While everyone has a learning style, some people have a learning disability, a general term that covers a wide variety of specific learning problems resulting from neurological disorders that can make it difficult to acquire certain academic and social skills. A learning disability is a very common challenge to learning for students of any age. Learning disabilities are usually recognized and diagnosed in grade school, but some students can enter college without having been properly diagnosed or assisted.


Learning disabilities can show up as specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination, self-control, or attention. Such difficulties can impede learning to read, write, or do math. The term learning disability covers a broad range of symptoms and outcomes. Because of this, it is sometimes difficult to diagnose a learning disability or pinpoint the causes. The types of learning disabilities that most commonly affect college students are attention disorders, which affect the ability to focus and concentrate, and cognitive disorders, which affect the development of academic skills, including reading, writing, and mathematics.

You might know someone who has been diagnosed with a learning disability, such as dyslexia, a reading disability that occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols, or an attention deficit disorder that affects concentration and focus. It is also possible that you have a special learning need and are not aware of it. This section seeks to increase your self-awareness and your knowledge about such challenges to learning. The earlier in lifeand collegeyou address any learning challenges you might have, the better you will perform.

Attention Disorders

Attention disorders are common in children, adolescents, and even adults. Some students who have attention disorders appear to daydream a lot; even if you do get their attention, they can be easily distracted. Individuals with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have trouble organizing tasks or completing their work. They don’t seem to listen to or follow directions, and their work might be messy or appear careless. Although in legal and medical terms they are not strictly classified as learning disabilities, ADD and ADHD can seriously interfere with academic performance, leading some educators to classify them along with other learning disabilities.7

If you have trouble paying attention or getting organized, you won’t really know whether you have ADD or ADHD until you are evaluated. It may be that you simply have too much to do or that you’re trying unsuccessfully to multitask. Do not assume that you have a learning disability until you consult with an expert in your learning center or in the community. After you have been evaluated, follow the professional advice you get, which may or may not mean taking medication. If you do receive a prescription for medication, be sure to take it according to the doctor’s directions. In the meantime, if you’re having trouble getting and staying organized, whether or not you have an attention disorder, you can improve your focus through your own behavioral choices. The world-famous Mayo Clinic website offers the following suggestions for adults with ADD or ADHD.8


Cognitive Learning Disabilities

Cognitive learning disabilities are related to mental tasks and processing. Dyslexia, for example, is a developmental reading disorder classified as a cognitive learning disability. A person can have problems with any of the tasks involved in reading. However, scientists have found that a significant number of people with dyslexia are not able to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words. For instance, dyslexic individuals sometimes have difficulty assigning the right sounds to letters, either individually or when letters combine to form words.

There is, of course, more to reading than recognizing words. If the brain is unable to form images or relate new ideas to those stored in memory, the reader can’t understand or remember the new concepts. So other types of reading disabilities can appear when the focus of reading shifts from identifying words to comprehending a written passage.9

Writing, too, involves several brain areas and functions. The networks of the brain that control vocabulary, grammar, hand movement, and memory must all be in good working order. So a developmental writing disorder might result from problems in any of these areas. Someone who can’t distinguish the sequence of sounds in a word will often have problems with spelling. People with writing disabilities, particularly expressive language disorders (the inability to express oneself using accurate language or sentence structure), are often unable to write complete, grammatical sentences.10


A student with a developmental arithmetic disorder will have difficulty recognizing numbers and symbols, memorizing facts such as the multiplication table, and understanding abstract concepts such as place value and fractions.11

Exploring Resources

If you have a documented learning disability, make sure to notify the office of disabled student services at your college to receive reasonable accommodations as required by law. Reasonable accommodations might include use of a computer during some exams, readers for tests, in-class note-takers, extra time for assignments and tests, and use of audio textbooks, depending on need and the type of disability.

If you don’t yet have a “documented” learning disability but think you might, the disabled student services office would be a good place to start. You could also discuss this issue with your academic adviser, a learning center professional, or an adviser or counselor in your college counseling center. All of them can get you to the right source for evaluation and assistance.

Anyone who is diagnosed with a learning disability is in good company. Actors Keanu Reeves, Keira Knightley, and Daniel Radcliffe, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, and former football star Tim Tebow are just a few of the famous and successful people who have diagnosed learning disabilities. Here is a final important message: A learning disability is a learning difference but is in no way related to intelligence. Having a learning disability is not a sign that you are stupid. In fact, some of the most intelligent individuals in human history have had a learning disability.