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Learning Differences in College: When Students Seek Help and When They Don't

04/13/2014 11:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014

A college student with learning differences is playing a completely different game. While colleges across the country try to accommodate their students with "disabilities," more often than not students feel at a disadvantage in their classes. Despite campus resources made available to them, many students with learning differences in college are not seeking out those resources, and it's not necessarily because they don't know about them. Some students in college, who constantly deal with their learning differences, knowingly choose not to seek support available to them for their needs. While the resources are well-intentioned, some students find that they create more hassle than help, and consequently are not using them.

It is apparent that students don't always take advantage of the resources that are made available to them for learning differences, but the reasons differ. For some seeking out the help creates more time management issues, for others it can be that they are embarrassed to find additional support or because the resources are wrong or inadequate to their needs. The kinds of services on campuses are often a center to help with time management skills or extended time on exams, but rarely do they actively deal with the specifics of a learning difference for a student in a college setting.

Colgate senior Leah Spalding, who is dyslexic, knows first-hand the challenges that come with having a learning difference in college. In her experience at a small liberal arts college, having dyslexia has at times heightened the rigors of the curriculum.

"I wouldn't say I've ever felt marginalized, but definitely have felt at a disadvantage sometimes," Spalding said. "As a history major, I have to do a lot of reading, and it takes me a lot longer to complete it. I can't process words or sentences as fast as other students so not only does it just take longer in general for me but I find myself having to re-read sentences or pages that I'm not comprehending."

Some students find the resources available are too generalized to help them with their own specific learning difference. Others simply aren't aware of what is available to them. Spalding says that she tried to utilize one resource available for extra assistance, but is not as aware of any of the other services for students with learning differences.

"I know we have a writing center, but I've only used it once because it wasn't very helpful," she said. "Other than that I'm not really sure what's out there."

Although Spalding admits that she didn't look into many of the other services on her campus, her choice is similar to many students with learning differences who find it more of a burden to seek out assistance for their needs. Instead they opt to go at it alone.

"I decided that it was too much of a hassle to go through campus resources," she said. "I've found my own ways to deal with dyslexia and even if those resources would make my life easier, somehow that feels like cheating to me."

Spalding also expressed that she has had moments in her college career where she felt "dumb" or "stupid" for being slower than others to process information or complete assignments.

"A lot of times it's fine because I can feel dumb silently and other people don't know that I didn't understand," she said. "But when I have to read out loud, in class or in office hours or something, I sound like I literally can't read, and I can't really process what I read when I read out loud too ... so that makes it worse."

Colgate sophomore Paul Kendall has shared similar experiences with Spalding. He says that being mildly dyslexic has at times made him feel weaker than his peers in a college setting.

"If I am ever forced to read out loud or read something in class, it takes me a lot longer than most others in the class, and I normally pretend to finish the reading once everyone else seems to be finished," he said.

Kendall noted that his negative experiences with dyslexia in college are a function of the kinds of courses he takes.

"Occasionally, when I am in classes that are very reading-intensive I find it hard to keep up because I simply do not have the time to complete all of the reading, and do all of my other work," he said. "I have become much better at skimming texts so that I can get the idea and save a lot of time."

Kendall, while aware about the kinds of services available to him and other students with learning differences on his campus, said that he only utilized them initially in order to be approved for additional time allowance in testing.

"I only used [one of the services] to get approved for extra time on tests and have not sought out any other kinds of help, like tutoring," he said.

Colgate junior Caitlin Condie, who is dyslexic, has ADHD and learning comprehension difficulty, shares both feelings and experiences similar to those of Spalding and Kendall, saying that she has sometimes felt marginalized because of her learning differences. Condie articulated that although she recognizes her learning differences and actively deals with them, she still experiences moments "regularly" feeling slower or less smart than peers when completing assignments. However, when she does feel like she's at a disadvantage compared to others, she recognizes that all students learn and process information in different ways.

"Everyone learns differently from each other," Condie said, "So at one point or another each person is going to feel challenged or at a disadvantage by a specific teaching style I think."

To adjust to working in a college setting, Condie sought out support of services on her campus for her learning differences.

"I have used [one of the resources], and it was helpful because it really encouraged me to advocate for myself," Condie said. "It made me realize that as a student with learning disabilities is it imperative for me to respectfully approach a professor or a situation with my best interests in mind, but this is not saying that I deserve an advantage over other students."

By the time students reach college, they are familiar with the kinds of challenges that their own learning differences present for their ways of study. Rather than trying to get special assistance, many students prefer to "just deal with it" on their own. While the resources on college campuses aim to help students, students themselves are not always seeking out their support.