Understanding and Assisting Students with Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities Program
Center for Accessible Education
A255 Murphy Hall
794-5732; 825-1501


What is a learning disability?

A learning disability affects the manner in which individuals take in information, organize it, retain it and express the knowledge and understanding which they possess. Although adults with learning disabilities have average to superior intelligence, they may have serious deficits in reading comprehension, spelling, mechanics of writing, math computation and/or problem solving. Notable individuals such as Woodrow Wilson, Albert Einstein, Nelson Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and Hans Christian Anderson were able to make significant contributions despite their learning disability. The major underlying disorders in basic psychological processes include difficulties in perceiving information, retaining what is heard or seen and in expressing what one knows either through oral or written language.

College students with learning disabilities may exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Long term difficulty in reading, writing, spelling, foreign language, grammatical usage and/or using numerical concepts in contrast with average or superior skills in other areas.
  • Distractibility by background noise or visual stimulation; has difficulty concentrating.
  • Difficulty recalling common words; uses hands a lot and calls things: "What-cha-ma-cal- it" or "Thing-a-ma-jig".
  • Takes twice or three times longer to read than other people. Has to go back two or three times to understand what was read.
  • Severe inability to spell or to recall irregularly spelled words.
  • Difficulty with quantitave concepts including calculation, time and space.
  • Difficulty taking notes and listening to a lecture at the same time.
  • Slowed processing of information: needs "think time" to respond to questions, to retrieve information or to solve problems.
  • Poor organizational skills, including organizing thoughts on a page and time managing skills.

What are some methods for providing assistance to students with learning disabilities?

  1. Compensatory strategies: Working around the areas of deficit and using strengths to acquire knowledge (i.e. taped textbooks for students with reading disorders, or use of visualization or color coding to reinforce learning for students with auditory processing deficits).
  1. Learning Strategies - Teaching how to learn, developing strategies for time management skills, writing essays, test-taking skills, and reading strategies
  1. Tutorial - Providing instruction in specific content areas.

Tutors for students with learning disabilities should:

  1. Understand the special needs of college students with learning disabilities.
  1. Provide success experience so students are not discouraged.
  1. Help students understand the requirements and objectives of the courses in which they are enrolled.
  1. Prepare structured lessons with each unit divided into small parts.
  1. Relate tutoring to student's real-life experiences.
  1. Help students understand and recall subject matter material.
  1. Help students develop ways to commit facts and information.
  1. Help students establish study goals and specific objectives.
  1. Help students prioritize and schedule their assignments.
  1. Facilitate a positive rapport. The relationship between tutor and the student is critical.

What are some strategies that tutors can use during tutorial sessions?

  1. Provide structured, consistent sessions that include:
    1. Review of previous lesson.
    2. Overview of material to be presented.
    3. Summary at close of the session.
    4. Emphasis of important points, main ideas and key concepts.
    5. Timelines for completing each assignment and segments of assignment.
    6. Clearly defined expectations and student's responsibilities.
  1. Provide feedback and monitoring (Did you understand that concept, shall I explain further?) Maintain eye contact and practice active listening skills to give feedback.
  1. Ensure that printed materials and chalkboard writing are visually clear and well sized.
  1. Present material auditorily as well as visually.
  1. Review information provided by the professor during the last class session. Clarify any concepts and define any word the student does not know. Keep explanations concrete and relate them to student's life experiences whenever possible.
  1. Review assignments given by the professor during the last class session; be sure student understands assignments, knows how to do it, and knows due date.
  1. Check assignments the student is about to turn in to course professors. Examine them to be sure they are consistent with the assignment given by the professor. Check for clarity, organization, spelling and grammatical errors, and general legibility and neatness.
  1. Assist the student to develop a plan for continued self-study, this is necessary if the student is to develop independence; otherwise student may study only in the presence of the tutor.
  1. Arrange for on-going exchange of information with professor regarding progress and needs. Contact between professor and tutor is critical to success. Request a course syllabus and appropriate handouts. Ask professor to indicate those topics for which tutoring would be most helpful for that student.
  1. Present course content in small, sequential steps.
  1. Present material from concept to details- from the whole to the parts (Students with learning disabilities have strong conceptual skills).
  1. Provide opportunities for participation, questions, and discussion to monitor understanding of new concepts and assignments.
  1. Students may misinterpret the requirements or the major themes of the assigned reading; study questions may need to be formed; it is important never to assume anything, but to question the student first.
  1. In some instances, guided reading through the assignment may be necessary (i.e. significant reading difficulty) emphasizing major points and themes. Provide a list of technical vocabulary.
  1. Get to know the student as a person, ask them what has been helpful in the past; what is their best learning style.
  1. Work with the LD specialist to develop strategies specific to that students preferred learning style. (i.e. may need enlarged printed materials; may need to reiterate content; may be able to memorize only through mnemonic strategies, visualization or verbalization).

Why one-to-one tutoring?

In some instances students with learning disabilities may require an individual tutorial setting. Students with Learning Disabilities:

  1. May have attention disorder - difficulty maintaining attention and concentration - become lost in group, discussion addresses other group issues)
  1. Have specific learning styles which may not be addressed in group format (i.e. kinesthetic may need to write things down in order to remember them; or mnemonics)
  1. Have deficits in specific areas, listening skills, reading or writing skills, perceptual problems that cannot be addressed within the framework of a group setting.


Students who return to college after experiencing a traumatic injury may experience some residual effects of the injury in cognitive and communicative areas. Head injuries may impact ability to acquire new information, ability to focus on a task, speed of processing information, language functions, and spatial and abstract reasoning.

Tutors can help students with acquired brain injury by assisting them to develop strategies to retrieve and organize information. They may need to adjust the speed of presentation and quantity of new information, and to provide concrete examples to facilitate understanding.


Students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) have long term difficulty attending and concentrating on learning related activities, including reading, listening, writing and problem solving. Symptoms include significant problems attending to details, difficulty sustaining attention in lectures and/or reading assignments, engaging in tasks that require sustained mental effort, and in filtering out extraneous stimuli.

Students with ADD can be assisted in a tutorial setting with well organized sessions in distraction-free areas. Information may need to be divided into smaller units. Students with ADD may require assistance organizing their assignments and managing their study time.

To address the student's specialized needs or for additional information, contact Julie Morris, Ph. D., Learning Disabilities Program Coordinator, A-255 Murphy, 794-5732.

Handbook for Tutors 07/01/2016