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College Students with Learning Disabilities

McBurney Disability Resource Center University of Wisconsin-Madison

A Learning Disability (LD) Is:

  • A disorder which affects the manner in which individuals with normal or above average intelligence take in, retain and express information. It is commonly recognized as a significant deficit in one or more of the following areas: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or problem solving. Individuals with learning disabilities also may have difficulty with sustained attention, time management, or social skills.
  • Presumably due to central nervous system dysfunction.
  • Cross-cultural. It occurs regardless of racial or ethnic origin.
  • Often inconsistent. A learning disability may persist throughout life but the problems manifested may change depending upon the learning demands and the setting. It may cause problems throughout grade school, seem to disappear in high school, and then resurface again in college. It may manifest itself in only one specific academic area, such as math or foreign language, or may impact an individual's performance across a variety of subject areas and disciplines.
  • Frustrating! Because a learning disability is not visible, teachers, parents, and peers often do not understand the challenges faced by individuals with learning disabilities. Consequently, many adults with learning disabilities often have to "prove" to others that their invisible impairments are disabling.

A Learning Disability Is Not:

  • A form of mental retardation or an emotional disorder.
  • Primarily due to other impairments, environmental, or cultural influences. It may occur concomitantly with other disabilities but is not the result of these conditions.

Characteristics of College Students with Learning Disabilities

Many college students with learning disabilities are intelligent, talented, and capable. Typically, they have developed a variety of strategies for compensating for their learning disabilities. However, the degree of severity of the disability varies from individual to individual. Individuals who come from divergent cultural and language backgrounds may exhibit many or the oral and written language behaviors cited below but are not necessarily learning disabled by virtue of this difference alone.

Reading Skills

  • Slow reading rate and/or difficulty in modifying reading rate in accordance with material's level of difficulty.
  • Uneven comprehension and retention of material read. Difficulty identifying important points and themes.
  • Incomplete mastery of phonics, confusion of similar words, difficulty integrating new vocabulary.
  • Skips words or lines of printed material.
  • Difficulty reading for long periods of time.

Written Language Skills

  • Difficulty planning a topic and organizing thoughts on paper.
  • Difficulty with sentence structure (e.g., incomplete sentences, run-ons, poor use of grammar, missing inflectional endings).
  • Frequent spelling errors (e.g., omissions, substitutions, transpositions), especially in specialized and foreign vocabulary.
  • Difficulty effectively proofreading written work and making revisions.
  • Compositions are often limited in length.
  • Slow written production.
  • Poor penmanship (e.g., poorly formed letters, incorrect use of capitalization, trouble with spacing, overly large handwriting).
  • Inability to copy correctly from a book or the blackboard. · Slow written production.

Oral Language Skills

  • Inability to concentrate on and to comprehend spoken language when presented rapidly.
  • Difficulty in orally expressing ideas that they seem to understand.
  • Difficulty following or having a conversation about an unfamiliar idea.
  • Difficulty speaking grammatically correct English.
  • Trouble telling a story in the proper sequence.
  • Difficulty following oral or written directions.

Mathematical Skills

  • Incomplete mastery of basic facts (e.g., mathematical tables).
  • Reverses numbers (e.g., 123 to 321 or 231).
  • Confuses operational symbols, especially + and x.
  • Copies problems incorrectly from one line to another.
  • Difficulty recalling the sequence of operational concepts.
  • Difficulty understanding key concepts and applications to aid problem solving.
  • Difficulty comprehending word problems.

Organizational and Study Skills

  • Difficulty with organizational skills.
  • Time management difficulties.
  • Slow to start and to complete tasks.
  • Repeated inability, on a day-to-day basis, to recall what has been taught.
  • Difficulty interpreting charts and graphs.
  • Lack of overall organization in written notes and compositions.
  • Difficulty preparing for and taking tests.
  • Inefficient use of library and reference materials.

Attention and Concentration

  • Trouble focusing and sustaining attention on academic tasks.
  • Fluctuating attention span during lectures.
  • Easily distracted by outside stimuli.
  • Difficulty juggling multiple task demands and overloads quickly.
  • Hyperactivity and excessive movements may accompany the inability to focus attention.

Social Skills

  • Some adults with learning disabilities have social skills problems due to their inconsistent perceptual abilities. These individuals may be unable to detect the difference between sincere and sarcastic comments or may be unable to recognize other subtle changes in tone of voice for the same reason that a person with visual perceptual problems may have trouble distinguishing between the letters "b" and "d". Difficulties in interpreting nonverbal messages may result in lowered self-esteem and may cause some adults with learning disabilities to have trouble meeting people or working cooperatively with others.


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