Students with Learning Disabilities

An individual who has difficulty processing written or spoken information such that it interferes with his or her ability to read, write, spell, listen, talk, or do math may be diagnosed with a specific learning disability. Like all students, each student with a learning disability has a distinct combination of abilities and deficiencies and therefore a unique profile. Some areas of functioning will be in an average or above average (even gifted) range, while deficiencies will vary from minimal to severe. It is important to note that students with specific learning disabilities will display some, but not all, of the characteristics of that disability. In addition, the student’s ability to compensate for information processing difficulties will vary across time and with differing levels of stress.

Characteristics of Common Learning Disabilities


For college students with dyslexia or other print related learning disabilities, reading is not automatic and fluid particularly when under time pressures. Difficulties are liable to be linked to slow reading rates and misreading what is written due to transposing of letters and skipping words altogether. Because of slow reading rates, it may take students with reading related disabilities longer than their colleagues to read books and articles, to locate a word in a dictionary, to find a passage that is part of a play and other writing, or to find their place in a scientific or mathematical table. With certain subject areas, these students may have more problems comprehending what is written in their texts, on the blackboard, in a test, or even in their own notes. Retaining the information that is read is therefore more difficult. A student with reading related learning disabilities may be especially concerned when he or she has large volumes of printed material to read or is under pressure to complete an examination. Some students with reading disabilities may find improvement in both reading speed and comprehension if their texts are changed into an alternative format (i.e. electronic format). This reformatting can allow students who qualify for the service to take information in through two channels or senses (visual reading and auditory processing). A student with reading disabilities may wish to contact a staff member at the Office of Disability Services (ODS) to determine whether or not they qualify for and could benefit from this service.


Some college students with learning disabilities have problems communicating effectively through writing. Whether these difficulties are related to dyslexia or to the physical act of printing or writing (dysgraphia), the outcome is likely to manifest itself in written work that appears careless. Although it is appropriate not to lower academic standards, it can be helpful to understand that students with documented written language disabilities usually put equal or greater effort into their writing than do students who do not have disabilities. It may also help to know the types of errors you may encounter as you work with students who have written language disabilities. Sentences are sometimes incomplete with essential words and phrases missing. The organization of the paper can be choppy, jumping from one idea to the next and back again. Vocabulary used may be less sophisticated than expected for college level work. The student may have difficulty monitoring his or her writing for errors in spelling, grammar, word order and word endings, subject-verb agreement, punctuation, and paragraph formation. Handwriting can be poorly formed or illegible with letters and words being unevenly spaced on the page. Students with writing disabilities sometimes use a mixture of printed and cursive writing and upper and lower case letters in the same document.

Some of the difficulties students with written language disabilities have may be mitigated by the use of a computer or word processor with spell check, grammar check, and cut and paste capabilities for in-class essays and essay exams.


To be successful in understanding math concepts and in knowing when and how to apply them, the student must have strong language, memory, sequencing, and problem-solving skills. As the student approaches more complicated and abstract college level work, he or she also needs to be able to visualize the positioning of objects that are described and the spatial relationships between them, even when conceptually objects must be turned or moved. Students who have disabilities in math reasoning and calculation (dyscalculia) may make errors that seem to be "dumb mistakes," e.g., reversing numbers, miscopying and/or misaligning columns of figures, and making errors when changing operational signs and performing other conversions. Some students with learning disabilities in mathematics have difficulty remembering and working through the sequence of steps required to solve a problem (so that steps may be repeated, performed out of order, or forgotten altogether). These students may also have problems figuring out calculations mentally, estimating what answers would be, and/or organizing a problem, especially when it is a word-problem or when the student must first remember and perform calculations to obtain missing data. A student’s confidence in his or her ability to be successful at mathematics adds another dimension to learning disabilities. Because mathematics is a cumulative subject with new concepts building on previously acquired information, some students, who have memory difficulties or who never completely mastered specific math concepts, may experience frustration and mounting anxieties. Teaching math also requires that a great deal of information be presented in a short period of time. Students with learning disabilities in mathematics may feel overwhelmed by the pace at which math is taught or feel they understand what is being taught, only to realize they cannot generalize math concepts to homework assignments or test questions. Thus, math anxieties may cause a student to freeze during testing. Students with math disabilities and anxieties usually benefit from regular and frequent work with a tutor and clarification from the instructor, as needed. In addition, a recommendation may be made by ODS that the student be allowed to use extended time, a quiet room, and scrap paper for exams/tests/quizzes.

