Learning Disabilities


Psychologists and learning disability specialists define learning disabilities as specific impairments in one or more of the following psychological processes related to learning:

  • acquiring, using and understanding verbal and non-verbal symbols of communication
  • language processing (receptive, expressive and pragmatic)
  • memory
  • processing speed
  • visual-spatial processing
  • perceptual-motor integration
  • executive functions (such as self-monitoring and organizational skills)

Academic skills that can be affected include:

  • reading (decoding and comprehension)
  • written language (both conceptual and the mechanics of writing)
  • oral language (listening, speaking and understanding instructions)
  • math (concepts and computation)
  • organization/planning skills

Other types of learning disabilities may affect spatial, mechanical abilities, as well as socially-based non-verbal deficits (missing social cues).

Academic Accommodations

Some of the most commonly provided academic accommodations to students with learning disabilities include:

  • a reduced course load
  • provision of a notetaker for lectures
  • tape recording of lectures
  • access to alternative format materials such as books on tape
  • access to a word processor with spell check, thesaurus, grammar check for completion of final copy of written work
  • clarification of information on overheads, charts and lecture material
  • alternative methods of evaluation, such as point form responses rather than full sentences, in content courses
  • provision of extended time for tests and exams. The amount of extra time is determined by the disability support office but is usually time and a half.
  • use of memory aids or formula cards
  • supplementary oral exams
  • exams may need to be written on a computer with editing functions and/or adaptive software
  • use of writing tools (e.g. spelling dictionary) so marks are not taken off for spelling
  • exams/tests may need to be scribed and written in a quiet writing room
  • clarification of questions on tests/exams
  • use of a calculator on tests/exams

Educational Impacts

Students may:

  • demonstrate a significant discrepancy between theoretical understanding and their practical achievements in areas such as labs and field placements
  • have well-developed oral communication skills but demonstrate significant deficits in written expression. Speed of processing may be slow, so that students cannot keep up to the pace of the class. Lecture material may not be retained, and in testing situations, remembering formulas to solve application questions may be a significant challenge.
  • listen to content presented through lectures, understand and retain it, yet reading skills may be deficient. Deficits in word recognition, reading speed and vocabulary can, in turn, affect reading comprehension and the ability to deal with large amounts of reading.

For some students, application courses where spatial reasoning, organization and following a sequence of steps in completing a “hands-on” project may be a challenge, while another student may misunderstand social cues and find it difficult to communicate their needs with professors and peers.

Instructional Strategies

  • introduce a variety of study strategies that will reinforce important concepts
  • provide feedback such as error analysis of tests
  • use visuals, demonstrations and practical examples to reinforce theoretical concepts
  • introduce key concepts and vocabulary at the beginning of new units of study
  • provide structures such as outlines and advance organizers to lecture
  • provide reading lists ahead of time
  • allow time to review and clarify concepts presented in class as well as to answer questions prior to the student starting an assignment or task
  • give several short assignments rather than one long one
  • work closely with CSWD to ensure a successful learning experience for the student