher in my efforts to better understand how it is for these students and what can I do to help. Glenn will tell his own story and will touch on his early experiences with school, teachers, struggles to "get it right" and his determination to make it into university. How did he do it and what keeps him here? Do his university lecturers play a role in his success or do they hinder him? What would be helpful for them to know?

Glenn's story

My entire school life consisted of avoiding tasks such as reading aloud and writing original works. I would rather call the teacher a rather foul worded name and be sent out of the class, than attempt to read in front of my peers. The other kids clicked on to what I was doing. Some of them would even volunteer me to read which would land them a fine fist fight right there in the classroom. When asked later on why I started the fight, I would tell the teacher that, "He had called me fat!". Never would I reveal my secret to the teachers - they wouldn't believe me anyway.

My parents struggled so much throughout my earlier school years. They knew I had a disability and yet they couldn't find any help or assistance for me. My dyslexia was even confirmed by a psychologist in Melbourne. The education system refused to accept this diagnosis. So they sent out a social worker, of all people, to sort me out - whatever that meant! I was labeled a trouble maker, a no hoper and a scally wag.

As I got older, I developed a few methods for coping within the school system. I refined my short term memory to such an extent that I didn't even need to understand the content, I just wrote it out. Most of the time, I concocted methods of getting out of any school work that I considered TOO HARD. I would simply not hand things in. I'd copy other's work. I'd wag school. I'd take a sicky. And no-one seemed to notice anything was wrong because they had already made their own diagnosis that I was lazy and a trouble maker. The class clown - but no-one wondered why...

At the age of 16, I landed myself an excellent Instrument Maker apprenticeship with ANSETT Airlines. I repaired instruments for the cock pit of airplanes. My parents were so thrilled. They later told me that they honestly didn't think I would ever get a job of any kind!!! I was able to succeed with ANSETT due to the hands-on nature of my apprenticeship.

In 1995, I married my extraordinary wife, Kirsty. In our first year together, I changed jobs about four times. Kirsty encouraged me to go back to school and have another go. I enrolled at Canning College and struggled my way through to my TEE after about ten years away from the education system. I was saddened to see that things hadn't changed much. I was still looked at with a hint of disbelief when informing my teachers of my dyslexia.

This time though, I developed strategies for succeeding instead of failing! Kirsty suggested I always write the word DYSLEXIC in capitals on all of my test papers - even my TEE - to let the markers know about my disability. We had an updated diagnosis performed to provide as proof for the education department so that I could obtain an extra 10 minutes per hour for exams. It still frustrates me to think that things take me twice as long to complete, literally, and yet I am "awarded" 10 minutes only.

We visited the Western Australian Dyslexic Foundation to try and learn some skills to help me deal with my disability. That was very disappointing as the people there could only give me books to read - need I say anymore! We've researched the internet, we've listened to others who have dyslexia. It seemes it is a very individual disability. There doesn't appear to be a cure for it as it is not a disease. Some even refer to it as a gift rather than a disability. I still have difficulty doing that!

The most frustrating thing for me is the way the university expects me to learn to do things their way. I can't - it doesn't work for me. I need to find a method of learning and examination that reflects my efforts more accurately. My wife will testify to the fact that I spend more time studying than I do anything else. I am always babbling on about what I learnt in class and how it fascinates me to no end. Yet when I get my results, they show me as only scraping through for a pass. I know I am better than just a pass. I try harder than anyone else I know, I study longer than anyone else I know. And I have more of a passion for my chosen career path than anyone else I know. Why then must it be so hard to achieve?

I want to be a chiropractor. I want to help people and make them healthy. In order to achieve this goal, I must complete a total of seven years of study. So far I have managed to pass my way through three of those seven years. With the help of my wife, my disability counselor and the assistance provided by some of my lecturers, I'm going to make it through the remaining four years.

My dyslexia doesn't make me stupid or lazy. It makes me different. It means I have to do things differently. Some people can count in their heads, others have to count on their fingers. I can't read or write as effectively as the general population. I can listen and I can speak and I can do. If only the education system recognised that!!! I think now, though, that there is hope. Through educating others about my disability, I think people can understand that not everyone is the same.

This is the part of the session when the floor is open. This is when we get to share ideas about your experience of supporting these students and what you would like to know from others.

Glenn's ideas:

Additional time to complete tasks
Lecture notes in advance
Oral exams and tests
Patience and understanding
More diagrams and illustrations
My own experience is that students find very small efforts most helpful and in addition to Glenn's suggestions, I would suggest the following:


  1. O'Shea, J., Dalton, J. with Zagdanski, D. (1994). Dyslexia: How do we learn? pp 11, Hill of Content Publishing Company Pty Ltd, Melbourne.

  2. Monash University (1993). Learning Disabilities and Higher Education: Guidelines for Working Effectively with Students with Learning Disabilities. Office of University Development, Monash University.
Please cite as: Stickels, C. and Neil, G. (1998). Do students with specific learning disabilities create a specific teaching difficulty for you? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 318-321. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/stickels.html

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