Picture of two students looking at a computer screen. Picture of a professor with a computer teaching a small group of students. Picture of a student working at a laptop.

Cognitive Access - Diverse Learners

Back to e-Tools main page

Diverse Learners

The overall intent of the UDI Online Project is to support the concept of “faculty as designer” in implementing innovative instructional practices in online and blended courses to meet the needs of diverse learners. The term diverse learners refers to students with mild cognitive disabilities such as Learning Disability and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Learning Disability is a specific type of disability that has multiple definitions. The most relevant definition for postsecondary level students and adults comes from the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD, 1998) which defines learning disability (LD) as “a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical skills. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to a central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other disabilities (e.g., sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance), or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences.”

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurobiological disability with characteristics of inattention, impulsivity, or hyperactivity that appears in early childhood, is relatively chronic in nature, and is not due to other physical, mental, or emotional causes (Center for Students with Disabilities, www.csd.uconn.edu). According the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV, 1994), "the essential feature of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that is more frequent and severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development" (p. 78). The subtypes of this disorder vary according to the predominant symptom pattern (i.e., inattention, hyperactivity-impulsivity, or a combination of these characteristics).


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed). Washington, DC: Author.

Center for Students with Disabilities. (n.d.). Disability information: Students with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). University of Connecticut, Storrs. Accessed on May 27, 2010 http://www.csd.uconn.edu/fs_add_adhd.html

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD). (1998). Learning Disabilities: Issues on Definition. Asha, 33. (Suppl. 5), 18-20.


Functional Limitations that May Impact Cognition

According to the American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008, the definition of disability is:

  • Having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
  • Having a record of such an impairment; or
  • Being regarded as having such an impairment.

Listed in the ADAAA, major life activities include, but are not limited to:

  • Reading
  • Concentrating
  • Thinking
  • Learning

Cognitive processing refers to the mental processes involved with thinking and learning (Lerner, 2003).

Cognitive processing includes:

  • Processing speed: time it takes to perceive, encode, interpret, and respond;
  • Auditory processing: ability to perceive, encode, and interpret auditory stimuli;
  • Visual processing: ability to perceive, scan, track, discriminate, classify, and interpret visual objects;
  • Executive functioning abilities: ability to independently plan, initiate, problem solve, organize, or carry out goal-directed activities related to self-care, socialization, recreation, and work.
  • Cognitive flexibility and efficiency.

Limitations in self-direction may impact Cognitive Access. Self-direction is the ability to independently plan, initiate, problem solve, organize or carry out goal-directed activities related to self-care, socialization, recreation and work. This does not relate to the worth of an individual’s goals, but the capacity to know and act on a course of action based on personal values or goals (Center for Students with Disabilities, 2009).


Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) of 2008, PL 110-325, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.

Lerner, J. (2003). Learning disabilities: Theories, diagnosis, and teaching strategies. New York: Houghton Mifflin.


Scenarios Involving Faculty and Diverse Learners


The following scenario(s) are based on real experiences involving student(s) and/or faculty at the postsecondary level.  Each scenario was developed to provide a broad example of situations that diverse learners, such as those with learning disabilities, may experience in college level courses, or that faculty may experience working with these students. However, the specific characteristics and needs of students with disabilities will vary from person to person and from situation to situation. The solutions offered here should be used as guidance only.

  • Alphonso is a quiet student in class who seems to take a long time when working in the lab. He came in during office hours to speak with Tim, a teaching assistant (TA) for Biology 101, a large undergraduate course. Alphonso reports that he is really confused by all the dates in the syllabus: dates for reading assignments, for quizzes, for chapter tests, for lab sessions, and for study sessions. He wants to know if there is some way all these dates could be organized on the syllabus and the course web site. At the end of their conversation, Alphonso gave Tim a letter from Disability Services verifying that he is a student with ADHD who is registered with that office.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Widgets, Template – Syllabus, MS Word – Highlight, Calendar in Course Management System.

