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Peer Tutor Guide

Tips for Working with Students with Learning Disabilities

Working with Students with Learning Disabilities

What do Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Cher and Agatha Christie have in common with the fastest growing group on college campuses today? They all have (had) learning disabilities (LD). Nearly one of every ten students (10%) in post-secondary education has this hidden disability. Some of these students were diagnosed when they were in elementary or secondary school and have therefore learned strategies in special education classes to increase their academic success. Others were not diagnosed until they reached college. For both groups, college presents special demands that can intensify the learning problems they have.

Definition of Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are not a visible disability like a physical impairment. Instead, they affect how a student of average or above average intelligence processes--takes in, retains and expresses--information. Like interference on the radio or a fuzzy TV picture, incoming or outgoing information may become scrambled as it travels between the eye, ear or skin, and the brain. This takes the form of a language-based and/or perceptual problem. Learning disabilities affect students, in varying degrees, in the areas of reading, writing, spelling, spoken language, mathematics, organization, time management and social interaction.

Learning disabilities are believed to be caused by neurological deficits that affect the way students perceive, process, or express information. There is no clear list of symptoms that present themselves in all students with learning disabilities; each student has a different manifestation of their disability. As discussed above, by definition students with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence and experience significant discrepancy between their intellectual aptitude and academic performance.

Students with learning disabilities have fluctuating abilities in different areas. They also have good and bad days. Individuals with learning disabilities experience an uneven ability to learn resulting in achievement in some areas being superior to that in others. A student may have extreme difficulty organizing and writing a paper, yet he or she may excel at math. Another student may spell at a third grade level and have a severe disability in the area of spatial perceptions, which manifests itself as terrible clumsiness or carelessness with handwriting, yet excel at giving speeches.

Because of the inconsistency associated with learning disabilities, it is easier to remember what disabilities are not included. A learning disability does not include the following:

  • Mental retardation
  • Emotional disturbances
  • Language deficiencies

A learning disability is inconsistent. It may present problems on Mondays, but not on Tuesdays. It may cause problems throughout grade school, seem to disappear during high school, and then resurface again in college. It may manifest itself in only one special academic area, such as math or foreign language.

A learning disability is frustrating. Persons with learning disabilities often have to deal not only with functional limitations, but also with the frustration of having to “prove” that their disabilities are real.

While the learning disabled population is a heterogeneous one, this definition illustrates the problems shared by students with learning disabilities. The discrepancy between ability to learn and actual achievement, experiencing repeated failures, and the need to “prove” their disability, creates frustration and a lack of motivation in many students with learning disabilities. Consequently, tutors must address both cognitive and motivational issues when tutoring students with learning disabilities.

Many people are confused by the term “learning disability.” The following information may clear up some of this confusion.

How is a learning disability defined?

A specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, write, read, spell or to do mathematical calculations.

Is a person who is diagnosed as being learning disabled considered mentally retarded?

NO, the problem is concerned with learning difficulties, not retardation, visual or hearing impairments, cultural disadvantages or emotional disturbances. The learning disabled person is of normal intelligence, but suffers from a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.

Can a learning disabled person be “cured”?

Learning disabilities is a lifelong disability. A person cannot be “cured” but can definitely be taught to think differently and how to use a variety of academic strategies so that he or she can succeed.

What do I do if I suspect the person I am tutoring is learning disabled or has been identified as having a learning disability?

First, obtain information from the student directly on how they feel they learn best. Second, change tutoring modalities, i.e., read aloud a passage to the student, rather than have the student read silently.

Characteristics of College Students with Learning Disabilities

Each student with a learning disability is unique. There are about the same number of types of learning disabilities as there are elements in a chemical chart. Compare the number of different compounds and their unique characteristics to the combinations of characteristics possible in a student with a learning disability. You cannot make generalizations about someone just because they have a learning disability. On the following page is a partial list of the characteristics of a college student with a learning disability.

Oral Language Skills

  • Inability to concentrate on and comprehend oral language
  • Difficulty concentrating in lectures, especially two to three hour lectures
  • Difficulty in orally expressing ideas which he/she seems to understand
  • Written expression is better than oral expression
  • Difficulty speaking grammatically correct English
  • Poor vocabulary; difficulty with word retrieval
  • Difficulty telling a story in proper sequence.

Mathematical Skills

  • Incomplete mastery of basic facts (i.e. mathematical tables.)
  • Reverse numbers (i.e. 123 to 231.)
  • Confuses operational symbols, especially + and x.
  • Difficulty aligning problems
  • Copies problems incorrectly from one line to another
  • Difficulty recalling the sequence of operational processes
  • Inability to understand and retain abstract concepts
  • Difficulty reading and comprehending word problems
  • Reasoning deficits
  • Difficulty with concepts of time and money
  • Poor strategies for monitoring errors.

