Overcoming a Learning Disability to succeeed in exams

With exams looming for high school learners and students at higher education institutions, thousands will face the challenge with the added hurdle of having to contend with a learning disability. But an education expert says that these young people can make a success of their studies with the help of a solid strategy and support from their institutions.

“Current figures suggest that almost 11% of learners and students face learning disabilities, although the actual figure is likely to be much higher than that due to under-reporting and under-detection,” says Nola Payne, Head of Faculty: Information Technology at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education institution.

Payne says the challenges faced by young people attempting to master their work also fall within a broad range – with some experiencing diagnosed challenges and others facing limiting challenges which are either considered normal, behavioural challenges, or are not identified at all.

“Learning disabilities can be severely limiting, but they are not always often spoken about or considered,” she says, adding that the key to success was to identify and acknowledge any problems – with the help of school or tertiary institution support staff – and then to fully understand which skills and strategies normally associated with successful study needed to be supplemented or altered.

“Students and learners, with the support of their teachers and lecturers, have to determine where the challenge lies, for instance whether with reading or writing, higher organisational skills, abstract reasoning, time management, long or short term memory retention, or concentration.

“Strategies then need to follow from this understanding and awareness as some of the challenges can be addressed by the student while others, such as the need for extra time, normally involve a structured application and approval process.”

Payne says that often people were not aware that if a learning disability had been identified and documented, it was possible to apply for some form of concession or accommodation during exams.

“To qualify for such concessions, formal assessment is critical. For disabilities, the accommodations and concessions are often ongoing and may or may not need to be formally renewed.  More often than not you will be able to access the same concessions you did at school in your higher education institution.”

Payne says that if a student has a learning problem as opposed to a disability, interventions are often behavioural, and some higher education institutions will allow concessions for a period while the intervention is in process.

“A professional must assist with the documentation and motivation, which should include the period for which a concession is likely to be needed. Higher Education institutions will also require reasonable notice so it is prudent to apply as soon as you can.”*

But Payne says in addition to concessions, students and learners who will be writing exams in coming months can employ a range of strategies to manage the impact of their situation on their success.

“These techniques are valuable to everyone, and even more so to those who need a little bit extra support and preparation,” she says.

Ways to counter the impact of learning challenges included

Starting revision well in advance of the exams.

“It is common for those who find studying particularly difficult to avoid it and thus it is important to implement a study programme and time table well in advance of the assessment dates,” says Payne.

“Starting early not only provides the additional time that students with learning disabilities need, but it also helps to reduce stress as it provides additional time for review and for different learning and study techniques and strategies.”

Having a study timetable.

Payne says that working to a fixed schedule is an important tool to not only manage time around other activities, but also to help you focus your daily routine.

 You need to be disciplined about this.  Honesty in recording what you really do relative to what you planned to do will help you keep track of how far you are falling behind or how much extra time you are providing for yourself. Sufficient breaks should be built in so that fatigue does not undermine progress made.”

Keeping study sessions short.

Short study sessions are not as daunting as having huge chunks of hour upon hour of study planned, says Payne.

“A 2 hour uninterrupted session is exhausting and frustrating if you’re struggling to process information. Rather have 1 hour separated by a break of another hour and then 1 more hour study per day. This gives your brain time to process the information covered in the first hour, re-energises you and enables you to concentrate for the next hour session.”

Using other resources to supplement the notes from class.

“Students with learning disabilities should strategies to use study methods that compensate for their particular challenge. Students with dyslexia, for example, can benefit from watching videos or podcasts or, for their set works, watching videos or dramatic productions.

“For those who struggle with recall, mnemonics or rhymes can help.  The key is to fully understand which processing or recall capacity your disability undermines and to try and develop study skills that compensate.”

Getting a study buddy.

“Working with a friend who can discuss topics with you and assist in making notes, asking questions and generally explaining content is an effective study strategy that shouldn’t be underestimated. This dialogue can stimulate thinking in both partners, which in turn helps one to retain the information.  It also provides important social and psychological support when you are feeling overwhelmed.”

Making posters.

“Making posters assists in revision, and act as constant visual reminders. Use colours, pictures, mind maps and diagrams which visually demonstrate or display a chunk of information. Often in an exam setting, recalling the visual will then assist in your brain accessing the information that was part of the diagram/chart/mind map.


“If you have been allowed a concession such as a scribe, extra time or a reader, then becoming familiar with how the assessment will actually feel and be experienced by you is critical to your ability to make the best use possible of the concession.”

“Learning disabilities do pose challenges but they do not necessarily stand in the way of achieving your dreams,” says Payne.

“In fact, some would argue that the tenacity that is required to succeed in the face of a learning disability is exactly the tenacity needed to be really successful. You can therefore capitalise on the additional skills you learn from managing the disability, and follow in the footsteps of the likes of Richard Branson and Steve Jobs who battled and overcame similar challenges.”

*Matriculants requiring concessions must apply during their Grade 11 year.

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