Creating a Successful Learning Environment for Postsecondary Students with Learning Disabilities: Policy and Practice

Article excerpt

As postsecondary enrollment increases and diversifies, colleges and universities are focusing attention on providing accessible, responsive and diverse opportunities for lifelong learning. However, creating an accessible and responsive environment for all students, and especially those students with learning disabilities, isn't as simple as it may first appear. Ultimately, it is a reflective process that requires instructors to question their pedagogical approach and beliefs by asking themselves: "Does my current pedagogical approach meet the learning needs of the students in my classroom? How can I effectively create a responsive and diverse lifelong learning environment for all students, and especially those with learning disabilities, in my classroom?" One answer to these questions is to use learning strategies in conjunction with student-centered instruction to encourage and enable students with learning disabilities, and indeed, all students, to become successful lifelong learners. The aim of this article, then, is to explore policies and practices that support the creation of a successful learning environment for postsecondary students with learning disabilities. I will: (1) define learning disabilities in general and explore the prevalence of learning disabled students in postsecondary institutions; (2) outline the learning challenges that learning disabled students face and discuss the legal mandate for accommodating students with learning disabilities; (3) outline the pedagogical rationale for using learning strategies and student-centered instruction; and finally, (4) explore the use of learning strategies and student-centered instruction as effective postsecondary instructional techniques for all learners.

Defining Learning Disabilities

The quest for a definitive definition of learning disabilities is an ongoing one and the current definition has evolved over time. Both the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and the American National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities have adopted parallel, comprehensive definitions of learning disabilities. In short, these definitions of learning disabilities tell educators that people with learning disabilities are intellectually capable individuals who have varying degrees of difficulty within a range of academic areas, such as listening, speaking, reasoning, reading, writing, and mathematical skills, as a result of impairments affecting one or more processes related to learning; these individuals may also experience difficulty with organizational skills, social perception, social interaction, and perspective taking (Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, 2002; National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1990). Especially significant for postsecondary educators is the fact that learning disabilities are a "persisting problem, a lifelong condition that evolves throughout the developmental continuum" (Gerber, 1998, p.1). Children with learning disabilities become adults with learning disabilities, adults who continue to have varying degrees of difficulty in receiving and/or expressing information (Sills, 1995) and likewise, continue to display weaknesses in reading, writing, and math (Hock, Deshler, & Schumaker, 1993) throughout their postsecondary academic careers. The Prevalence of Learning Disabled Students in Postsecondary Institutions

People with learning disabilities represent the largest segment of the disability population and the number of postsecondary students with learning disabilities is on the rise (Kerka, 2000; Vogel, 1998). Estimates of the numbers of people affected by learning disabilities range from 5-20% of the population (Kerka, 2000), and Lauffer (2000) reports that in 1994, "students with learning disabilities accounted for 32 percent of postsecondary students with disabilities" (p. 41). Gerber and Reiff (1994) also remind educators that the numbers of adults with learning disabilities may even be greater due to the "unresolved question yet persistent belief that one half" of all adults with low literacy skills in fact have learning disabilities (as cited in Kerka, 2000, p. …