Learning Strategies for Students

person holding pencil near laptop computer

All students come to us with a certain set of study skills but most don’t realize that there are a variety of ways to approach and interact with materials and learning experiences in an educational environment. When students have struggles with their learning, often they do more of the same rather than trying something new; usually because they don’t know that there is something new to try. For students with learning disabilities, Learning Strategists are the best source of new ideas.

Students with learning disabilities, in particular, benefit from explicit instruction in strategies that mitigate the challenges in the education environment that their learning disability presents. But like many enhancements in our environment that we have made for persons with disabilities like automatic doors which help persons without disabilities as well, learning strategies can help all students. Here’s a couple of examples:

Two Finger Reading: If you are reading a textbook and come across a figure or chart, use two finger reading. Before reading the full text in the chapter about the figure, read the text beneath the figure. This often is a brief summary of the material presented and can provide a quick overview of the big picture. Place one finger of one hand on the figure. Place one finger of the other hand on the text in the chapter. This will help you keep your place in the text and on the figure as you move your attention between the two. Read a chunk of the full text that describes or explains the figure. Then shift your attention to the figure and trace the area of the figure that the text described. When you have reviewed that section of the figure, return to read another chuck of the full text. For more on reading see my previous post.

3 + 3 + 3 In Class: This strategy is to help shift your focus to the class that is beginning and prepare for new information as well as close a class before you leave. It involves taking three minutes before the class begins and 3 minutes at the end of class before you leave. Before start of class, take three minutes and quickly review the material presented in the last class. Scan your notes or other materials to remind yourself of what has come before. This can help you build connections between information presented from one class to the next and it wakes up your brain so that it is ready to receive new information. At the end of class, before you pack up and leave, take three minutes to quickly review the notes you have just taken and make a list of three concepts or ideas that were most important TO YOU. A quick review, coupled with decision making and writing down your list can help make the information more meaningful to you and increase the movement of information between short-term and long term memory.

While learning strategies and study skill instruction can help all students, for students with disabilities, working with a Learning Strategist allows for the exploration of strategies tailored to their particular learning needs. It can take some trial and error to find the method that matches the student, but the effort can mean the difference between struggling needlessly and making the most of a student’s finite study time.

Featured Image: Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

Joy in Junk Mail

six black mail boxes on a wall

Lucas burst into my office and excitedly proclaimed “I read the junk mail! All of it!” Now you would think a 24-year-old young man would have better things to be excited about, but it was the first time he had ever done so.

When Lucas first started at St. Clair College, his Individual Education Plan (IEP) from highschool called for a reader and a scribe because of his learning disability. At the college level, we were striving for greater independence and had introduced him to speech-to-text and text-to-speech software. Text-to-speech software such as Kurzweil and Texthelp allow one to scan in printed material and the software will capture the text and read it out loud while highlighting the text on the original image. Textbooks can be converted to PDF files so that the student can see the page as it exists in the book and hear the text spoken in close to real life voices. For student with disabilities that interfere with reading skills, this makes text material more accessible and in a more timely fashion.

Listen to this post in a mp3 file produced with Text 2 Speech, a free online service that converts text using a basic quality computerized voice. This will give a flavour of what text sounds like for a student with disabilities although most commercial software has better voices.

While these tools have an impact on academics, it also has on impact on a student’s everyday life and provides opportunities for self advocacy and self actualization. For Lucas, it meant that for the first time, he was able to decide what was junk mail and not worth reading and what was of interest to him. Until the day he set up the scanner at home and was able to scan all the mail he received to read with Kurweil, he had relied on family members to sort through his mail and decide what was worth reading. Often, and understandably, the family members would read his mail and summarize what was in it because reading the whole document took a lot of time. All Lucas’ correspondence was filtered through what someone else determined as important. With Kurzweil, Lucas could decide for himself.

This filtering or bias happened for Lucas with a reader during tests as well. When Lucas would ask for a question to be read again (and again), there was a chance that the inflection, emphasis and body language of the reader would change and sometimes even show frustration, boredom or disbelief. Sometimes, Lucas got the impression that the reader though he was really stupid and would read the question slower and louder. With Kurzweil, Lucas could hear the question as many times as he chose and it would sound the same each time.

Kurzweil has other active learning tools that encourage students to use highlighters for important (to them) information, definitions, key terms and more. The software can extract the highlights to a separate document for study notes or to an mp3 portable audio document to listen to away from the computer. Here too, Lucas could listen to his text as often as he needed to without having to worry about someone becoming bored or frustrated and he could make decisions about which of the information presented was necessary for his study notes.

I have heard some faculty express frustration because testing centres at their institution require tests to be provided in advance, sometimes 48 hour before the test is to be written. Often, these tests need to be converted into a text-to-speech format and that does take staff time to prepare. It does mean that faculty have to prepare their tests in advance to meet those deadline but to me, use of text-to-speech software for students with disabilities who need it represents a better way of ensuring academic integrity where students can independently demonstrate their knowledge with no outside filters or bias.

Featured Image: Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

Taking on a new OntarioExtend Challenge

woman holding two gray handheld tools

9x9x25 Week Zero

Oh OntarioExtend, you keep coming up with new possibilities for growth and openness! The 9x9x25 Challenge is 9 posts in 9 weeks with at least 25 lines of musings about teaching and learning. I did like to center my post on the topic of Accessibility and Accommodations for students with disabilities.

There are a lot of options in this area. I can write about the Canadian Human Rights Code, the differences between academic accommodations between highschool and college, Assistive Technology, Learning Strategies, what we mean by mitigation, why we don’t modify outcomes in college, perceived privacy issues with audio taping lectures, why having a note taker has the risk of bias, and why you should hug your Student Services staff once in a while or at least share a coffee break with them.

I am excited to get started! About eleven years ago, I had the best job of my life. I was the Learning Strategist/Assistive Technologist for Thames Campus of St. Clair College. I loved that job. Working directly with students with disabilities, particularly with students with learning disabilities, was a privilege.

We have an education system that does not fit every student and students with the potential to learn should not be shut out because they don’t fit some weird definition of the average student. As much as we are working to change the education system, we still rely on teaching through lectures, textbooks and tests – and if you are good at those things, you will do well. But if there is something that stands in the way, you can be limited in what you can pursue and I think that is wrong.

Let’s take apprenticeships, just for a minute. You can be the greatest mechanic but if you have an Auditory Learning Disability and have difficulty with spelling and sounding out words you don’t immediately recognize, you may learn to cope by reading for meaning when you encounter one of these unknown words or if you could hear the word, you would know what it means. We require you to take and pass many multiple choice tests where the number of words is too low to really make use of reading for meaning and rarely can you get the accommodation of using a text to speech reader. Does that make sense? I am not going to ask you to complete a 20 multiple choice test before I let you fix my car! But the education system we have may block excellent mechanics from pursuing their dreams!

I have lots to say about Accessibility and Accommodations for students with disabilities. I hope you will come back over the nine weeks of the challenge and see what I come up with!

Featured image: Photo by Jia Ye on Unsplash