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[Special Education] 4 Differentiation Strategies to Support Students with Learning Disabilities in Online Courses

[Special Education] 4 Differentiation Strategies to Support Students with Learning Disabilities in Online Courses

After pandemic-related school closures prompted a major shift to remote and hybrid education, students continue to take advantage of virtual options because they appreciate the opportunity to work at their own pace, on their own schedule, and in the environment that is most effective for them. That’s the power of online learning—it’s all about flexibility and personalization. So, it only makes sense that a growing number of students with learning disabilities are choosing to enroll in online and virtual programs in order to meet their highly individualized needs.

Online courses alone are not the complete solution; educators still play a vital role in making sure that these students get the support they need. Here are four tips to help educators provide the differentiation in instruction that students with learning abilities require to be successful in online courses. 

1. Start by addressing each student’s IEP

Students with identified learning disabilities will often come to online learning with a Section 504 plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP) already in place. When this is the case, it’s critical for all educators involved to work closely with students and their parents/guardians to ensure that all accommodations and modifications specified in the IEP continue to be provided. Clear communication from the beginning is key. Consider scheduling a meeting with each student and any virtual program support staff at the beginning of the course to make a plan that everyone is comfortable with, and set clear expectations.

It is wise to address potential changes in the learning environment due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols—for the students, the instructors, or other members of the case management team. As such, consider creating an addendum that clearly details what will happen should a shift in the learning environment or a change in the teaching staff or support personnel occur. Then, check in often. Make sure that students and their parents know that they can come to you with any concerns, address learning challenges as they arise, and prepare themselves to try different approaches if a strategy isn’t effective.

2. Reorganize assignments into manageable pieces

The right accommodations and/or modifications make all the difference for students working under IEPs. Often, these modifications come in the form of reorganizing a question, reducing the number of questions assigned, or providing an alternative formative or summative assessment. Small adjustments to the format/structure, wording, and assessment within an assignment can help ensure that students with learning disabilities “see” the prompts they’re being asked to respond to. For example, consider this question found on a biology assignment: 

What measurement should you record in your laboratory report for the mass of the beaker and saltwater solution? Why? Assuming the balance is calibrated correctly, what is the smallest mass that it could accurately measure? What are some reasonable explanations for why the value displayed on the balance fluctuated between 252.150 grams and 252.151 grams?

Students with visual-processing challenges tend to find these types of questions particularly difficult because all the questions run together. The question can be reorganized to become:

  1. According to the picture, what will you record as the mass of the beaker?
  2. According to the picture, what will you record as the mass of the saltwater solution?
  3. Assuming the balance is calibrated correctly, what is the smallest mass that it could accurately measure?
  4. Explain why you think the value displayed on the balance kept changing between 252.150 grams and 252.151 grams. 

Even for students who don’t have visual-processing challenges, reorganizing this question so that it is made of four distinct parts that are specifically listed out makes it clearer. For students who do have learning disabilities, this can mean the difference between disengaging entirely and experiencing success.

3. Focus on simplicity 

For students with learning disabilities, processing large amounts of information is a challenge. So, keep assignments as straightforward as possible. Try to eliminate information that isn’t essential and emphasize the most relevant pieces of information. As an example, consider this paragraph found in a chemistry activity: 

Carbon has four bonding electrons in its valence, or outermost, shell. Similar to other nonmetals, carbon needs eight electrons to satisfy its valence shell. Carbon, therefore, forms four bonds with other atoms (each bond consisting of one of carbon's electrons and one of the bonding atom's electrons). Every valence electron participates in bonding. Thus, a carbon atom's bonds will be distributed evenly over the atom's surface. These bonds form a tetrahedron (a polyhedron with four faces, which are triangles).

Modified for simplicity and relevance, it can become: 

  • Remember that the outermost electrons are called valence electrons, and that these are the electrons involved in forming bonds with other atoms to form compounds.

  • Carbon has four valence electrons.

  • Carbon, therefore, forms four bonds with other atoms.

In the restated format, this passage provides students with information to help them successfully complete their assignment in a clear and concise manner. It has been reorganized so that students can easily read the information and items that are particularly critical for them to understand and retain are emphasized. In addition, students can access digital tools such as text-to-speech or highlighters to provide further emphasis.

4. Provide multiple options for assessments

Just as each student learns differently, each one excels at demonstrating knowledge in different ways. Typical assessment formats, like multiple-choice tests and timed exams, can be stressful for students who struggle with information-processing or attention issues. Students with IEPs and 504 Plans should have access to different options for formative and summative assessments. For example, offer an option to write an essay; assemble a presentation;, or even complete a more creative piece like a video, skit, or webpage. Giving students the ability to demonstrate their knowledge in a format they’re most comfortable with can remove stress and deepen learning—and that kind of personalization is the ultimate goal of virtual education. 

Looking for a virtual learning program to provide new options for your students? Check out Edmentum’s fully accredited virtual school, EdOptions Academy. EdOptions Academy can help your school or district meet the needs of all learners, including those with learning disabilities, by pairing easy-to-use, media-rich, and built-to-standards curriculum with highly qualified, state-certified special education teachers focused on building real relationships with students.

This blog was originially published August 2018 by Sarah Cornelius and has been updated.