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Disability Resources & Educational Services

Characteristics of Successful College Students With Learning Disabilities

These articles were published by Karen Wold, Learning Disabilities Specialist, in the 2012-2013 DRES newsletter and contain information about the six most commonly researched characteristics of successful adults/college students with learning disabilities. The information is applicable to college students with other disabilities as well.

Success Characteristic #1: Knowledge and Acceptance of Disability ▼

This article will focus on the first characteristic: knowledge and acceptance of disability. A focus group made up of college students with disabilities revealed that they believed knowledge of their disability “was critical to their success in college” (Getzel and Thoma, 2006, 35). It was the first step in their ability to advocate for themselves and seek the resources they needed to be successful.

So how do you gain knowledge about your disability? If you have lived with it for a while, you probably have a good sense of how it affects you. However, you may find that college life or college academics present a new challenge. If you have been recently diagnosed with your disability, you may not completely understand yet how it affects you. As an adult, it is essential for you to have the opportunity to read the diagnostic evaluation report, or any other relevant report, that diagnoses your disability and discuss the results with whoever conducted the evaluation. Be sure to ask any questions you have. Your case manager at DRES is also a good source of information. Family members and friends, especially those who have experienced what you are experiencing, can be good sources of support.

The next step, acceptance of disability, can take longer to realize. As an example, taking longer to do things, like read or get from one place to another, can make you feel different from your peers. However, once you accept that you need to allow more time for these things in order to accomplish them, you can plan ahead and still accomplish the same things your peers do. You may even achieve at a higher level than your peers do because of your time and dedication. It is important to recognize that you are not solely defined by your disability. All of us have strengths and weaknesses. Acceptance of disability means that you understand and accept that you have a disability but this is just one part of who you are. Even more important is that you know your strengths, academic or otherwise. Without this knowledge, it is hard to accept a disability as you may feel shame or that you are “stupid”.

* Getzel, E. & Thoma, C. (2006). Voice of Experience: What College Students with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders Tell Us Are Important Self-Determination Skills for Success. Journal of Learning Disabilities, v. 14, n. 1, 33-39.

Success Characteristic #2: Learning Compensatory Strategies ▼

Compensatory strategies, also known as “work arounds” or my favorite, “learned creativity”[1], involve completing a task in a way that utilizes a student’s strengths instead of having the task impacted by the student’s weaknesses or areas of disability. Accommodations fall into this category. For example, if you have difficulty taking notes in class and utilize a peer notetaker that is a compensatory strategy which allows you to get the information from class that your peers are but that you cannot do as effectively in the traditional way of taking your own notes.

If you have had your disability for a longer period of time, you probably have developed several compensatory strategies through the years – either those taught to you by parents and teachers (or maybe even your peers) or those you have learned on your own from experience. Some of these you may continue to use successfully in college while in other situations you find in college, you may need to learn new ways to compensate. If your disability is relatively new to you, you also may need to learn new strategies to get tasks done than in the ways you have done them in the past.

Another example of a critical skill that some students with disabilities must learn compensatory strategies for is time management. Some students with hidden disabilities, such as learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or depression, need tools to help them manage their time as they have difficulty doing this on their own due to the impact of their disability. Some examples of these tools are online calendars (like Google Calendar), alarms that can be set from watches or iPhones ahead of meeting times and monthly calendars (large or small) where due dates and important appointment dates can be marked.

How do you know what compensatory strategies you need and what will work for you? Trial and error is a good approach to try certain strategies to see how they will work for you. Also, talking with your DRES case manager and other students are good sources of information and support. Once you realize that you can complete a task, even if it is done in a nontraditional or “creative” way, you begin to have the confidence you need to allow yourself to be creative in finding solutions to what you are trying to accomplish. Rather than being negative, utilizing compensatory strategies can be quite empowering.

[1] Reiff, Henry B., Paul J. Gerber and Rick Ginsberg. (1997). Exceeding Expectations: Successful Adults with Learning Disabilities, pp. 182-186.

Success Characteristic #3 ▼

Once you have a good sense of your areas of disability and your strengths, as well as ways to compensate (which includes accommodations), you are more able to be a good self-advocate. “Self-advocate” or “self-advocacy” are terms you probably have heard of before, especially if you have had your disability throughout your schooling. It may have even been “drilled” into you in high school when you may have been given more responsibility for asking for what you need, such as accommodations, from your teachers. But what does “self-advocacy” really mean? According to Dictionary.com, “self-advocacy” means “to represent oneself”. In elementary and high school, you may have had other people (parents, teachers, etc.) represent you in order for you to get what you need. In college, and, as an adult, you are expected to represent yourself and your needs as a self-advocate.

