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For those with learning difficulties or disabilities, an unstructured, remote classroom can be an overwhelming and less-than-ideal environment for learning. Just like in a physical classroom, students benefit from thoughtful accommodations in order to find success. Enabling closed-captioning on your videos, using a larger font or a different colored background than white in emails and online communication, as well as employing and describing visuals in your lessons, all help with accessibility even before the lessons have begun. 

Accessibility can and should be a state of mind instead of just a box to check. Here are some ideas on how to best support learning differences in a distance learning environment. 

Be explicit and consistent with rules, guidelines, and expectations. 

The best and most effective step you can take in supporting students with learning differences is creating a sense of structure from the get-go. Students on the spectrum benefit from a schedule that allows them to prepare for what is coming; structure and routine can often help individuals on the spectrum build flexibility. In fact, schedules also benefit other learners too, as it keeps anxiety low, therefore supporting learning outcomes and mitigating misconduct.

As best as you can, establish rules for your virtual classroom similar to those in your physical classroom. The start and end time; how participants share their thoughts; familiar phrases that you used in your physical classroom, all help to support students who may already be feeling flustered upon login. Perhaps you even write out your online course expectations with images associated with each rule, then review them before each class — better yet, email/mail them to every student, so everyone has a physical reminder of what they can expect. Time management is also a crucial component of remote learning for every type of learner, so encouraging thoughtful and proactive organization — especially during midterms and final exams — can empower students across the board.

And while these expectations may need to shift as the semester progresses, at least the students who need structure the most have a foundation upon which to pivot. 

Offer personalized — and when you can, immediate — feedback frequently. 

Research has shown that effective learners create internal feedback and cognitive routines while they are engaged in academic tasks. D. L. Butler and Winne (1995) found that for all self-regulated activities, feedback is an inherent catalyst. “As learners monitor their engagement with tasks, internal feedback is generated by the monitoring process. That feedback describes the nature of outcomes and the qualities of the cognitive processes that led to those states.” 

However, it has been observed that less effective learners depend much more heavily on external factors, like the task itself or their teacher for feedback, and have minimal self-regulation strategies. According to Hattie and Timperly (2007), “They rarely seek or incorporate feedback in ways that will enhance their future learning or self-regulation strategies.”

For students with learning disabilities, the need for explicit feedback in order to meet learning objectives and maintain engagement is essential, especially in a digital learning environment, where in-person cues are lacking. Opportunities to reach out to students directly and personally are more complicated with remote instruction, but not impossible. For assignments and assessments, try to provide as close-to-immediate-feedback as possible, so that a student can understand right away if they are on target. Do your best to go beyond “Good job!” by providing feedback that is actionable and specific, which gives students with learning differences exact directions on how to improve. A private message within a Zoom video call can also work to redirect behavior and boost a student’s focus and engagement within a discussion. 

A direct email outside of your course communications to see how students are faring can go a long way and can give you the chance to offer personalized information privately. Checking in with families and caretakers via email or phone calls are also effective ways to provide feedback to the student’s learning team as a whole, as well as offer additional guidance and outside resources, if appropriate.

Leave room for flexibility amidst dependable structure. 

This tip may feel directly at odds with tip #1 (consistency! expectations!), but the two are actually compatible. Once you’ve set a routine for your online class, shared and clarified your expectations, and even offered a student (or many students!), a personal check-in, you’ve set yourself up with room to flex. 

Students with learning differences who typically require extra time in class to take an exam or who need a concept explained several different ways before full comprehension are going to need even more space and time to complete their work in a digital setting. You can do that in a few ways: one idea is to offer a “menu” of assessment options from which students can choose; perhaps they illustrate mastery of a concept by writing an essay, recording a song, or building a website that reflects the story arc of the main character in a novel. 

You can also preview work with students who might require lead time in order to participate, which may be an email the night before that offers an example problem or includes a few talking points related to the next day’s discussion topic. Another idea is to have several due dates, where students can send in a rough draft, receive feedback, then utilize a few extra days to revise and turn in their best work. The option for unlimited submissions through Turnitin Feedback Studio is a great way for all types of learners to take ownership of their learning at their own pace, iterating and reiterating before a final draft. 

Upholding rules, setting aside time for personalization, and maintaining flexibility are all going to take extra effort and a lot of strength from educators. All students, especially those with learning differences, are looking to you to help shepherd them through these uncertain times and support them as they seek learning success in a digital learning environment.

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