As academic coordinator at the College Internship Program for the past 7 years, my main focus has been to help students with learning differences and Autism Spectrum Disorders build social and Executive Function skills in an academic environment. In addition to directly instructing the students, I use real life teachable moments to lead the students to a better understanding and application of the skills needed for independence. Through my journey working with college students on the spectrum, I have developed an understanding of the many challenges the students face communicating with their classmates and professors.
While many of these communication challenges are certainly rooted in the sometimes paralyzing anxiety our students feel, I have noted that many communication errors can be avoided with some simple adjustments to the classroom environment.
Creating an Open Line of Communication
Many students are able to produce work, but they may lack the organizational and social skills to deliver it to the place where it should go at the time in which it is due. When students are unable to figure out what is implied by submission requirements, they can become anxious and irrational and decide not to ask for help. Ultimately, they may not be able to work through those emotions to turn in their assignments.
In able to reduce this anxiety, it is important to let the students know that you are available to help them. Just stating your office hours is not enough. At some point in a given semester, my students will need to miss a class, ask a question, or point out an error. I sometimes will have lengthy conversations with my students to convince them that it is not a bother to email a teacher with occasional challenges. Instructors can open a line of communication by requiring students to make contact via email or meet in person at least once in a term in order to demonstrate the steps.
In order to build a structure for all students, it is important that they know where and when to submit assignments. A good place to build a structure for students is in a syllabus, providing a calendar with clear due dates. Next, state your submission locations in the classroom and online and keep it consistent. Also, clearly state your classroom expectations on the syllabus and the consequences for unmet expectations at the beginning of the term (e.g., Phone must be on silent. The first time is a warning, the second will result in your dismissal). Whether we like it or not, most of our college age students use electronic devices for everything. This transition to electronics has served my students well during tutoring appointments when we are trying to plan to complete assignments, but they can’t remember what the teacher said and may have misplaced the syllabus. By including an electronic compliment, such as Blackboard, Canvas, Angel, or classroom website to the classroom, the students always have access to a planning system that they cannot lose. In addition to the syllabus, video lectures, notes, power points and assignments can be located online. In addition to anxiety, our students may have trouble with attention and fine motor skills which makes it difficult to take notes in class. Posting them online allows the students to take their time comprehending what they hear and also to use assistive technology to create a multisensory study experience.
Feedback is crucial to further explain expectations so that the student can complete the next assignment correctly. Therefore, I highly recommend that professors post grades and comments regarding assignments promptly. When working on assignments with my students, I help them to translate what is meant by what is said, which is especially helpful if I can see it in writing. Reporting attendance is the final component of feedback for the students. Many of my students don’t realize how many classes they have missed or that it even mattered that they were not there. I have had many students that did not meet their own expectations and then went underground emotionally. They needed help working through the situation before they got to the point of an administrative withdrawal for non-attendance. Therefore, it is important to state attendance expectations explicitly.
In order to ensure that the students comprehend your expectations, require students to take a syllabus quiz and a quiz regarding any accompanying online component. Even more engaging might be a group activity where the students work in groups of four and each student reads their assigned number of paragraphs with a certain category. After a period of time, they share with their group. Next, an appointed group member shares what they learned with the class. Finally, a group discussion or pop quiz can ensue. This activity can be used with regular course content as well.
For students with social and Executive Function challenges, small group activities in class are easier than out of class group activities because they receive constant feedback from peers and the instructor. Although, my students (who are given explicit instructions on how to interact with others) still falter in this area. There have been countless times when I was tutoring a student and the student mentioned an out of class group assignment of which they were unaware of their part. In addition, even when prompted, they may not ever come to our session with contact information. Of those who did, some took over the group and others were totally aloof. If their groupmates tolerated their social oddities, then they might be given a task. If there must be out of class group assignments, then allow the students some class time to connect, exchange information and schedule in-person meeting days and times.
Students can become overwhelmed easily in any subject, especially when it is not an area of interest. When requiring a student to complete assignments, be clear and concise with directions. If the class is online, be sure to separate the lecture from the assignment. I had a student writing with graduate level writing skills panic and cry for days when she saw two pages of requirements. She couldn’t even read it. I extracted the lecture and outlined the requirements. She sat down and made a plan to complete the assignment and was able to complete the assignment unassisted from that point. It was helpful that she knew way ahead of time when her assignment was due so that she could plan to complete it early. As a result, she was able to get it reviewed by the writing lab before her final submission. She went to the writing lab because her teacher offered extra credit if her paper was signed by writing lab staff. Another technique that is helpful is when instructors offer specific feedback in the areas that need work and demonstrate what it looks like. The instructor may also require students to demonstrate where they went wrong and allow them the ability to correct or have the student’s grade, check and critique each other. The classes can be structured to encourage several submissions to allow students to get it right.
Assessments allow the students to know in which area they need to improve. It also gives them an opportunity to prove their knowledge. Unfortunately, I have witnessed on multiple occasions students who understand the material but get hung up on the details of the assessment. When writing tests, it is important to have someone proof your tests for spelling and grammar errors and avoid negative statements like, “Which selection is not the answer?” You are testing for knowledge, not attention. Stick with one style of test or let the students know if you are going to change your style. A sudden change could cause a rigid student to panic and not complete the exam. Also, giving assessments often presents more opportunity for feedback and practice understanding your expectations. Consider using other methods of assessment like crossword puzzles, hangman, games, portfolios, and presentations. This will allow students with test anxiety and other testing issues to show you what they know.
The Grand Design
When designing your classroom environment, consider what you are trying to accomplish. Many instructors have asked me, “If I hand them everything, then how will they be able to function in the real world?” My response is that the students with learning differences that I have worked with were almost always intelligent enough to handle the course content. However, they struggled because of issues with note taking, time management, organization, study strategies and anxiety. These are all areas that students can work on with college student support services such as writing labs, math labs, accessibility services, counseling and peer mentors, etc. Recommend and require your students to at least try out these services so they are comfortable going through the process. As an instructor, you teach the student the content of the course. If you offer your students support, deliver your course content in an engaging manner by facilitating learning and they will remember it forever.
Ryan Therriault serves as the Lead Academic Coordinator for all six sites of the College Internship Program (CIP). CIP (www.cipworldwide.org) is a comprehensive program serving teens and young adults with Asperger’s, Autism and other Learning Differences. CIP offers year round and summer programs. Autism and Learning Differences (An Active Learning Teaching Toolkit), by Dr. Michael McManmon EdD (CIP’s founder), published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London 2015.