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Friday, April 5, 2013

Students with LD: Strategies for College Success

From Smart Kids with LD

By Joan M. Azarva, Ms.ED
April 1, 2013

Upon crossing the threshold to college, freshmen often find themselves face to face with unexpected challenges. Not knowing how to navigate the system, coupled with the rapid pace of academics (a typical semester is 15 weeks) can cause even the best students to falter that first year.

For students with learning disabilities, however, a few missteps at the beginning can have dire consequences, leaving students in a hole from which they may not be able to dig themselves out.

The list below will help students with LD avoid typical college pitfalls and set them up for post-secondary success.

Before the Semester Begins

1.) Prepare for college placement tests: English, math, and reading. Placement tests determine the level at which you begin your courses. Use Google Accuplacer to identify your strengths and weaknesses as you prepare to take the placement tests.

If you have documentation that supports extra time and/or a distraction-free environment, submit it to the placement testing office well in advance of your test day.

2.) Research in advance whether a calculator is permitted for the math exam—many colleges do not allow it, but in rare cases, documentation may support the use of one. If that is not the case, review long division, multiplication, fractions, decimals, etc. the old-fashioned way, so you’re not caught off-guard.

If your placement exam scores are not representative of your abilities, ask if you can retake them.

3.) Update your documentation if it is older than three years, and submit it to the Disability Services office shortly after you receive your acceptance. High schools used to administer new psychoeducational evaluations for students transitioning to college, but that is rare in today’s economic climate.

More likely, you will need to find a private psychologist who does evaluations. Either get a recommendation from someone whose opinion you trust or research what to look for in an evaluator.

4.) Attend freshman orientation but also attend the LD orientation. While some of the information overlaps, there are essentials to be gained from both.

5.) Sign a FERPA agreement. This allows your parents to communicate directly with the Disability Office regarding your progress.

Registration Smarts

5.) Consider taking a reduced course load, at least your first semester. Set yourself up for success until you are sure you can manage the new demands. Your health insurance will not be in jeopardy—the disability coordinator can write a letter to your insurance company indicating you are a full-time student with fewer credits due to a disability.

6.) Utilize the Disability Services Office. The Disability Services Office is there to give you advice regarding all academic decisions. Use it. It is preferable to register through Disability Services where your classes can be hand selected by someone who knows your learning style and how many courses you can reasonably handle.

Also, register as early as possible each semester. Some schools give priority to students with LD. Early registration provides the most choices.

7.) If a Freshman Seminar is required, take it your first semester. You will learn the ropes, and it will make subsequent semesters easier.

8.) Schedule school according to your biological clock. In other words, take classes when you are most alert and know you can get there on time.

9.) Keep your schedule balanced with challenging classes offset by easier ones. Take more difficult classes on Monday/Wednesday/Friday (60 minutes per class) and easier classes on Tuesday/Thursday (90 minutes per class). Even though your weekly time in class is the same, it is easier to maintain attention for the shorter M/W/F classes.

10.) Schedule classes five days a week. Being in school every day serves as a reminder that education is your full-time job. It also allows you to take part in extracurricular activities that increase your connection with school.

11.) Listen to students’ recommendations for professors and courses. If they match your learning style, ask your Learning Specialist or advisor about them.

12.) It is advisable to take summer courses only for easier electives or in areas in which you excel. While it is natural to want to pick up additional credits in the summer, know that summer semesters are short, and the work comes on with the speed of a runaway freight train.

Most importantly, if you failed a course in a 15-week semester, DO NOT retake it in a summer session. How likely are you to understand the information when it’s coming at you twice as fast?

13.) Online courses carry their own risks. Generally, they are for the extremely disciplined student who doesn’t need the structure and interaction of traditional classes.

Also, for students accustomed to using tone and facial expression to augment comprehension, online classes will put you at a distinct disadvantage.

Study Wise

14.) Be one with your Learning Specialist. The tutoring lab for the college population at-large is usually not effective for students with disabilities. In contrast, Learning Specialists are trained to break down concepts into their simplest parts and use “tricks” to make learning easier and more efficient. They’re adept at using a variety of methods to make concepts understandable.

15.) Schedule regular sessions with your Learning Specialist. Students who received learning support in high school usually require tutoring three times per week until they get their “sea legs.” For each college credit, students have two to three hours of work outside of class. Unlike high school, college assignments require interpretation and inference. Working with a Learning Specialist improves these skills and gradually prepares students for independence. After several semesters, students may need tutoring less frequently.

