How do we test students with learning disabilities?

Mar 26 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The more I teach the more I run into things I haven't thought much about. Over the past few years I have had students with various learning disabilities. Some of these are on record with the appropriate university office and these students get special exemptions for testing, such as unlimited time or a secluded room. That helps certain types of students.

But for others it has nothing to do with quiet or time. One of the hardest issues for me to solve is testing students who don't process diagrams well. Many of my lecture slides and board drawing are diagrams that illustrate concepts. For most students these are helpful to translate words into a broader context, but for a small number the diagrams engender confusion. In rare cases, students can't at all interpret the meaning of a diagram. It's not that these students don't care or aren't taking the time to study - they really can't learn this way.

Perhaps in studying they can "translate" the concepts into something they can get a handle on, but in my exams I tend to mix a wide variety of different question types. Almost by definition, diagrams (either on the test or drawn by the students) are part of this. My problem is how to make a test for students who can't deal with diagrams and how to make it fair. I don't have a good solution yet. Perhaps you do.

7 responses so far

  • Abby says:

    And a further question is whether learning to parse these kinds of diagrams is a skill/learning objective/whatever that's core to the class. For intro bio, it very well might be, because they're going to keep seeing these kinds of diagrams throughout the major.

  • attheslac says:

    I teach human A&P and cardiorespiratory physiology at a good lib arts college. A large percentage of what I show in class comes as diagrams. My take is that for a science students, the ability to interpret diagrams is essential. I know you aren't really asking this, but my major advice is how diagrams are taught.

    Many students struggle with diagrams in the beginning (even after a year of Bio) and some never get it, but many others learn to extract information from them over time. Strategies I use include:

    - draw figures on the board rather than project them... you can always project the perfect version later.

    - the students who don't understand diagrams often don't have a good grasp of the meaning of the axis units. if you don't *understand* mm H2O, or mV, the squiggly line makes no sense. Can you clarify your axes?

    - provide a set of blank x/y coordinates to your students. I always have a stack on the table. when it comes to a new topic (e.g., how does blood pressure change from the left ventricle to the right atrium), I let them sit there with a pencil for a few minutes and figure it out. (You would be surprised to learn how many students think there is a pump in the capillary system.) This works really, really well.

    - I tend to point out the x and y axes first and use them in a sentence: "as transit time increases on the horizontal axis, O2 saturation increases which you can see by increasing values along the vertical axis".

    - sometimes it helps to use either axis as the reference point. Compliance curves (change in volume vs. change in pressure) are a good example of this.

    - I use lab activities where students collect their own data to force them to generate their own graphs. This also works without a lab if you use case studies (U of Buffalo has a nice repository for life sciences) and ask for a set of hypotheses and a hypothesized figure as part of your questions.

    - My students are required to attend at least one of my office hours and ask me a question. I also sometimes set them up in pairs and have them teach and correct one another. The latter takes time and effort do do right.

    - Repetition is key, IMO. Interpreting charts is easy for a trained scientist, but it is not like that for students. What is more, many of the 'classic' diagrams used in physiology are pretty complex to a novice, so I ...

    - animate as much as I can. I have some highlighted animations of the pressure volume loop, the cardiac cycle diagram, and some others that work really well. Students have emailed me years later when they were in grad school and used them to teach their colleagues.

    As for testing:

    I have found that breaking questions up into smaller sections is a better way to test. If you get totally lost on a figure, it should not make you lose 25% of your grade.

    Another testing strategy that works for me is to not label axes anymore. I may ask, "Draw the relationship between left ventricular pressure and volume by using the x/y coordinates below. you get some surprising (and correct) results sometimes.

    So essentially, my take and experience is that most people can learn how to interpret diagrams, but it takes a lot of effort and on-one-one tutoring.

  • ponderingfool says:

    You shouldn't have to be figuring this out on your own. Your university should have an office for this. Those with training on adapting material for those with learning differences/disabilities. My spouse has such training. NCLB notwithstanding, it is a specialized skill set. There are experts use them. Also empower the student to take advantage of those resources.

  • Kati says:

    In physics, the diagrams represent the physical situation that we're analyzing. On an exam that 200 students take, there's always about a dozen students who misread the diagram and therefore solve the wrong physics problem. Sometimes their interpretation makes sense (i.e., the prof didn't create an unambiguous diagram) and sometimes it doesn't.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    You shouldn't have to be figuring this out on your own. Your university should have an office for this.

    I don't think our office adapts material, so yeah, it's up to me.

  • Darwin Fish says:

    I think this gets at an interesting and even larger question, but could you give an example of what you mean by digrams? Do you mean any figure (e.g. the correlative lines/curves attheslac is writing about) or something that shows a lot of scientific information in a relational picture, such as a cell-signaling cascade or a molecular "pathway" diagram?

    The larger question that this brings to mind is: which learning differences should we try to train students in work-arounds (i.e. necessary skills to master somehow to go further in the field), which do we cater to (like the quiet room solution you mention), and which do we just leave unattended with the advice that the students build their other skills to compensate? I think it could be argued that diagram interpretation in biology could be any one of those three.

  • Bre says:

    As a student the most interesting way to address differences in ability to comprehen questions that I have seen is allowing three questions from the exam to be omitted. In this case the class is a cross listed course where about half the student have chem background and the other half not so much. There are never more than three structural or reaction type questions so those who don't feel comfortable with those questions can omit them.

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