GUEST POST: Scribbling Out Dysgraphia - Beating Learning Disabilities With Adaptive Study Methods

GUEST POST: Scribbling Out Dysgraphia - Beating Learning Disabilities With Adaptive Study Methods

By: Martin Winter

Martin Winter is a senior at UMass-Lowell. He is majoring in psychology, with a minor in philosophy. He is a student-athlete, as a member of the men’s lacrosse team. In his free time, Martin likes to coach youth lacrosse, which is how he became interested in psychology. Martin’s preferred psychology topics are related to how people learn because it helps him teach younger players. After earning his B.A., Martin plans to coach in Oregon, his home state, before continuing his education in graduate school.

Recently, we published a student guest post that talked about the benefits of handwriting over laptop use. But not all students are able to handwrite quickly and efficiently. In this post, Martin describes how he overcame this setback and uses laptops to take notes and study effectively.

For the vast majority of students, college is a step up in academic difficulty from high school. Sound intimidating? Try factoring in one of many learning disabilities. College professors teach fast. Classrooms are large. Distractions abound.

I faced this problem. In high school, I was a below average student, partly due to dysgraphia. Dysgraphia (1) is a specific learning disability that affects fine motor skills. In the academic setting, this means handwriting. I handwrite slowly, illegibly, painfully, and I don’t process what I’m writing.

All my life, dysgraphia wreaked havoc on my academic experience. I can remember countless elementary school nights where my mom would have to bribe me with candy to make me stop crying and making escape attempts when I was learning to handwrite. Late elementary school was even worse, as cursive vexed me further. Simple assignments took me twice as long as they did for my peers, and I was laughed at and assumed to be lazy (I’m not). High school was also a nightmare.

Picture of my handwritten work from third grade. Note the mix of upper- and lowercase letters and failure to stay within lines, while showing below age-appropriate mastery of the English language.

Picture of my handwritten work from third grade. Note the mix of upper- and lowercase letters and failure to stay within lines, while showing below age-appropriate mastery of the English language.

As a little kid, I was totally recalcitrant about handwriting. I outright refused to do some activities. I would matter-of-factly inform my teachers that their exercises were a waste of time because writing by hand would soon be useless when computers became the best way to write. All the way back in the early 2000’s, I was surprisingly accurate in this prognostication.

After a decade of spitefully scribbling my way through school, I am having the last laugh. Everything I do is on the computer, and this has helped me overcome dysgraphia. With a learning disability, I am a successful college student, and I achieved that by adapting my study methods around my disability.

But this is not meant to be an inspirational story. I want to pass on the things I’ve learned through trial and error so those of you who struggle with similar issues don’t have to go through the trouble of honing study methods around an abject inability to write. The following is the process I use to leverage my strengths instead of being held back by my weaknesses. Even though this is a tried and true study method from a grizzled veteran, you shouldn’t blindly implement it without understanding the moving pieces that make it work. Much of this process is backed by the cornerstones of educational cognitive psychology; it employs many learning methods that have been supported by science, and previously described in this blog.

Here is my workflow:

1) The first step is acquiring course content however works best for you. There are plenty of ways to do this without handwriting, including recording the class, asking for lecture slides, or reading the textbook.

2) Once I’ve accumulated a bunch of notes and know I have a test coming up, I start preparing. This is where science gets involved. On a computer, make a heading for each major topic you think you’ll need to know on the upcoming test. When you have a heading for all relevant topics, copy them to a new document and save it as a blank version of your study guide. Next, using notes and your memory, explain each topic to yourself until you understand the material. Once you have a novel take on an explanation, type it out for yourself, and repeat this for each topic on your list. Cognitive psychologists call this self-explanation (2). Explaining a concept to yourself feels awkward at first, but is a reliable way to increase how much you learn.

3) Pull out the blank version of your study guide, and go through each heading trying to type out all of each explanation, from memory. This is known as retrieval practice. Compared to simply restudying, studying by quizzing yourself has been shown to produce higher scores on later tests (3).

Note: You may not remember everything on the first try; that’s no problem. Refer back to your completed study guide for the first line or two of any section you get stuck on. This study method is known as scaffolding. Scaffolding is the process of helping yourself recall answers with hints, and making the hints smaller and smaller until you no longer need them (4).

Picture of a sample study guide and its blank counterpart produced through this process for a psychology research class.

Picture of a sample study guide and its blank counterpart produced through this process for a psychology research class.

4) After each pass over all the material, take a break for 5 minutes. Change to something intellectually stimulating, but fun. (My favorite palate-cleansing activity is working on a jigsaw puzzle.) I have found that this brief change in activity helps keep my focus sharper for longer, and this is also supported by science (5).

5) When you go back to studying, pick up a different topic to the one you just covered. This is called interleaving - the process of studying many different topics (each one in your list) one after the next in brief stints (6), and it is better for long-term memory than studying one topic for a long time.

This process has been working well for me. It’s probably not just a coincidence, then, that it automatically includes four scientifically supported study methods. One reason I like this system is its “rinse-and-repeat” nature. The formula works for a wide variety of subjects. To me, this removes the intimidating element of getting started studying, and ensures that I will be studying in the most efficient way possible.

Most importantly, not only is this the most efficient way I have found to study, but it entirely side-steps all problems I have ever had with dysgraphia. My struggle with handwriting led me to lean heavily on my computer, which led me to study habits that have carried me through college.

I believe these cognitive psychology principles could be adapted to ease the burden of other learning disabilities beyond dysgraphia. Interleaving seems like a solution for ADHD. The familiarity of the same steps each time should suit anxious students. Students struggling with reading and writing (e.g., with dyslexia) can dictate their self-explanations and subsequent answers, and have answers read back by the computer. The sum takeaway of this post is that using this framework and technology, the challenges of college can be tamed, and learning disabilities needn’t stand in the way of your success.


References:

(1) Patino, E. (2014). Understanding Dysgraphia. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/understanding-dysgraphia

(2) Wong, R. M., Lawson, M. J., & Keeves, J. (2002). The effects of self-explanation training on students' problem solving in high-school mathematics. Learning and Instruction, 12, 233-262.

(3) Goossens, N. A., Camp, G., Verkoeijen, P. P., Tabbers, H. K., & Zwaan, R. A. (2014). The benefit of retrieval practice over elaborative restudy in primary school vocabulary learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 177-182.

(4) Bakker, A., Smit, J., & Wegerif, R. (2015). Scaffolding and dialogic teaching in mathematics education: introduction and review. ZDM, 47, 1047-1065.

(5) Johnstone, A. H., & Percival, F. (1976). Attention breaks in lectures. Education in Chemistry, 13, 49-50.

(6) Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481-498.

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