Study Tips for College Students with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia

Assistive Technology, Test-Taking Strategies and Other Resources

More than 4 million Americans reported having learning disabilities in the 2010 census, and yet only 24 percent of young adults with the diagnosis inform their college or university about their special needs. Understanding learning disabilities and eliminating the stigma surrounding them is necessary for students to achieve success in and out of the classroom.

This guide defines and explores three of the most common learning disabilities among college students: dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia. Additionally, it provides actionable strategies, expert tips and resources for sharing disabilities with instructors, learning in the classroom as well as preparing for and taking exams.

Understanding Dyslexia and Dysgraphia

Dyslexia affects approximately 20 percent of the population, and 80-90 percent of people with learning disabilities. It’s believed to be caused by differences in brain connectivity.

“To break it down, dyslexia affects reading and the interpretation of words; dysgraphia impacts one’s writing abilities,” explains Danielle Augustin, a special education attorney.

For any person to read words, the brain must perform several complex steps that essentially answer the following questions:

  • What sound goes with the letter?
  • What is the correct order for those sounds?
  • How do you put the individual words into sentences?

Although many believe dyslexia means seeing and writing words backward, the symptom of letter/word reversal is a myth. People with dyslexia have difficulty matching sounds to letters and blending sounds into words, leading to problems with spelling, writing and speaking.

While people with dyslexia may also have dysgraphia, they are two distinct disabilities. Dysgraphia is defined as difficulty forming letters by hand and organizing and expressing thoughts in writing.

Dyslexia and dysgraphia both can lead to struggles in the classroom. College students with dyslexia may take longer to finish tests, have messy handwriting, read slowly and have trouble with note-taking. Those with dysgraphia may take longer to write and their work might be filled with grammar and spelling errors. These issues can take a big toll on a student’s self-esteem.

Dyslexia and dysgraphia are unrelated to intelligence, however. In fact, many people with learning disabilities are creative, fast thinkers with strong reasoning skills. While there is no cure for either, there are strategies to help students who struggle with dyslexia or dysgraphia to succeed.

What About Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia makes it difficult to understand and manipulate numbers and learn math facts. It can occur developmentally or result from traumatic brain injury or neurological disease.

“In addition to difficulty understanding these basic concepts, dyscalculia often includes trouble with both logical information sequencing and time sequencing, and messiness when writing math problems on a paper,” says Suzanne Cresswell, an occupational therapist.

In college, students with dyscalculia may struggle with quantitative concepts such as estimation or comparison. It can be difficult to retrieve multiplication and division facts, making higher-level math a challenge. Even simple computational operations and procedures can become impossible when using the wrong application or making sequencing errors.

Symptoms of dysgraphia vary. It’s common for students to have dysgraphia and dyslexia concurrently. In fact, 43-65 percent of the population with a math disability also has a reading disability. The good news is, just like with dyslexia and dysgraphia, there is help for college students with dyscalculia.

Working with Your Professors

All students must receive equal access to facilities, programs and activities on campus, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Students are used to their parents working with the school to get accommodations for their learning disabilities in elementary through high school; but in college, it’s up to the students to advocate for themselves.

“It’s important to keep in mind that, as a student with unique learning needs, you are an ambassador for the countless unique learners that follow you,” Cresswell says. “When you communicate with your teacher or professor how you learn best, you will help them understand other unique learners better.”

Augustin encourages students to have open communication with their instructors. “Let them know the areas you struggle with so that you can both come up with the best solution to accommodate your needs,” she advises. “Accommodations you are entitled to may include priority registration, private testing, notes from note-taker or scribe, extended time on tests, course substitutions and textbooks in an alternate format.”

“For example, you might say, ‘I have difficulty reading,’” Cresswell says. “‘I need to sit close to you, so I can really listen and look at you while I take notes.’”

Here’s a list of expert tips to help you prepare for the lecture hall:

  • Have a plan to keep track of assignments and due dates. Keep in mind all quizzes, exams, tests, papers, etc.
  • Pre-read the assignments listed on the syllabus so you can identify words difficult to pronounce.
  • Plan to work with a tutor 1:1 or get involved in a campus study group.
  • Sit in front of the room or lecture hall — close to the instructor — and away from distractions.
  • When you get an assignment, break it into small pieces. Develop an outline of what needs to be accomplished to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
  • Utilize assistive technology such as laptops and reading, recording and note-taking pens.
  • After each lecture, confirm with the professor the expectations for any upcoming assignments and ensure you fully understand.
  • Meet regularly with the professor or teacher’s assistant for office hours.

Brain Drills and Study Tips

Suzanne Cresswell shares the following brain drill warm-ups:

For students with dyslexia

Find an article in an old print magazine. Start by taking a pen or pencil and making a snake-like line from left to right under the first word, diagonally up in the space between the first and second word, then draw the line over the second word, diagonally down between the second and third word, under the third word and so on until the end of the line. Pick up your pen at the end of the line and repeat on the second line going under, over, under, over, and then pick up the pen to work on the third line. Continue for 10 lines. Challenge yourself to not allow your snake-like line to touch any letters. Go slowly and carefully. Tune your eyes into the spaces. The spaces between words convey as much meaning as the letters and words themselves.

