Guest Blog Post by: Kathy Hansen, B.Sc., M.Ed.
September has come and gone and we are starting to feel the rhythm of school days again. It takes a month or so every year for my family to get into the routines—routines that help us feel more organized, calmer and even safer. Every year the transition back to school comes with its ups and downs, but some transitions are bigger than others. The transition to college is one I am most familiar with. Every year first year college students venture into a new chapter of their lives. For students with learning disabilities (and their parents), the transition to college can be even more significant than it is for their peers without LD. (See the previous post Smooth Moves)
I want to share some experiences and thoughts, based on my research, about community college faculty, students with learning disabilities, and best practices for success. Students with learning disabilities make up a larger portion of post-secondary students than ever before – in both Canadian and US universities and community colleges. In Ontario, a growing number of young adults with LD are attending university, but an even greater portion is attending community college. Over 8000 students with learning disabilities attended Ontario’s 24 community colleges in 2009-2010 and the number continues to grow. Community colleges pride themselves on being accessible, hands-on learning institutions with teachers and professors that provide student-centred learning environments. Student Services Office personnel provide support for students with learning and other disabilities when it comes to transitioning to college, accessing accommodations, and ongoing counseling support. One major difference between high school and post-secondary education is that students must seek out support, disclose their disability, and advocate for themselves. For many students, the process begins in high school with a supported transition; high school teachers, parents, the student and the post-secondary support team work together to facilitate the transition.
My research has focused on community college faculty attitudes toward and their preparedness for teaching students with learning disabilities. Faculty attitudes and practices contribute to the success or failure of students with learning disabilities in postsecondary settings. In my research, I developed a valid and reliable instrument called the Faculty Preparedness Questionnaire to measure preparedness for teaching students with LD. Preparedness was defined as knowledge plus attitude. The questionnaire addressed themes such as knowledge of disability legislation, knowledge about LD and use of resources, attitudes towards students with LD, and their potential for success at the college level. By asking community college teachers about their knowledge, attitude and practices, I wanted to understand more about their perceptions of their preparedness for teaching the growing number of students with LD in community college. I found that community college faculty had generally positive attitudes towards, and self-rated knowledge about learning disabilities. However, despite their positive attitudes, college instructors expressed many myths and misconceptions about LD. The biggest gaps were in the understanding of the definition of learning disabilities and in best practices for supporting student needs. Instructors lacked knowledge about what a learning disability is and what it is not (i.e. It is not due to poor teaching, low IQ or cultural differences). Instructors were more knowledgeable about the legal requirement of providing the recommended accommodations, but not about what they could do in the classroom to help students with LD to be more successful. Instructors also expressed concern about students with LD being able to perform work in the real job market.
Therefore the task remains—to improve knowledge about LD— understanding the definition, the learning needs of students, and how individuals with LD can succeed in college level learning and in employment situations. If you are a student with LD attending post-secondary school (or know someone that is), self-advocacy can be a major factor for success. Don’t assume your instructors or professors know about your learning disability. As there are different types, and accommodations and learning needs are different, you can play a big role in informing your teachers about LD. Meet your instructors in person during their office hours and share information about your strengths and learning needs, and your motivation for success in your chosen academic and career paths. Ask them if they would like more information and send them some information about LD, or share a link such as LDAO. Don’t be afraid to use your accommodations. Remember that receiving accommodations is your right and do not give you and unfair advantage, but rather level the playing field. Sometimes students with LD attempt post-secondary education without accommodations, but so often this does not work out and the student ends up not doing well in the courses. Better to use your accommodations, discuss with your instructors and follow-up when you get your tests or assignments back. Share your successes so that more people come to understand that a learning disability does not limit an individual.
Accessible education depends on educators having the knowledge and attitudes needed to reduce barriers and provide an inclusive learning environment. The good news is that college educators in my research indicated positive attitudes toward students with LD; however, knowledge is an equally important contributor to understanding best practices for teaching students with LD. If you have other ideas on how to disseminate information about LD and the successes of post-secondary students in their academic studies and careers please share them on this blog!
Hansen, K. (2013) College instructors’ preparedness to teach students with learning disabilities. University of Western Ontario – Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/1244/
Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (SSC SAST; 2011). Opening the door: Reducing Barriers to post-secondary education in Canada, http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/411/soci/rep/rep06dec11-e.pdf
Kathy Hansen, B.Sc., M.Ed.
Professor, Educational Support Program
St. Clair College of Applied Arts & Technology