Organizational and Study Skills

  • Time Management Difficulties
  • Difficulty scheduling time to complete short and long-term assignments
  • Slow to start and complete tasks
  • Repeated inability, on a day-to-day basis, to recall what has been taught
  • Difficulty following oral and written instructions
  • Lack of overall organization in written notes and compositions
  • No system for organizing notes and other material
  • Difficulty changing from one task to another
  • Difficulty completing tests and in-class assignments without additional time
  • Difficulty following directions, particularly written directions
  • Inefficient use of library reference material.

Social Skills

Some adults with learning disabilities have social skills problems due to their inconsistent perceptual abilities. For the same reason that a person with visual perceptual problems may have trouble discriminating between the letters “b” and “d”, he/she may be unable to detect the difference between a joking wink and a disgusted glance. People with auditory perceptual problems might not notice the difference between sincere and sarcastic comments, or be able to recognize other subtle changes in tone of voice. These difficulties in interpreting nonverbal may cause them to have trouble meeting people, working cooperatively with others and making friends.

Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities


Explain the problem step by step: Write down each step, using a colored pen to highlight areas that the student does not know. For example use color to emphasize signs, parentheses, or other symbols. Put one problem on a quarter sheet of paper or on a note card. Encourage the student to write large so that they can see their errors. Put examples in the same order each time. Draw a box around each problem you are tutoring. Define the vocabulary for the student. Write down each term and draw a relationship to vocabulary they already know. Have the student talk back the problem, not just answer that they understand.


Show the student how to separate subjects. Encourage one three-ring notebook or folder for each subject. Use dividers to separate book notes from class notes and from other handouts. Sometimes color coding the folder with the textbook will help the student to stay organized.

Time Management

Explain to the student that study time for them will be at least twice the number of clock hours spent in the classroom. Ask to see their calendar to be sure that all assignments are being written down. Also, explain the use of the syllabus. Encourage students to study
in small sessions, not more than one hour at a time. Note whether this is realistic for this student. On their calendar have the student indicate exactly what they must do for each subject (e.g., Read for English, review notes for Health, make flash cards for Psychology).
If the student does not have homework in a certain subject, encourage them to trade time. Reinforce this in each tutoring session. Remind the student to make use of empty time such as travel, walking, eating, or exercising.

Note Taking and Listening

It would help the student to sit in front of the class. Encourage the student to date
notes, use colored paper or pen, write on one side of the page, jot down main ideas, copy everything from the board, color code notes (e.g., yellow for main idea, blue for details,
and pink for theories), and draw boxes around main idea. Explain how asking questions in class can help focus attention and clarify information. If the student uses a note taker use that person’s notes during the tutoring session. Have the student talk back the information from class. You will have a better idea of what he does and does not know.


Students may need to be encouraged to take shorter classes or classes at the time of day when they are the most alert. Sit so that the student can see your face. If you sit across from the student be sure that the student is able to see materials completely, even if it means making extra copies for yourself. Present the tutoring session in a multi-sensory way. Use teaching aids to gain attention or use visuals, color coding, supplementary materials, repetition, examples, pictures, graphs, charts, or small group interaction.


To help visual memory also use color, diagrams, cartoons, tactile association, visualization techniques, mnemonics to help draw relationships. Use tests to illustrate information. Organize information in clusters, or use association to increase memory. Write everything down for this student. To help with auditory memory explain information in a step-by-step format and encourage the student to use a tape recorder. Encourage the student to read or talk information aloud and to tape record what needs to be remembered. Pronounce words and define vocabulary.

Test Taking

Use old tests in tutoring sessions. Examine the wording of the test questions and use that in tutoring. For example if the instructor uses lists, definitions, theories, graphs, comparisons, illustrations, or descriptions in the test questions explain information in these terms. Draw comparisons to students’ notes. If the instructor uses essay questions have students write out answers for you or bring in old essays to show as examples. Emphasize that students may dump information prior to a test. Encourage students to answer easy questions first and as well as reading questions very carefully.

Tutoring college students requires a different approach and focus than tutoring elementary or high school students. When tutoring in specific subject areas in college, it is vital to work on developing conceptual think, not just mastering basic skills or memorizing facts. College students need skills that will apply to the demands of the college curriculum which emphasizes conceptual thinking rather than rote learning. This presents special challenges when working with students with learning disabilities.

To assist students with learning disabilities become successful independent learners, tutors should do the following:

  • Understand the special needs of college students with a learning disability as they attempt to handle their subject area course assignments.
  • Provide opportunities for success so students with a learning disability are not discouraged from learning content.
  • Assist learning disabled students to understand the requirements and objectives of the courses in which they are enrolled.
  • Prepare structured lessons with each unit divided into small parts.
  • Relate their tutoring to real life experiences.
  • Assist students to understand and to recall subject matter information, and help students develop ways to commit facts and information to memory.
  • Assist students to establish study goals and specific objectives.
  • Assist students to prioritize and schedule their assignments.
  • Assist students to organize their study areas and materials.
  • Assist students in learning and using effective study strategies.

Sources: Project T.A.P.E., College of Education, Northern Illinois University.
Bataglia, M., (1993), Master Tutor Handbook, Lakeland Student Support Service.
University System/UW-Madison McBurney Resource Center. Adelman & Oufs, ahssppe, 1986.