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Researchers Win $1.3 Million Grant
for Improving Educational Access
October 18, 1999

The teaching strategies used in college classrooms could soon be headed in a new direction, based on research by special education experts Stan Shaw and Joan McGuire.

The two have been awarded a $1.3 million federal grant to improve access to postsecondary education across the country for all students, especially those with learning disabilities.

"The intent of the work we do and the resources we provide is to raise the level of instruction so colleges and universities will be more effective in serving all students," says Shaw.

He and McGuire are professors of educational psychology in the Neag School of Education. They have devoted their careers to identifying and understanding learning disabilities, developing special education programs, and training teachers in special education.

Their latest project will establish a new approach to higher education, called Universal Instructional Design. First, the researchers will identify the barriers that make college difficult for students with learning disabilities and then they'll determine the teaching methods and products that can be developed to assist faculty in making classes user-friendly for all students.

The products developed will be field-tested, evaluated, revised and then packaged, using state-of-the-art distance learning technology that will make them easily accessible to faculty and college administrators across the country.

Fifteen years ago, a college education was out of the question for most individuals with learning disabilities. Since federal law started requiring schools to make reasonable academic adjustments for students with learning disabilities, however, colleges and universities have seen a dramatic rise in the number of students with learning disabilities.

In 1985, 15 percent of full-time freshmen with disabilities nationwide were identified as having a learning disability. In 1998, that number had risen to 41 percent. And the number is still growing, because only recently have students with learning disabilities, who've spent their entire K-12 education under the federal access law, begun graduating high school with the expectation of going on to higher education.

Some of the changes in the college classroom that McGuire envisions are not radical or expensive. They may be simple readjustments in the teacher's classroom preparation and presentation. An example would be to redesign a syllabus and organize it in such a way that students will have a better understanding of what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. It would include a time line for assignments and tests.

McGuire says although this may seem to be common sense, it may not occur to someone focused on content when constructing the syllabus.

Other possible classroom strategies include multimedia presentations and using the web to set up study groups.

McGuire and Shaw want to make it clear that any changes made in the college classroom would heighten learning for the entire class, not just those with disabilities.

No one appreciates the need for change more than UConn senior Micah Grossman. Grossman has been identified as dyslexic but, like many others, he tests high on IQ tests. Many of the teachers he's encountered did not think he was smart until they learned about his disability.

"Although teachers are aware of learning disabilities and have heard of dyslexia, they don't understand what it means to be dyslexic and they don't know how to work with us," he says.

People with dyslexia, a reading disorder, take longer to decode words phonetically and that interferes with their reading comprehension . People with other learning disabilities may have a short-term or a long-term memory deficit, have trouble processing information presented orally to them, or may have difficulty with the mechanical motor task of writing.

Micah considers himself lucky because his parents made sure he was in schools with excellent special education programs. When it came time for college, he chose UConn because his research showed that its Program for College Students with Learning Disabilities was a trendsetter.

McGuire is the director of that program, which has gained international recognition for its success in assisting students with learning disabilities to become independent, successful learners within the regular University curriculum. The graduation rate at UConn for undergraduates with learning disabilities is 74 percent. The figures for undergraduates without learning disabilities are typically lower.

Micah, a communications major and dean's list student, has little doubt he'll earn his diploma. Although it's been a struggle, he believes he's proved that people with disabilities can compete with other students in the regular classroom. "It's a matter of taking a little more time," he says. He's limited himself to four classes a semester and has used faculty office hours extensively.

Micah's college experience is exactly what McGuire and Shaw are looking for. This semester he'll spend some of his time in one of the focus groups organized by the two researchers. The participants will identify trouble spots for those with learning disabilities, and they'll share the teaching strategies and methods they have found helpful in their college courses.

"Students with disabilities need good teaching to succeed," says Shaw. "They don't learn through osmosis or peripherally. Often it's a matter of taking an experiential approach in instruction, by anchoring an abstract concept to something more concrete. Students are better able to relate to it then."

"This is a very positive proactive approach," says Shaw, "because it's focused on those things that are effective and what students evaluate as effective."

Janice Palmer