16.) Head to the library between and after classes. Use this time to read over notes you just took. Reviewing notes within 24 hours helps material become embedded in your long-term memory. Even if you have your own room at home, there are more temptations than at the library, where you can get a carrel or a private study room to stay focused.

17.) Research shows that effective studying is done in short, frequent sessions. Ideally, you should study for as long as your attention span allows, even if it is just 20 minutes. Follow that with a short five-minute break and return to work.

18.) Study using flash cards. Flashcards worked in third grade, and they still work. They are effective because they show you what needs further review, and they can be carried with you at all times. Use short down periods to review them. If your handwriting is poor, you can make flashcards online at www.headmagnet.com or www.flashcardexchange.com and even download them to your smart phone.

19.) Make use of the coordinating website that most textbook publishers now offer. These sites contain interactive activities and practice tests that provide feedback on how well you know the material. Also, some books come with CD-ROMs containing interactive exercises.

20.) The last step in the study process should be a practice test—it is a “dress rehearsal” for the real thing.

Managing Your GPA

21.) Get help at the first sign of confusion. Problems don’t resolve themselves. With fewer tests in college, each one carries more weight. Either make an appointment with your instructor for clarification during office hours or see your Learning Specialist. Evidence shows that students who have even one close faculty contact improve their chances for success.

22.) In class, sit near the most successful students who can help clarify things. Take their phone numbers. Why would a successful student want to take time for you? First of all, she will be flattered by your request. Secondly, helping you reinforces the information for your classmate, so it’s a win-win situation.

23.) If you do poorly on a test or quiz, determine why. If you do not find the source of your errors, you are destined to repeat them. Did you study the wrong material? Did you not study long enough to really learn the material? Did you misunderstand the directions? Did you cram? Were your notes incomplete?

24.) At any time during a semester, you should know where you stand grade-wise. If you are unsure, ask your professors privately. You can also ask for suggestions on improving your grades. If you have done everything possible (i.e., getting help from your instructor, Learning Specialist, classmates, etc.) but are not in a position to pass a course, it is better to withdraw than take a “D” or an “F.”

A “W” (withdraw) will not affect your GPA and has no stigma (unless it is done repeatedly). NOTE: Students on financial aid must be careful regarding withdrawals—check with the financial aid office before taking action.

25.) Socializing should be reserved for nights when you don’t have school the following day. Going out on a school night is incompatible with school success for most students. Even if you are back early, you are wired, which is not the same as spending a quiet evening in your room.

26.) Keep employment to a minimum. Students with learning differences need to allot more time to studying. Often, organizational issues accompany a disability. Work is a distraction to students who have trouble switching gears. College presents enough challenges without the added responsibilities of a job.

Work, if it is a necessity, should be restricted to no more than fifteen hours per week. A preferable solution is to earn money during lengthy winter and summer breaks.

The Big Picture

27.) Speed should not be an objective in completing your degree. For students with learning differences, quality and speed are mutually exclusive; those who race through college usually finish at the expense of their GPA.

28.) Do not worry about choosing a major for your first 48 credits. Use that time to sample classes in various disciplines. You may want to take an online career inventory that demonstrates how your abilities and interests align.

29.) When you choose a major, base it on something you love and do well. Believe it or not, hobbies can easily translate into careers—even video games and shopping. If you need guidance, go to the counseling center and ask them to administer an interest and/or personality inventory, such as Strong or Meyers-Briggs. This can be helpful in finding your direction.

30.) Ring out the old, ring in the new! Forget your habits of the past. No one knows you—wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Above all, get serious: this is the official start of your adult life.

Should You Disclose Your LD Status?

In college, unlike in high school, students can rest assured that their disability will remain confidential. Everyone attends the same classes; none of your peers will know of your disability unless you decide to tell them.

What are the benefits of disclosure? It allows you to receive accommodations (i.e., extra time, a distraction-free test environment, assistive technology, etc.) and services, such as specialized tutoring that level the playing field, boost your confidence, and, hopefully, start you off with a strong GPA. In addition, students who disclose receive protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, unlike those who do not.

Those who try things on their own first, without disclosing, often do poorly because they lack knowledge of college protocols and navigational strategies. By the time they ask for help, it is often too late. This results in poor first semester grades. Not only is this discouraging, but it can take many semesters to raise low GPAs.


Joan M. Azarva runs Conquer College with LD, a website for parents of college-bound students with learning differences. She also has a private practice in the Philadelphia suburbs that focuses on helping students make the successful transition from high school to college.

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