Students with Learning Differences

Swarthmore's enrollment comprises students with a range of learning styles and learning differences. Some students have been diagnosed with learning disabilities that make it challenging for them to process and retain written and/or oral material efficiently. Others are coping with disabilities that make it difficult for them to express themselves verbally or in writing. The Learning Disabilities Association of America defines a learning disability as "a neurological condition that interferes with a person's ability to store, process, or produce information." The condition does not stem from a lack of intelligence or lack of preparation.

Whether or not students have diagnosed learning disabilities, all process information in different ways. Some students retain visual information more easily (e.g., charts, graphs, images). Others benefit from lecture and discussion formats, where they can hear ideas and information. Others engage with course content more easily through labs and group projects.

While it is difficult to design a course so that is perfectly suited to each student's particular style, below are some strategies of universal design that can be helpful for all students.

  • Include a note on your syllabus inviting students to talk with you and the Student Disability Service confidentially about any learning concerns.
  • Prepare course syllabi and reading assignments early. Many students with disabilities will need to access readings and other material before the course begins.
  • Before posting pdfs on Moodle or giving them to students in an electronic format, be sure the pdf has been converted to an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) format so it can read by a screen reader. See the PDF files document in the Course Materials section.
  • State your course requirements in writing.
  • List all due dates for assignments, tests and exams. Provide written and verbal notice of any changes. Avoid vague due dates.
  • Try to avoid giving last minute readings and assignments. Students with specific disabilities typically need advance notice to arrange for material to be converted to an accessible format for screen readers, captioning, etc.
  • Use several methods to present classroom material (e.g., auditory, visual, kinesthetic). Provide information in both oral and written formats.
  • At the start of each day's class, include a statement about the day's objective. Review key themes from the previous class. Summarize points periodically throughout the class.
  • When feasible, provide students with access to lecture notes and powerpoints. Many students benefit from being able to read an overview of a lecture in advance. Other students, especially those with auditory processing disorder and ADHD, benefit from being able to review lecture and discussion materials after each class.
  • Use more than one way to demonstrate or explain information.
  • Read aloud when you write on the board or present visual data.
  • Keep instructions brief and uncomplicated. Provide a written copy of instructions.
  • Allow time for students to clarify directions and essential information.
  • Use captioned videos and know how to turn on the captioning feature. While captioned videos are often considered to be only for students with hearing impairments, they are helpful for students with learning differences and for students for whom English is a second language. Give all students an opportunity to view a video multiple times.
  • Provide study guides and review sheets.
  • Assess student work using multiple methods (e.g., papers, exams, group work, video/audio projects, presentations).
  • Acquaint students with other Swarthmore resources, such as study clinics, tutors, Student Academic Mentors (SAMs), the Learning Resources office and the Student Disability Service.

Adapted from DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) at the University of Washington.Academic Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities University of Washinton DO-IT

Student Disclosure

If a student identifies to you as having a disability and expresses a need for accommodations, please ask whether the student has also registered with the Student Disability Service so that we can draft formal accommodations letters. We recommend that you schedule an individual meeting with the student so that the two of you can identify accommodations that will enable the student to access the course material without altering fundamental course requirements. We have found that even when multiple students have the same disability, each student often benefits from different strategies for accessing the material.

Confidentiality Note

Protection of a student's privacy is very important. Disability status and accommodations are highly confidential. Please do not discuss a student's situation and accommodations without the student's permission.

Additional Resources