For students with dysgraphia

Think of a sentence and write it down. Look at your work. Circle the letters that lack legibility. Write that “problem” letter again until the shape and legibility improve. Repeat with each circled letter. Rewrite the sentence again once you’ve practiced each “problem” letter individually. This time, circle five letters you formed perfectly. Trace over those perfectly formed letters. Close your eyes and try to print the five “favorite letters” by feel. Really feel the tips of the fingers move the pen on the paper. Progress this activity by using a different writing utensil (try chalk on a chalkboard) and different writing posture (tape the paper to a window and do the activity while standing on one foot).

Top 12 Study Tips

  • Tip 1: Remove all distractions including internet, television and cell phone from your study area.
  • Tip 2: Play classical or instrumental music in the background to relax.
  • Tip 3: Set small goals and reward yourself when you complete them.
  • Tip 4: Keep an agenda/planner and check it off as you finish to visualize your progress.
  • Tip 5: Use a phonetic dictionary to sound out words.
  • Tip 6: Study outside of your room. Try a coffee shop or library.
  • Tip 7: Use a peer’s notes or the instructor’s notes (through accommodations) to ensure you have accurate information.
  • Tip 8: If you have dyslexia and are borrowing notes, rewrite them in your own handwriting as a memorization strategy.
  • Tip 9: Turn your written notes into pictures or diagrams to make them easier to remember.
  • Tip 10: Try reading your notes aloud in addition to other strategies.
  • Tip 11: Check on campus for a study skills group for support.
  • Tip 12: Practice “brain drills” or warm-ups before a study session.

Strategies for Test Taking

Taking tests can be anxiety-inducing for any student but it’s especially stressful for students with a learning disability. Most students can benefit from testing in a separate or smaller environment and seeking extra test time. Here are some specific test-taking pointers from our experts to build confidence during exam time:

Be mindful of the exam format

The test format matters more to the student with reading difficulties than other, more typical learners. Just like performance athletes practice sport-specific training, the college learner needs to study in a test-specific environment. Determine in advance the type of test you will be taking and whether it will be on paper or the computer.

Stay calm

Students with dysgraphia know that being unable to trust that your fingers will listen to your brain is frustrating. Deal with the uncomfortable feelings by taking calm, deep breaths and doing shoulder circles during the test time. Read the test questions in advance and, while you do, warm up your fingers with a fidget spinner or squeeze a stress ball.

Plan your time

If you have an hour, read all the test questions first and make notes to make it easier for you to read the hard words when you go over it again. Work through the test, moving on to the next question if you feel stuck. Spend the last 20 minutes working on the questions you skipped and reviewing the entire exam.

Proofread

Reviewing completed answers is very important for students with dysgraphia and should begin when a third of the test time is remaining. Watch for spacing between your words and legible letter shape. If any time remains after proofing, continue to work on difficult problems until time runs out.

Study Help: Technology Edition

  • Text-to-speech tools Convert text to a synthesized voice with programs such as Natural Reader, Ivona and WordTalk.
  • Reading/scanning pens E-pens such as Wizcom ReadingPen 2, help by reading the text aloud that students scan from books and other written material.
  • Recording pens These pens digitally record students’ written notes while pens such as Livescribe Smartpen and SoundNote simultaneously record audio while you type.
  • Proofreading software Find and correct spelling and grammar errors with programs such as Grammarly, Ginger and the comprehensive Ghotit, which also reads text aloud.
  • Text Expander By expanding keyboard shortcuts into text and images, this program helps students with writing difficulties.
  • MindNode Students transform ideas into visual representations by creating and sharing mindmaps.
  • WritePad Use a stylus or your finger to take notes on your iPad in your handwriting using your own shorthand.
  • My Study Life Stay organized with classes, exams and daily tasks by using this free software.
  • MathTalk Students can perform math functions without a mouse or keyboard.
  • National Library of Virtual Manipulatives Visual-spatial exercises, like those at this website, strengthen writing skills for those with dyscalculia.
  • ModMath This virtual graph paper ensures numbers and equations are legible before printing or emailing.

Other Resources

  • What is Dysgraphia? This video from the National Center for Learning Disabilities explains dysgraphia.
  • Understanding Dysgraphia A guide to understanding dysgraphia and how to succeed despite the learning disability.
  • Dyscalculia.org This nonprofit organization shares information about math learning disabilities and provides tools for schools, teachers and students.
  • The Mathematical Brain Brian Butterworth, a professor with dyscalculia, provides tips, tools and resources for those with the learning disability.
  • Self-Advocacy Tips A handout of self-advocacy advice for students with learning disabilities from Disability Rights North Carolina.
  • Preparing Students with Disabilities for Postsecondary Education The Washington Student Achievement Council developed this guide of definitions, resources, scholarships and tips for students with common learning disabilities.

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