Higher Education and Cognitive Disability: Adaptive Strategies
Macdonald, Karen Crane, Academic Exchange Quarterly
Graduate level studies have academic demands which are multiple and varied. A student with a cognitive disability may be especially challenged due to the abstract and theoretical subjects inherent to higher education. Material presented includes a description of student needs, possible approaches for faculty, and adaptive strategies (task analysis, pre-arrangement, planned performance and appraisal). Through carefully applied planning, discipline, and use of resources, a graduate student with a cognitive disability may successfully complete a master's degree or doctorate.
Graduate level studies are by definition complex, abstract, and highly theoretical. Can a student with a cognitive disability realistically pursue a master's degree or doctorate? This commentary will support the belief that through adaptive strategies and faculty support, advanced academic work is possible. Topics include description of student needs and specific techniques for instructors to utilize or recommend. The perspective reflects the author's personal experiences with completion of a doctorate after sustaining a head injury in a motor vehicle accident.
Awareness of Student Needs
A graduate student may have been challenged by a learning disability throughout schooling, or may have recently been evaluated and diagnosed. If a cognitive disability is more recent in determination or occurrence, the student would require much more intervention with introduction to varied compensatory techniques. When experiencing a non-apparent or "invisible" disability, self-disclosure to faculty is important. The student may describe holistic issues in addition to cognitive challenges, which affect performance, including sensori-motor symptoms (visual or auditory, mobility), or psycho-social (isolation, depression, communication). Focusing on cognitive issues, the executive functions required in scholarly tasks are especially challenged. These skills include: memory, judgment, planning, problem solving, concentration, decision-making and attention to simultaneous demands. (Wilson, 2001; Edgar, 1978). Considering the many activities of a student such as attending class, listening, taking notes, lab participation, writing, study and research, these are significant difficulties. Limitations in those skills areas may affect the student's abilities for attending class, listening, note taking, lab participation, writing, study and research. Special help is likely to be needed to accomplish the activities of learning, independent study, and research. It is important for the student to establish working relationships with professors which will promote the design and use of creative adaptive strategies.
Approaches by Faculty
With larger classrooms and demanding schedules, professors may wonder how it would be possible to address the specialized learning needs of each individual student. Time for advisement and additional review is limited. Suggestions, which follow, are intended as possibilities for faculty to use when approached by a student who has identified his or her special needs. Suggestions are offered not with the intention of substituting for Special Education type needs. The ideas may be especially helpful to full or part time faculty who do not have training or experience in providing for special needs. The graduate student is expected to take initiative for arranging meetings and to be responsible for implementation of plans. In the course of a semester, the professor might initially meet with the student to review needs, establish a plan (perhaps short bimonthly meetings to determine progress and revised strategies) and finally assess achievement. They may jointly define specific problem areas, goals, and approaches. The faculty member's role is to promote autonomy by facilitating problem solving and to recommend techniques which increase structure and adapted ability.
The strategies described occur within a four-step process, including task analysis, pre-arrangement, planned performance and appraisal. …