Applying self-advocacy to people with disabilities, Skinner’s (1998) definition of good self-advocates are students who: “(a) understand their disability, (b) are aware of their legal rights, and (c) can competently and tactfully communicate their rights and needs.”[1] (Skinner, 2004, 98) The (a) of Skinner’s definition can be achieved through developing within yourself the first success characteristic: knowledge and acceptance of disability. The (b) of his definition is beyond the scope of this article but it is important to realize that the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to all individuals with disabilities, including those with “hidden” disabilities such as learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and psychological disabilities.

The (c) of his definition is the action part of being a good self-advocate, not just knowing how. To “competently and tactfully communicate” your accommodation needs to professors is a skill that can be learned. You can practice how to advocate for yourself and your accommodation needs with others, including your case manager, perhaps by using a “script” of what to say until you become more comfortable. It is always helpful to be tactful and direct, instead of demanding, when discussing your accommodations with instructors. You can introduce yourself, state you are registered with DRES and discuss the accommodations you will need with the professor (and sometimes the “TA” – teaching assistant). It is best to make an appointment with instructors during their office hours or at another mutually convenient time for you and the instructor.

While the majority of the time that you will advocate for yourself is when you are asking instructors for accommodations, there are other situations where you will need to be your own self-advocate. One of these situations is being willing to ask questions when you do not understand something, such as a lecture or discussion in class. Depending on the culture of the class, you may be able to ask your question(s) during class time or you may need to wait until the professor’s or TA’s office hours. As an example, given the large numbers of students in most lecture classes, you will probably need to wait to ask a question after the class has ended but discussion sections led by TA’s will probably encourage you to ask questions in class.

[1]Skinner, M. (2004). College Students with Learning Disabilities Speak Out: What It Takes to Be Successful in Postsecondary Education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, v. 17, n. 2, 91-104.

Success Characteristic #4 ▼

This article introduces goal setting and attainment. The “attainment” part is important because many people can set goals but some cannot fulfill, or “attain”, them. In order to increase the likelihood that your goals are achievable, they should be reasonable. As an example, it is probably not reasonable to expect you will get an A in a course where your grades have been C’s and one F. However, a more reasonable goal may be that you work toward achieving a solid C grade.

Sometimes students set goals (I want to get an A in this course or on this paper or on this test) but they are not sure how to go about achieving them. Consider the following questions: 1) is this a realistic goal? 2) If realistic, what steps do you need to take to achieve the goal? As an example, in order to get an A on the paper for the FUN 120 course, I would have to make sure I had completed all of the relevant reading, understood the concepts that were covered, understood what the assignment was asking me to do and be able to write a clear, coherent essay that met the requirements set by my professor.

To avoid getting behind in a course, a well-written syllabus can be your best friend. Using a syllabus to plan when you are going to do what can be very helpful in setting reasonable goals. For smaller goals to achieve (for example, completing homework), getting the work done in chronological order is usually appropriate. However, if all of your studying was done in chronological order, then you would likely not be leaving enough time for bigger papers and projects that were given earlier in the semester to be due later in the semester. The same goes for final exams.

Sometimes it is useful to “work backwards” from the due date of a paper or exam when planning your study time. As an example, if you have to write a paper in three weeks, work backwards to plan when you want to get the research done by, the outline or draft done by and the final paper done by the due date. Consider if it takes you longer to read than to write, you would put more time into researching and less into writing, or vice versa if it takes you longer to write. Breaking the task into parts allows you to tackle one part at a time which is less overwhelming than trying to accomplish the whole task at one time.

Once you have set a timeline for completion, consider the best environment in which to work on achieving your goal. If you study better in quiet environments, then your dorm room may not be the best option. Do you study better in the morning or late at night? Try to do more difficult work the time of day when you are at your best.

Also consider what hinders you from achieving your goal. Do you procrastinate so you don’t have enough time to finish work that you need to? Do you get overwhelmed by what you need to do so you don’t do anything? Do your friends, social media or the internet itself distract you from doing what you need to do? Once you recognize what stands in the way of reaching your goals, take steps to work around them or eliminate them completely. As an example, during finals week, a student does not go on Facebook and only sees her friends for dinner. The rest of the day she can focus on preparing for her final exams.

If you feel you would like some help improving your ability to set goals and achieve them, consider the DRES Academic Coaching Program. A “coach” (a graduate student intern at DRES) will meet with you on a weekly basis to assist you in setting reasonable goals and holding you accountable for achieving those goals. For further information or to schedule an appointment with a coach, please contact Dr. Kim Collins at DRES: kdcollin@illinois.edu.

For more information about goal setting and attainment, check out this powerpoint presentation.

Success Characteristic #5 ▼

Building upon reasonable goal setting, students are more likely to persevere when their goals are realistic. Perseverance is defined as “steady persistence in a course of action” . . ., “despite obstacles”. (dictionary.com) According to Rieff, Gerber and Ginsburg (1997), persistence is “desire turned into action” (177). For example, if you want to improve your grades, follow through with actions that will bring that desire to life, such as completing the course readings, going to class, and meeting with the TA on a regular basis. In order to persevere on a task, the first step is having the desire to complete it.

