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10/15/2015

Adapting Learning Strategies to Meet Individualized Needs       


If you haven’t seen the video circulating Facebook about pop culture icon, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s, response to a little girl’s question about dyslexia, it’s definitely a worth a watch. It also raises a very important conversation for students, parents, teachers, and even employers everywhere.     

For some students, it can feel like keeping up in the classroom is already a struggle. Learning new concepts, especially at the pace now being expected by the current curriculum, can be tough enough for students today. But for those who have to contend with learning differences, as well, gaining new skills and keeping on pace can feel like an uphill battle. However, trying some of these tips might help make facing those hurdles a little less daunting.

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1 Changing the Perspective 

Tyson mentions common learning differences such as dyslexia, autism spectrum, and ADD/ADHD, among his coworkers in the scientific community-- those who are often viewed in the public opinion, as “rocket scientists.” However, in academia, children with these differences are often regarded as less capable of learning, and sometimes disregarded as too challenging to teach. This contradiction proves his point that these individuals “can still have a high functioning job and be productive in this world” when they have armed themselves with coping strategies. He explains that, “they learn what condition they have and compensate for it…they allocate more time” to strengthen the areas they are weaker in.   

So, the first thing a student needs to cope with a learning difference, is to believe, and be surrounded by others who never limit their potential, and never minimize what they have to offer. Instead, they reinforce the idea that learning differences aren’t permanent roadblocks in school, or in the workforce. That while they may slow progress, or make learning new skills and concepts more challenging, they do not make anyone any less able or any less valuable. In his response, Tyson encourages this girl, and all people, by showing us that a learning differences are just one more hurdle, not a permanent restriction: “in the Olympics what do you do when you get up to a hurdle? You jump over it.”   

2 Finding a Pace that Works

This first way to develop these coping strategies, is to develop learning skills that center on adapting traditional methods into individualized styles that work best for that particular student. 

The first step in finding and developing these methods, is to take an honest assessment of the student’s pace. The image at right seems to capture the most important aspect in dealing with any challenge in life, but holds especially true for students learning to cope with a learning difficulty.   

School curricula seem to be moving faster than ever these days, and it’s hard enough for students, teachers, and parents to keep up with them. But this struggle can be exacerbated for those with pre-existing learning challenges. To reduce the added burden this situation presents, try to determine about how much longer your student may need for a given task.   

For instance: If a student with dyslexia takes twice as long to read a chapter, then begin the assignment twice as early, and leave time for re-reading. If concentration lapses cause assignments to take longer, then start them early and plan for breaks in the work: do half the work on two days each, rather than trying to finish it all in one sitting. As Tyson notes, you’re likely to find that your student may need to work ahead of his/her class, in order to allow for the extra time s/he may need to complete challenging tasks on time. In preparing for this inevitability, the student can feeling better about not getting behind, and be turning in the kind of work they know they are capable of.   

TIP: Get the course calendars for each class, and talk with your teachers about ways to get some work early, or even extended deadlines, to allow your student to submit quality level they want to, but may not be able to do under time constraints and competing responsibilities.   

It bears repeating that finding and developing these student-centric learning methods will not be a quick process: it will take time to explore and experiment with different strategies, and to improve upon them as you go, tweaking for different instructors, subjects, and requirements, as needed. Moreover, the strategies themselves, may also need adapting eventually-- as students’ age and content material changes over time, the way they learn is likely to change too. However, once these foundational skills are developed -- once the student learns how to evaluate his or her own learning -- they will be armed with the skills they need to make those changes on their own as they move into higher education and the workforce.   

3 Using Multi-modal Strategies

Finally, something that can benefit all students, and which would be an improvement to any educational program, is the ability for students to both receive information in a variety of learning modalities, and to be able to express their understanding in a variety of ways.   

The concept of the specific “learning styles,” e.g. “visual, auditory, and kinesthetic,” made its way from the educational psychology journals into the public mind some time ago, but recent studies now suggest that trying to cater to one of these modalities does more harm than good over the long run, and is at best ineffective. Now, it is understood that all students learn best when they are taught using multi-modal learning styles-- those which expose students to the same information using a balanced combination of as many sensory-based inputs as possible, expanding on visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, to include music, art, and even technology, as additional inroads for understanding.   

Likewise, it’s suggested that we allow all students, but particularly those with learning differences to express their understanding of a concept also using these multi-modal avenues. Many of us have witnessed, or experienced ourselves, a time when we recognized our own understanding of a concept or skill, but felt unable to thoroughly demonstrate that knowledge using a cookie-cutter means of output. “Read this book. Write a 5-paragraph essay comparing two characters.” Or, “Watch this example math problem. Now do the next 10 on your own.” I think few would disagree, that these are hardly the most conducive ways to assess individual understanding.   

Instead teachers and parents can work with students to adapt or create their own ways to demonstrate understanding. Like most students, those with learning differences, can be highly creative and attentive to detail-- support and foster these abilities by allowing students to design their own projects to meet the requirements, or work with teachers to adapt existing projects when reasonable, to allow students to use their differences to enhance and support their abilities, and to encourage and build confidence in themselves.   

Follow our blogs to continue enhancing your academic experiences, and feel free to join in on the discussion on Facebook!       

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