  • Teaching an online course is a new experience for Professor Borden. She really enjoyed the first semester of teaching this way and is now ready to revise her course web site for the next offering. One of the dilemmas she grappled with is setting boundaries on when she is available for students online. She found that many of them expected her to be accessible for questions 24/7. As she redesigns her web site, she is wondering if there could be some clever way to make her online office hours more explicit.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: WidgetsMS Word – HighlightTemplate – Syllabus

  • Professor Owens posts multiple choice quizzes and tests with the correct answers one week following the quiz or test in his online Botany course. This saves classroom instructional time since students can go online and check the correct answers against the answers they selected. He leaves the corrected version on the web site for two weeks, and students are expected to review it during that time period. Last semester a student with a learning disability approached Professor Owens to explain why she was unable to review a quiz that was posted because of the amount of time she has to spend on her four courses. Reading takes her longer as does preparation of class assignments. If she knows in advance about class requirements that are time sensitive, she tries to plan accordingly. Professor Owens wonders if there is some way he could more creatively alert students to his policy of posting quizzes and tests on the course web site.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: WidgetsMS Word – Highlight
    • Often students with attention and learning problems are challenged by having to manage the multiple demands of college coursework because of difficulties with organization, time management, long-term memory, self-regulation, and learning efficiency (i.e., using strategies to facilitate the learning process; exhibiting a slower rate of learning) (Butler, 2004; Davis, Christo, & Husted, 2008; Gerber & Reiff, 1991; Kavale & Forness, 1995; Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2001; Swanson & Saez, 2003).
    • Research has shown that strategies such as association (e.g., mnemonics; key words; visual cues) can facilitate learning for students with learning disabilities (Lenz, Ellis, & Scanlon, 1996; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1991).

  • You are putting together your reading list for an online course that you will be teaching in a few months. You have listed several readings (journal articles, PDF manuscripts, and Internet resources) for each week on your syllabus. You know that students taking this online course are situated at varying locations around the country. You are concerned that some students may have difficulty accessing your reading list documents from their site, especially if their library database is limited.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Hyperlinks, Feeds, Google Reader
    • The volume of reading required in college can be overwhelming for some students with learning disabilities. Students with deficits in word decoding and fluency spend so much effort attempting to sound out each word that they lose the meaning and context of the reading material. For these students, the challenge is not in deciphering the meaning of the text; rather, it is difficulty in making sound-symbol associations that makes extensive reading a challenge. Their reading is often slow, laborious and time consuming (Aaron et al. 2008; Cunningham, Stanovich & Wilson 1990; Kirby et al. 2008).

  • Students in your blended Tropical Diseases course are required to read sections from several textbooks for the course, which also prepares them for a licensure exam. The textbooks are quite expensive, but content knowledge from multiple sources is necessary for students to prepare for the high stakes exam. Additionally, the graphics in some of sections are static and don’t really illustrate the 3-dimensional nature of the anatomy. You are wondering if there are options that you might provide your students. You don’t want students to randomly search for information on the Internet to prepare for the licensure exam because information on the Internet on diseases can be misleading.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Hyperlinks, Feeds, Google Reader

  • In your blended American History course, students must sign up for a research topic and a presentation date. You have asked students to either e-mail you their topic and choice of dates or to tell you this in class. Not only does this take some coordination on your part to manage all of these topics, but you find that each semester, one or two students cannot remember their topic or the date of their presentation.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Doodle

  • You are putting together your course syllabus and are particular about its content. You view the syllabus as an important source of information for students in your course. The syllabus contains a specific section on plagiarism, what it means, and the consequences for plagiarizing text. You have noticed that many students tend to focus only on assignments, due dates, and the grading rubric within the syllabus and would like to find a way to make the syllabus more user-friendly and to get students to focus on all the elements within the syllabus.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – HighlightTemplate – Syllabus
    • While not paying attention to all the components within a syllabus is not an excuse for non-compliance with course protocol, many students, particularly students with cognitive disabilities, do not understand how to read a course syllabus and frequently review the information contained within it. They often forget elements in the syllabus that do not have immediate implication, such as a comment on plagiarism or future due dates (Murphy 2005).
    • For students with specific learning disabilities in visual processing, syllabi that are text heavy can be confusing. Students with visual processing deficits are distracted by text density, screen display, balance between text and white space, font size, and need to scroll through several pages to read a syllabus that is posted online. In particular, scrolling leads to loss of positional memory, which is the ability to visually recall where a certain comment/section was placed within the page. The position of text on a computer screen is affected by size of the user’s screen and the viewing options available (Graesser, McNamara, & Louwerse 2002; Seeman 2002).

  • Students in your blended political science course are required to complete a wiki page to share the results of their research project with you and their classmates. In class, several students tell you that they have never completed a wiki and don’t know how to start. You demonstrate the steps in class. But one of your students has a short-term memory issue and cannot remember the steps that you demonstrated when she goes to the wiki page independently.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need:Jing , Camtasia

  • A student contacts the course instructor via mail in Blackboard and posts the following message for the instructor: “I really tried very hard to get this assignment to you on time. I found it difficult to read and understand the Brown & Duguid article that was due for critique this week. I kept reading and re-reading the article, but I couldn’t understand what the authors were saying. I need some guidance on what I should focus on in reading this article.”