Many students with disabilities develop a strong work ethic that helps them to persevere. They recognize that they need to put in more time and effort into studying and accomplishing other academic tasks than their peers and accept that this will help them to accomplish their goals and be successful.

So, what helps you to be persistent or persevere through something that may be difficult in your academic or personal life? Visualizing or thinking about a positive outcome can help. “Finishing this assignment will help me to prepare for the exam next week.” Considering why you are doing the task can also help in persevering through it. “Organizing my desk now will make it easier for me to spread out my history materials when I study for the test later today.”

Sometimes what you have to study is not very interesting. During these times, it may help to have a reward built in when you complete an assignment or finish reading a chapter. These rewards should be things that are motivating to you such as: working out, checking your email (watch your time on this so you don’t end up surfing the net for hours), watching a TV program or listening to music, talking with a friend, etc. The BIG CAUTION with rewards is to enjoy them for a fixed period of time, after which you return to studying. Sometimes it is very hard to get back to doing what you need to do so have a time limit in mind for your reward.

Having people support and encourage you can also help you to persevere. Knowing people are supportive of you and are “in your corner” can help you to persevere to achieve your goals.

*Reiff, Henry B., Paul J. Gerber and Rick Ginsberg (1997). Exceeding Expectations: Successful Adults with Learning Disabilities. Austin, Texas: PRO-ED, Inc.

Success Characteristic #6 ▼

“We all aspire to do the best we can with what we’re dealt. Focus on your strengths. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and admit you need it.” Charles Schwab

Some of us find asking for help very difficult as we think we SHOULD be able to do things “on our own”. However, as Charles Schwab, a leader in the discount brokerage industry, and also a person with a learning disability states, we should not “be afraid to ask for help and admit you (we) need it.” Many people who we would consider to be “successful” in their lives have sought assistance from others in order to achieve their success. In order to develop a support system to help you be a successful student, you must be willing to reach out to others for the help, support and/or guidance you need.

Over the past academic year in this newsletter, I have shared with you how to develop five characteristics of success for college students with learning disabilities, which can be applied to any college student with disabilities. This article introduces the sixth, how to develop a support system. In order to fully develop the other five characteristics: understanding and accepting your disability, learning to compensate, self-advocacy, goal setting and attainment, and perseverance, having and knowing how to use a support system is crucial.

So, how can we develop a support system? First, consider whose support you may already have. This could include parents, siblings and friends, people who support your efforts and encourage you when times get tough. Be sure to include them as a part of your support system. Next, consider the type of help you think you need. If it is with an academic question, your professor, TA and/or tutor may be your best sources of information. Consider doing one or more of the following before meeting with any of these individuals:

  • Marking/noting questions when you have them in readings or lecture notes
  • Noting where your understanding breaks down
    • Am I not understanding the content?
    • Am I not understanding the way the content is being presented?
  • Be as specific as possible when you ask questions, esp. of faculty.
  • Instead of asking, “what do I have to know or do to prepare for this exam?” or “How do I get an A on this paper?”, consider telling your professor how you are studying, or planning to study, and ask if you are “on the right track” with your study plan or the outline of your paper.

If you have concerns about your motivation or ability organize yourself/time management, your peers and DRES staff may be good sources of help:

  • Studying with others can be a good choice for students who have a difficult time getting motivated to study on their own.
  • If you prefer to study alone, you can plan your studying so that you are finished with a certain section (chapter, etc.) by the time you meet with a friend for lunch or to work out, etc.
  • The DRES Academic Coaching Program is designed for students who have a difficult time keeping on track with studying and other tasks. Meeting with a “coach” (Typically, students doing an internship at DRES) on a weekly basis helps students to “check in” about their progress and any stumbling blocks to that progress that happened over the week as well as to discuss goals for the following week. The “check in” weekly meeting helps students to be accountable in accomplishing their goals, such as completing work. It has assisted many students in DRES to be successful academically at the University.
  • If you have concerns regarding your study skills (e.g., reading comprehension, test preparation and/or test taking), there are several powerpoint presentations as well as written information on the DRES website under the Knowledge tab, click on “Strategies”. You can also consult with Karen Wold, Learning Disabilities Specialist, kwold2@illinois.edu or 217-333-8705 for strategies in these areas.
  • Your DRES case manager is also a good source of support. Case managers can assist you in problem solving in academic and non-academic matters and can refer you to DRES or University resources for help.
  • Also, many students have found it helpful to put professors and/or TAs office hours on a weekly schedule and try to study material in their classes BEFORE their office hours so they can attend and ask questions about what they are not understanding when they study.

It is my hope that this article has given you some ideas about how you can develop your own support system while you are a student at U of I to assist you in reaching your academic goals.