Students learn how to triumph over disabilities

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

UBC students with learning disabilities now have a better chance at academic success, thanks to a strategic approach devised by a Faculty of Education researcher and used by the Disability Resource Centre (DRC).

Assoc. Prof. Deborah Butler, who is the Chris Spencer Professor in Dyslexia, designed strategic content learning (SCL) to support post-secondary students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

"Learning disabilities and dyslexia don't go away," says Butler. "They persist into adulthood, undermining self-confidence and limiting potential. People with learning disabilities need to be supported throughout their life."

In the SCL model, students are supported in analysing tasks they are given in class, selecting, adapting or inventing learning strategies, monitoring progress and modifying approaches according to effectiveness.

Fifty-five UBC students with learning disabilities receive support through the Disability Resource Centre. They come from faculties ranging from Law to Pharmaceutical Sciences to Graduate Studies.

Neville Swartz uses the SCL model to train the 30 peer tutors who work part-time at the DRC.

"Traditional tutoring typically focuses on memorizing content," says Swartz, an Education graduate student. "Now we're helping students learn how to learn. We give them the tools to continue the job when they're not with the tutor."

Swartz emphasizes that the SCL model helps students identify their own learning and coping skills and then expand or adapt them. There is no single strategy.

If a dyslexic student who has been taught the SCL model is assigned to read a chapter for an exam, for example, they initially analyse the task, taking into consideration such factors as the level of detail involved or whether the test is multiple choice or essay.

Selected strategies may involve using an outline, breaking down tasks or reading into manageable chunks, reading to follow the flow of argument, or summarizing points per paragraph.

Students monitor their understanding and modify their approach to the task when comprehension breaks down.

Butler's model is based on the results of seven studies of almost 100 Lower Mainland college and university students with a broad range of learning disabilities.

The DRC participated in one of the studies. It has made the SCL training mandatory for peer tutors who support students with a range of disabilities.

"One of our goals is helping students to be self-sufficient," says DRC director Janet Mee. "This approach gives students the skills they need to cope in their existing environment."

The SCL approach is unique, says Butler, in that it is useful in one-on-one tutoring, peer tutor training and small-group based study skills classes.

Butler hopes to create a multimedia CD-ROM to make the SCL model available to researchers and educators, including those in secondary schools.