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Adobe Acrobat Pro – Commenting, MS Word – Commenting
    • For some students with specific learning disabilities (dyslexia), reading complex college level materials can be particularly challenging. The difficulty is not necessarily one of comprehension, but in the use of cognitive (learning) strategies that aid in comprehension. Dyslexia can affect reading comprehension in several ways. Students with dyslexia often have difficulty engaging with the text and identifying the salient points. For example, they may have difficulty separating key concepts from accompanying details within a text, or distinguishing various characteristics of text. Students, who are non-traditional age students and/or those who may not have adequate background knowledge of the content, may have difficulty comprehending complex text (Kirby et al. 2008; Ozuru, Bempsey, & McNamara 2009; Sloan et al. 2006).

  • Mary is enrolled in your technology blended World Literature undergraduate course. Requirements include selected readings in literature from countries such as Africa, India, the Caribbean, and other locations around the world. To support student learning, PowerPoint slides from your lectures are posted on Blackboard. Mary came to your office in the third week of the semester in tears. She explained that she has difficulty with reading, especially with figuring out unfamiliar names. Vocabulary that she does not know can also be challenging, but she is willing to use the thesaurus on her computer to find synonyms. She also said that when she reviews the Power Point slides, she gets so bogged down in names of characters and places that she loses her concentration and has to go back to the beginning of each lecture, which is taking a lot of time. She wonders if you can offer any suggestions to help her.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: PowerPoint – Audio Narrations, Audacity

  • After the first test in Introduction to Homeland Security, a course that is required for an online certificate program, Dominic sends you an e-mail expressing his concern and frustration about his failing grade. He explains that he felt prepared for this test. He works fulltime and is trying to earn this certificate to upgrade his status in his company. Because he spends a great deal of time commuting to and from class, you wonder if it is possible to get an audio version of the lectures that are online so that he can review course materials during this commuting time.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Podcasts, Audacity

  • One of the requirements of the studio course you teach, Drawing of the Human Figure, is in-class student discussion and critiquing of others’ work. In the past students with learning disabilities have enrolled in this course, and this semester some including Avery have reported that they simply cannot listen to the comments of other students and take notes at the same time. As you are planning for next semester’s class, you are wondering if there is any way to help students with this challenge.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Audacity, Podcasts
    • For students who have difficulty with the phonetic structure of the English language, decoding or identifying printed words based upon the ability to break apart the sounds and then blend those sounds back together to make a word can be a time consuming and frustrating process. Individuals who have poor decoding skills tend to identify words using minimal cues such as context clues and the first few letters of a word. To improve comprehension of written text, strategies that teach students how to use text structure are helpful (e.g., identifying the important structural elements such as main idea vs. supporting details of different types of text). For narrative text one of the challenges for a student with decoding and word recognition problems is not being able “to see the forest for the trees” (Aaron & Baker, 1991; Mather & Goldstein, 2001; Williams, 2003).
    • Another characteristic of some students with learning and attention problems is an inability to focus on the task at hand for reasonable amounts of time. If attention and working memory, the ability to retain information in short-term storage while processing incoming information, are weaknesses, students are likely to experience difficulties in class lectures particularly if the mode of presentation is predominantly oral (Seigel, 2003; Swanson & Hoskyn, 1998; Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2001).
    • Finally, some students with learning disabilities are challenged by tasks that require simultaneous processing of visual and auditory stimuli along with the need to remember information such as when taking notes. This can be particularly problematic in seminar or discussion based courses that require multitasking involving listening, speaking, and writing (Seigel, 2003; Swanson & Hoskyn, 1998).

  • One of the requirements of your blended course in Public Law centers upon understanding the judicial process of amending statutes to reflect changes that are warranted based on court rulings, studies, and congressional hearings. Students have commented that it is confusing to analyze the readings and figure out which sections of a statute are retained and which are changed. You are revising your lecture on the original Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and its changes that are reflected in the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (2008) and will post the PowerPoint presentation on the course web site. You would like to illustrate sections of the original law that are retained and those that are amended. You also believe that you could demonstrate an approach that students could then adapt when examining other topics that require comparisons such as this.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Inspiration, MS Word – Outline

