Social connections critical to success for students with learning disabilities: study

U of A education researcher offers advice on how post-secondary schools and students can foster a sense of belonging and improve learning.


Starting university can feel overwhelming for students with learning disabilities, but finding social connections and mentors can help them feel like they belong and can succeed. (Photo: Getty Images)

For any first-year student, university classes can seem scary. Add in a learning disability and it's easy to be overwhelmed: just ask Lauren Goegan.

Now a post-doctoral researcher in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Education, she vividly recalls one of the first lectures she attended as a new undergraduate with dyslexia.

Strategies for students with learning disabilities

Colour-code your notes: This can help in learning new information or remembering details. Use different colours for different information (e.g., blue for important people, green for important terms).

Make a friend: Having a friend in class is important for a sense of belonging and for learning. Create a study group with others, share useful study strategies or bounce ideas off of one another for a new assignment.

Make a schedule: This can help to not lose track of something important. A schedule for the week can be valuable for lectures, assignments and studying. A schedule for the whole term can also be valuable to support planning well in advance.

Break down the task: Larger assignments or studying can take many steps. Break down the pieces involved so it's not overwhelming. Studying or working in chunks of time can help focus on particular, more manageable pieces of information.

Use technology: Assistive learning technology apps, often available free or at low cost, can support learning needs such as reading, writing, time management, studying and referencing. Goegan uses a program that reads textbooks or articles to her, with the option to speed up or slow down the text. Disability resource centres may also offer recommendations.

The class was delivered through images-no words, no notes-the instructor was talking a mile a minute, and she wrote frantically, trying to keep up. For someone with difficulties processing language, it was discouraging.

"I remember coming out of class and thinking, 'I don't know what I wrote,'" said Goegan, who recently published a study exploring the connection between student characteristics, academic and social integration, and various outcomes such as satisfaction levels for students with learning disabilities (LD).

Affecting everything from retaining class lessons to finding the way around campus, learning disabilities ramp up the already stressful experience of starting a post-secondary education.

"Navigating a new environment adds an extra layer of stress, anxiety, even fear because a lot of students with LD don't want to disclose that, so it can be more difficult to make friends in post-secondary than in the school system where the kids knew you."

Her research, published in Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, showed that while students with LD come into post-secondary education with the same hopes as any other student-making friends, learning new things and earning their degrees-social connection is especially critical to their success on campus.

"That sense of belonging is really important to outcomes like satisfaction or learning important skills," Goegan said, noting that research shows students with LD have a post-secondary completion rate of 41 per cent compared with 52 per cent for their peers.

"If you feel like you belong at university, you'll feel more satisfied with the experience. So social integration is an important way to support them."

There are several ways to support students with LD, she suggested.

Post-secondary and other school systems can focus awareness on the issue through class and club presentations during annual events such as Learning Disabilities Awareness Month and the Mark it Read for Dyslexia campaign in October.

In turn, students with LD can help first-years by volunteering for support groups or mentoring programs. "It creates a sense of not being alone, and they can work out strategies together to have that social and academic space to support one another."

Instructors can offer extra time to complete exams, avoid booking back-to-back midterms on the same day to avoid cognitive overload, and have Powerpoint presentations, open office hours and a few minutes before or after class available to answer questions for students with LD.

Most schools, like the U of A's Academic Success Centre, also offer accessibility resources.

Ultimately, it's important to help students with LD have a positive post-secondary experience, said Goegan, who plans to extend her research to the barriers they experienced during their transition to higher education, the skills they developed and how they define success for themselves.

She hopes to use her work to help develop orientation and mentorship programs that give students with LD a better chance of succeeding in their post-secondary careers.

"I hope that when they first come to campus feeling anxious, they come out of it feeling good because of supports put in place by everyone. We want them to feel like they grew, and it's not just about the grade at the end of the day. We want them to think back fondly on the post-secondary experience they had."

Goegan is a member of the Alberta Consortium for Motivation and Emotion, and her work is supported by the Killam Trust Scholarships and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.