Making learning outcomes achievable for neurodiverse students

Students who learn differently succeed when strategies for reaching diverse learning styles are embraced in the classroom
By: | October 29, 2019
Shelly Chandler is a licensed mental health counselor and provost of Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.Shelly Chandler is a licensed mental health counselor and provost of Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

When it comes to neurodiverse students, educators must do better. Graduation rates for neurodiverse collegians at mainstream schools are disconcertingly low. The 2011 National Longitudinal Transition Study put the four-year graduation rate for neurodiverse students at about 16 percent, while a 2014 study claimed 34 percent of neurodiverse students ultimately complete college.

At Beacon College—now celebrating its 30th year serving neurodiverse students—our 10-year average for students completing their degrees in four years is 70 percent.

This is the tragedy: by embracing research-based practices, rates can soar nationally for students who learn differently.

Improving learning with three types of knowledge

Professors generally are adept at nourishing students with declarative knowledge, which is discussing the facts and concepts of the discipline, but it is often not enough. Since students verbally store declarative information, it is difficult for those with linguistic processing disorders to store and retain the knowledge.

If professors also were to add procedural knowledge—or include a classroom activity to apply the declarative knowledge—many students would benefit. Procedural knowledge is stored differently in the brain, giving students with linguistic processing disorders a better chance for understanding and recall.

To ensure deeper understanding of course material, professors should also fold in metacognitive knowledge, or examining one’s own thinking, to the mix. When students plan, draft, monitor, revise, and reflect, they better retain information. We also know the confluence of the three types of knowledge—declarative, procedural, and metacognitive—spurs critical thinking and deep understanding of the course material.

Research-based strategies proven effective

If professors also incorporated several other powerful techniques, the nation would be well on its way to higher graduation rates for students who learn differently. Modeling critical thinking, for one, is recommended and transformative. Educators should continually lead systematic demonstrations of reasoning that support or refute student logic. This exercise improves student learning. Professors create meaning for students when they invest time in making connections between existing knowledge and new information.

Another helpful technique involves illustrating to students how course material will prove useful in careers or in society.

Providing continuous feedback is essential for the learning process. Students benefit from breaking up larger assignments into small segments and providing feedback along the way. The use of formative assessment—defined by The Glossary of Education Reform, as “a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course”—allows for success because it shows students the gap between their work and the required standard. There, then, is an understanding of how to improve.


Read: How to create a culture of digital accessibility and inclusion


Using authentic assessment is another key to student success. Professors ought to employ a variety of assessment measures. Dump true/false, multiple-choice, and other objective tests because they require all students to respond in the same way—and are not messy like real-life. Nor do these tests promote real-world application or critical thinking. Ideally, an assessment challenges students to solve ill-defined problems, defined as those that possess no single right answer. An authentic assessment should allow students to bring different talents and learning styles to the assessment.

Learning environment required for success

A learning environment geared for success includes small class size, cooperation and mutual respect, and valuing students as individuals. Small class size boosts student and faculty contact, allows for strong student encouragement, and improves faculty morale and commitment.

Classrooms brimming with cooperation and mutual respect prep students to perform up to their potential because they feel free to act without fear, to express ideas, and ask questions. Valuing students as individuals is imperative. By recognizing the diverse talents and strengths of students, professors can design assignments so students can complete them effectively in different ways.

Higher education holds great potential to assist neurodiverse collegians by preparing them for graduation and the world of work. By integrating three types of knowledge in each course session, leaning on research-based practices, and fostering a learning environment conducive to cooperation and respect, neurodiversity shrinks as an issue that impedes graduation.

Shelly Chandler is a licensed mental health counselor and provost of Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, the first baccalaureate school to educate primarily students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning differences. Contact her at [email protected]