Foreign Language

Students who have disabilities that relate to distinguishing, processing, remembering, and expressing sounds and words may find learning a foreign language problematic. To successfully master a second language a student must be able to: hear and cognitively differentiate between the sound structure of words, comprehend and remember the meanings of words and differing meanings when words are combined, understand rules related to sentence structure and grammar, retrieve information easily, and mentally manipulate it to successfully communicate verbally or in writing. Students who have disabilities that affect learning a foreign language may benefit when instruction is multi-sensory, when students are given sufficient oral practice, and when pressures of timed responses (oral and written) are removed. Some students you work with may experience extreme and persistent difficulties/failures in learning a foreign language, despite the student’s conscientious effort. In such cases, you may refer the student to the ODS to discuss the possibility of petitioning to receive a foreign language substitution. Should the petitioning process be pursued, the student may ask his or her foreign language faculty person to write a letter stating the specific difficulties he or she has experienced.

Oral Language

Some students are eloquent writers yet have extreme difficulty in formulating an immediate verbal response to a question. They may appear socially inept as they are unable to gather and express their ideas amidst the fast pace of active dialogue. During oral presentations, their thoughts may come out jumbled and chaotic and they may use many filler words, e.g., uh, er, um, as they struggle to express themselves. Reading aloud in class and taking oral quizzes and tests can be stressful and embarrassing. If oral expression is not a fundamental requirement of the course being taught, you may allow a student to complete an oral assignment using a different format. Some students with disabilities related to oral expression may benefit from video taping their presentation for viewing or delivering their presentation to the instructor privately. Students who have a disability related to taking in oral information may have difficulty listening and taking notes at the same time. The problem may relate to difficulties in differentiating relevant from irrelevant details so that the student frantically tries to write down everything being said. Similarly, students with dysgraphia, who extend more than the normal focus and energy in actually writing words they are hearing, may fall behind in taking notes and miss examples and nuances of a lecture that aid other students in understanding and memory. Allowing students with disabilities to tape lectures often alleviates this problem. Many of the adaptive techniques that assist deaf students will also help these students - notetakers, films, role-playing, captioned videotapes, and other visual materials. Students with oral receptive language disabilities will also benefit if instructions and assignments are given both orally and in written form.

Sequential Memory

Other students you may work with will have learning disabilities that affect sequential memory tasks such as spelling, mathematics, and following step-by-step instructions. Students with this area of disability benefit by learning how to break down tasks into smaller parts and by gaining clarity on how the authors of their texts and their instructors organize material for learning. Giving more opportunities for evaluation and relatively frequent quizzes, tests, writing assignments can help all students learn how to successfully organize their study, how much memorization of detail is needed, and how to transfer their learning from facts to application. Tutoring may be required in subject areas that are more problematic for a student. In general, the student with learning disabilities and all students benefit when a multi-modal approach to teaching and learning is used (seeing, hearing, saying and doing).

Organization and Attention

Success in college requires a reasonably sophisticated development of skills related to organization, focus or attention, and study. Students who have a disability due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and certain learning disabilities may seem vulnerable or lacking in these skill areas. For instance, you may see from a student’s participation in class discussions that he or she has completed the necessary reading and has a good grasp of course material. Yet the same student may misplace papers to be turned in or postpone starting projects so that the final product is rushed and less thorough than you would expect. The delayed start of papers and projects may relate to poor estimation of how long it will take to complete the task. A student may appear to have reasonable organization and study skills but have difficulty understanding how much detail to focus on during lectures or while reading, writing, and preparing for tests. Some students also have problems screening out sights and sounds in the classroom to maintain focus on class lecture. These difficulties can increase during longer lecture classes and peak stress times, such as during midterms and finals. It is important to note that for these problem areas to be termed as disabling they must meet criteria that go beyond mere developmental immaturity.

Students who have learning disabilities that affect organization and attention often have difficulty completing open-ended, unstructured, and last minute assignments. Therefore, they, like all students, can benefit from receiving a detailed syllabus that clearly states reading to be completed for each class period and gives due dates and clear descriptions for course papers and projects. Providing students with an outline of material to be covered for each class also helps them learn how to organize their listening, note taking, and studying. Some instructors make such outlines available at the beginning of each class, printed in a course pack, or available for downloading from the web so that students may spend more class time and attention understanding concepts and noting examples to aid memory.