  • In his community college, Professor McKinley teaches English 99: Introduction to College Reading and Writing. He has listened to the debate among his colleagues about the use of technology in developmental courses. Some faculty believe students should learn “the good old fashioned way” using traditional methods such as developing an outline for an essay before writing it. Other faculty are passionate about helping students learn how to use the tools such as grammar and spell checks in software. He would like to experiment with some technology for this course and gather data about student performance and perceptions about how useful the technology is.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – Outline, Inspiration, Audacity

  • As part of her graduate assistantship, Fiona teaches a section of the Freshman Year Experience (FYE) Seminar that focuses on time management tools to help students stay on top of assignments, quizzes, tests, and papers. Two weeks into the semester, several of the students who are very vocal complain about trying to figure out all the due dates across the four courses they are taking. They said they have tried to keep each course organized by having a separate notebook with the syllabus at the beginning, but each professor uses a different format for posting due dates. Fiona wonders if there is another way she could help students with this challenge and illustrate it on the course web site in the section she has created for tools.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Inspiration, Widgets
    • Distinguishing between concepts based upon their similarities and differences can be confusing especially for those students whose learning disability may include problems with reading comprehension, inferencing, and dealing with large quantities of complex text. It can also be difficult for students with attention disorders since it requires self-monitoring and distinguishing main points from nonessential details (Kirby, Silvestri, Allingham, Parrila, & LaFave, 2008; Nadeau, 1995; Quinn, 1994; Swanson & Saez, 2003).
    • Additionally, while time management and organizing vast amounts of material can be challenging because of specific disabilities, many students transitioning from high school to college encounter this problem (Lerner, 2003).
    • Finally, for many students with language-based learning disabilities, the mechanics of writing comprise an area of weakness. By helping these students find and use tools that allow them to compensate for their weaknesses they may be more motivated to persist and become more independent in their learning (Graham & Harris, 1999; Gregg, Coleman, & Lindstrom, 2008; Seigel, 1993).

  • The seminar in Environmental Engineering is a requirement of Casey’s major. In addition to assignments that are posted on the course web site, the seminar also includes a writing component. To help engineering students with this requirement, weekly small group sessions are led by a research assistant in the department. Students are required to bring in components of their written projects and ask questions. One week the focus may be on the thesis, another, the methods used to address the problem. Casey finds these sessions to be a waste of his time. He can’t follow the oral discussion, and his attention wanders. At midterm, students are asked to anonymously fill out a questionnaire about the seminar and how to make it more useful. Are there suggestions that might help students like Casey?

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: Audacity

  • Jasmine is a student who works very hard to improve her academic skills. Writing is particularly challenging for her because of her language-based learning disability. When she received her first paper back in her Philosophy course, she met with Professor Wolfe because it was difficult to read the professor’s handwritten comments. Some of the difficulty related to the professor’s handwriting, and some related to the content of the comments which Jasmine did not understand. Professor Wolfe is wondering if there is anything she could do to address this.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – Commenting, Audacity

  • Professor Merriweather teaches a blended course in Journalism using the course web site for posting his syllabus. One requirement of this course is peer review which he often facilitates during class. He knows from experience that it is important to require short writing assignments before the in-class activity and to have explicit directions for the peer review process. Yet, he has found that students often don’t know where to begin as they work during class in the small groups that he purposefully arranges. He would like to find a more effective way to model the process of peer review. Now that all students in the class are required to have laptops, he would like to try some new ideas to help students benefit from this activity.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – Commenting, Audacity, YouTube
    • Language disorders represent a broad array of problems with communication and verbal behavior including difficulties with vocabulary, word meanings, or concept formations; the misapplication of grammatical rules and syntax; and poor language comprehension. The long-term impact of such a disability can include reduced verbal fluency, limited speaking vocabularies, poor organizational and integrative skills, and inferior syntactic ability. Some students with language-based learning disabilities have difficulty with expressive language (i.e., speaking) because of word-finding problems. Others may experience problems interpreting, inferring, comparing, and responding to the language of others, creating challenges in the social use of language (Blachman, 1997; Lerner, 2003; Owens, 1995; Richek, Jennings, Caldwell, & Lerner, 2002).
    • For students with attention disorders, following the threads of multiple conversations which typically can occur in small group discussions is problematic and may result in students’ “tuning out.” Classroom situations that require divided attention (i.e., the ability to respond simultaneously to multiple tasks demands) or sustained attention (i.e., the ability to maintain a consistent behavioral response during a lengthy repetitive activity) can comprise a daunting challenge for ADHD students (Nadeau, 1995).

