Davidson Students Band Together To Handle Learning Disabilities
April 5, 2001
When Dr. Edward Hallowell speaks at Davidson College on April 9 about personal regimens for handling attention deficit disorder (ADD) and learning disabilities (LD), he will be "preaching" to a large "choir" of students who are already employing many of his techniques to help assure their success at the academically rigorous institution.
Dr. Hallowell, a high-profile Harvard-based expert on ADD and author of Driven to Distraction, will discuss symptoms and treatment that can help students cope better with the demands of the classroom and life.
His appearance has been initiated by the college's "Students for New Learning," a group that formed last spring to help individual students find the best means to accommodate their different learning styles.
The federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires all colleges and universities to provide accommodation for students with learning disabilities. That may include books on tape for students with reading disabilities, extra time to take tests for students with process disabilities, computer spell checking for students with dyslexia, and individual coaching and instruction for people with ADD who need help getting organized.
But Davidson students have taken the unique step of forming their own support group. Jimmy Constantine, Ashley Crimmins, Paul Gravel, and Andrew Morsink formed "Students for New Learning" to address issues specific to their needs.
"Yes, I've got the scarlet 'LD' on my chest," proclaimed junior Jennifer Higgins. "It's not like cancer, but it is something I have to learn to live with. SNL helps me to feel comfortable about it, and helps the community understand that we only need accommodation, not advantage."
There are now about forty members in SNL. Though their medical condition is considered confidential by the college, they have chosen to self-identify and work openly to shed some light on their situation. "We like to say we have 'learning differences' rather than 'learning disabilities,'" said Paul Gravel, who has served as leader of the group. "We can learn as well as anyone if given appropriate accommodation. The reason I've been successful in high school and again at Davidson is because of teachers who understood my potential. I am grateful to those who spent a little extra time reviewing material for me, who gave me patience when I deserved much less, and who gave me a dream that one day I would graduate and find success in life."
Up to a dozen SNL members meet for supper every other Wednesday night to share challenges and success stories, and recently have been reading Hallowell's book together in preparation for his talk.
They also find motivation in reaching outside the college boundaries to serve others who face similar challenges. Members of the group are working with North Mecklenburg High School students to help them prepare for college, and group leaders have made formal presentations to interested groups of students and parents at other local schools. They will be appearing as the "Call 3" panel on WBT television on April 4 to answer viewer questions about learning disabilities.
Leslie Marsicano, associate dean of students, says that five percent of Davidson students (about eighty) are officially diagnosed as learning disabled, but that about thirty percent of those don't realize it until they get to Davidson. "They may have realized all along that it took them more time to read than their friends, but they just put in the time it took. Then they got to Davidson and were faced with so much reading that they didn't have the extra time anymore."
She continued, "I tell students it's like being color blind. You can live a long time and not know there's a difference between red and green, until you're learning to drive! But if you alert your instructor, the instructor can tell you to 'Go" on the bottom light and 'Stop' on the top. That's the type of accommodation we make for students. They still have to learn how to drive like everyone else."
SNL co-founder Andrew Morsink admitted he was about to flunk out of Davidson before he began to find ways to learn more effectively. Though he had good grades in high school, was a state orchestra violinist, and scored third highest in the nation on a national honors French test, he failed his first two classes freshman year and couldn't seem to get any grade above a "C."
"It wasn't just the load here, it was the lack of structure," he said. "In high school my parents structured my study time. My mom would actually sit in the room with me to make sure I got everything done. But when I got here, I didn't have that structure. Without an impending deadline, I had trouble focusing. I would sit in the library all day and only get an hour's worth of work done, just staring at the page, reading the same words over and over. The nature of the disorder is that little things seem overwhelming, and so you put them off until it's too late."
Morsink was diagnosed with ADD midway through his sophomore year, and began taking Ritalin and working with college counselors to structure his academic life. He began studying with ear plugs and in quiet environments, and got extra time from professors to complete tests. And, like many ADD students, he began rigorously scheduling his life.
"Palm Pilots are wonderful tools!" noted Nance Longworth, a Davidson student counseling center counselor who works extensively with LD students. "Calendars are really important, because a lot of these students have trouble organizing their time. For some it means three or four calendars--one for long range, one for the week, and another for the next day. In addition, they'll often highlight items such as tests and papers with different colors."
Another strategy she recommends for writing assignments is for students to immediately schedule times with their professor to show him or her a written idea for a paper, an outline, and a draft. By scheduling bits of time to work on the paper every day, and meeting those interim deadlines with the professor, students are able to reach their study goals and avoid the helpless feeling of being unprepared the night before an assignment is due.
Morsink explained that he rigorously schedules each day's activities, including a forty-minute block of time every day for e-mail and phone calls so that he won't get distracted for hours with those communications. He schedules a ten minute break per hour of study time, and even schedules time to think about things that need attention. "It's not that I forget," he said. "I just lose track of time and things fall through the cracks."
Through counseling, academic accommodations, and the support of his peers, Morsink's grades are now hovering just below an "A" average, he's off of Ritalin, and he conducted a very successful summer internship with McKinsey and Company.
Jennifer Higgins is another student who got off to a rocky start at Davidson. Though she was selected to attend Governor's School for Natural Science in high school, and earned an academic scholarship to Davidson, she failed classes in math and biology. "I was math and science whiz throughout school," she said. "I couldn't figure out why I was doing badly here."
Marsicano met with her and asked if she had ever considered the possibility of a learning disability. Higgins denied it at first, but it began to make sense to her in a subsequent conference with Longworth. Higgins said, "She told me that everything I was learning was stacked inside my head like big pile of clothes. You're always trying to get to the pair of jeans at the bottom, but you can't, because you're busy lifting all this stuff off the top."
Longworth emphasized that many LD students are among the brightest at the college. "A lot of the students I see are in the 97th and above percentile for full IQ. That's in the Einstein range," she said. "They're fun and creative, and want to do well."
Longworth added that things usually get easier for LD students after graduation because they can tailor their lifestyle and work to their strengths, and minimize their weaknesses.
Because of the legal accommodations, personal counseling, and support of others, LD students at Davidson generally end up doing as well as other students. The proof of the possibilities for success are evident in the many success stories Longworth enjoys telling. "A student came by recently who did well in high school, but spent most of freshman year crying in my office," Longworth began. "She had trouble with written expression so we changed how she combined her courses so she didn't have three writing courses in a semester. She got tutoring for courses in her weak area, and I spent a lot of time as her cheerleader. She was accommodated with a reduced course load some semesters, and made up needed credits in summer school. Well, she's just been accepted into medical school!"
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.