Individual Differences

Keep in mind that no two students with learning disabilities are alike. Learning strategies and accommodations that work for one student may not work for another. Likewise, what works in one subject area or class format may not work in another. In general, students with learning disabilities will learn much better when more channels are used in the teaching/learning process - oral, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic. (See the "Recommendations" section at the end of this handbook.)

Conferences with Students

It is important to meet individually with each student who has learning disabilities once they identify themselves. Encourage students to do so at the beginning of the term (See #1 in the "Recommendations" section at the end of this publication and "Verification of Disability" in the Services section that follows.) If you are working with a student who seems to be struggling in your class but has not indicated that he or she has a learning disability, you may wish to refer the student to ODS. (See "Making a Referral to the Office of Disability Services (ODS) in the beginning portion of this handbook.)

Services for Students with Learning Disabilities

Verification of Disability

As needed, the professor is entitled to confirmation of the student’s disability from a qualified source such as ODS. At the student’s or professor’s request (with a release from the student), ODS will provide the student with a Letter of Accommodation verifying his or her disability and detailing options for accommodations needed in class and/or in testing situations. The student may then share this letter with the professor during office hours and discuss how accommodations will be implemented.

Testing Accommodations

Faculty members routinely allow extra time for exams, often in a quiet room with no other distractions, to provide students with learning disabilities an adequate opportunity to show what they have learned. At times, alternative test formats are required, e.g. tests on tape or computer disk, dictating answers on tape, using a word processor with spell checker, using a calculator, avoiding Scranton sheets for multiple choice testing. It is the responsibility of the student and the instructor to discuss the recommendations made in the student’s Letter of Accommodation and to decide how they will be implemented. As needed the ODS office can help with this process. The student should schedule exams through the instructor and the ODS if they cannot be taken with the rest of the class.


In the event the student has questions about an exam, it is in everyone's best interest if the proctor for testing is either one of the teaching assistants for the course, the professor, or another member of the academic department. Reading test questions aloud or writing the student's dictated answers is not usually recommended; using a tape recorder or other independent means is preferred by most students.

In some instances the professor/teaching assistants may not be able to proctor the exam, on those occasions the ODS should be contacted to arrange for a proctor and appropriate testing space if needed

Note Taking

Whatever note-taking method the student uses, he/she is responsible for the material covered in class. Many students with learning disabilities tape record lectures for reviewing later; this can be time consuming. Some students with learning disabilities use paid notetakers. For students in need of note takers, we often recommend that the instructor make an announcement to the class, usually without mentioning the name of the student. Interested parties are instructed to contact the ODS to complete the appropriate paperwork to serve as a notetaker. It is then the responsibility of the student with the learning disability and the notetaker to finalize note-taking arrangements. You will be contacted if this type of announcement is needed. In that case you may also consider allowing the student to use your notes. For students who are registered with ODS and qualify for note-taking assistance, ODS will provide notetakers with a carbonless notebook to facilitate the effective provision of notes. These services are free of charge, as are all services offered by ODS. You may also consider allowing the student to use your notes (depending upon their pedagogical utility).

Texts in Alternate Format

Some students who have reading based learning disabilities rely on texts in alternate format. In addition, a small number of books are now available in alternate formats for students to use with audio-output software. As needed, ODS assists Rutgers students in locating books that have been produced in these alternative formats and by reformatting other texts, such as textbooks, course packs and class notes.

Academic Coaching

ODS can help students with learning disabilities assess their self-management, time management, and learning strategy needs and can work with these students to find more effective methods. The office does not, however, provide content tutoring support for courses taught at the University. Students are encouraged to ask their instructor, academic department, and Rutgers Learning Centers about tutoring recommendations.

Psycho-educational Evaluations

The clinic in Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology has personnel certified to administer the test batteries used in diagnosing learning disabilities. ODS determines students’ eligibility for this service. You are welcome to refer to us undiagnosed students exhibiting some of the signs listed above.

Guidance and Counseling

Students with learning disabilities may have some particular guidance or counseling needs to assist in their academic, social, or personal development. ODS often encourages first-year students to stay in contact with a staff member at least once a week as a means of resolving any problems and improving academic performance.

Small Equipment

ODS has digital tape recorders that can be loaned to students on an interim basis, we also assist students in locating other adapted teaching aids.