  • Jackie Jeffreys knows that students think she is a stickler for the format of papers required in the Sociology course she teaches. Every semester she gets complaints about grading. Students have argued that this is not an English course and that they have spent lots of time researching their topic. One of the common weaknesses in papers is the lack of organization. She wonders whether many students were ever taught the standard elements of English composition. Is there something Jackie could do to address this situation?

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – Outline, Inspiration

  • All students in your ECON 210, Urban Planning and Development, are required to write a 10-page paper on a topic approved by the professor. Based upon your work with several former students in the class who had learning disabilities, you have responded to their request for feedback on their writing by encouraging all students to submit a rough draft of the paper by a specific date so that you can give feedback, and students can revise the paper before its final submission. With enrollment averaging about 70 students each semester, the amount of time it takes to review these drafts is considerable. You are wondering if there might be some way to streamline this so that you can more quickly get an idea of the structure of a student’s paper before offering specific comments.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – Outline, Inspiration , MS Word – Commenting, Audacity

  • Peer review is an important component of your seminar for upperclassmen that requires writing. Small groups work together during class to provide feedback on papers that are shared anonymously. You then post these papers on the class web site two weeks before the in-class review so that group members can read them prior to the class. You have observed that there are often students who have difficulty engaging in peer review and seem reluctant to speak. As you are reevaluating the rubric used in this review process, you are especially interested in suggestions that may “jump start” the small group in-class conversation.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – Commenting, Audacity
    • The process of writing is complex involving three basic processes: planning what to say and determining how to say it, translating that plan into written text, and reviewing a written product to improve it. Skilled writers are able to monitor these processes and complete the writing task. For students with learning disabilities, challenges can exist in any one or all three of these components. Research on younger students with LD has confirmed that these students generally do little or no planning before starting to write (Graham & Harris, 2000; Hayes & Flower, 1980).
    • Deficits in other language-based skills such as spelling and grammar account for a great deal of the variability observed in the written output of these students (Graham, Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, & Whitaker, 1997).
    • Other studies indicate difficulties in coordinating and managing the revision process which includes the use of self-regulation skills defined by Schunk and Zimmerman (1994) as “the process whereby students activate and sustain cognitions, behaviors, and affects, which are systematically oriented toward attainment of their goals” (p. 309).
    • Oral expression difficulties may relate to students’ lack of confidence as well as weaknesses in processing information that is presented both orally and in writing at the same time (Lerner, 2003).
    • Students with attention deficit disorder may also have difficulty with the writing process relating to impairment in executive functioning. Barkley noted that executive function “incorporates self-directed actions, organization of behavior across time; the use of self-directed speech, rules, or plans; deferred gratification; and goal-directed, future oriented, purposive, effortful, or intentional actions” (cited in Harris, Reid, & Graham, 2004). Problems with organization may manifest themselves not only in time management but also in organization of thoughts in written format (Richard, 1995).

  • You are preparing the reading list for your course syllabus. You have identified about 5-6 readings (journal articles, book chapters, and web links) for each instructional unit. You have also included a textbook as required reading. The population of students in your class is diverse, and you are aware that the volume of required reading can be a challenge for some. You would like to find a way to help these students read and appreciate the range and scope of the reading resources you have identified.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: MS Word – AutoSummary, MS Word – Commenting, Adobe Acrobat Pro – Commenting, Adobe Acrobat Pro – Extracting Pages

  • Jason has both learning disability (LD) and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. He is enrolled in your Introductory Statistics class. He has provided you with a letter from the campus disability services office which states that he is entitled to use of a note-taker in your class. One of the students in the class serves as a note-taker, and through the disability services office Jason receives weekly copies of peer-notes. Unfortunately, Jason is not doing well in the course despite note-taker accommodations. He states that it is particularly difficult because the notes are primarily equations and formulas and contain minimal non-symbolic text which can help provide a context for the notes. Jason greatly appreciates your PowerPoint handouts for each class, but since a significant portion of the class involves using statistical software programs on the computer and auditory explanations of steps of application, Jason is finding it difficult to keep up. You would like to help Jason have a successful learning experience in your class.

    Possible e-Tools to consider in addressing learning need: PowerPoint – Audio Narrations, Audacity, Podcasts
    • PowerPoint slides are commonplace in many blended courses and help to provide an organization structure for the lectures. However, PowerPoint slides are constrained by how much information can be included in one slide. For some students with cognitive difficulties in speed of information processing the bulleted outline within PowerPoint slides is not enough. Slow speed of processing inhibits multitasking such as taking class notes while listening (Aaron et al. 2008; Suritsky & Hughes, 1991).


Research: Link to Bibliography