Academic Accommodations: They Do Make a Difference
EDF 6481 521 Foundations of Educational Research
By Hawa Allarakhia
How is the performance of college students with learning disabilities impacted by the receipt of academic accommodations? Does it really make a difference? The short answer is yes. More and more students with disabilities are going to college these days. The number of students with disabilities attending post-secondary institutions has increased rapidly in the last few years (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). Not only are the numbers of students with disabilities increasing, but more disabilities are recognized, and more accommodations may be available. As time goes on, these factors may further increase.
A large segment of the student body at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee qualifies to receive accommodations for a broad range of learning difficulties. Frequently, faculty members do not readily comply with these mandates because they do not recognize the need for accommodating, nor do they see the positive impact such accommodations can make for the student. Research reports higher retention, higher graduation numbers, increased student success and self-advocacy, as well as improved grade point averages in some instances. However, the body of research so far is not large in this area of special education, but this topic is decidedly interesting and promising, and can be expected to encourage further research in accommodating students with difficulties.
An important goal for students, faculty, and staff is to bring awareness about the fairness and appropriateness of providing accommodations, as well as the legal obligation to provide such accommodations. Granting academic accommodations to qualifying students allows the students with disabilities to be on the same level as their peers.
Rationale for the Study
Specifically, the impact that academic provisions may have on students’ overall performance has not been adequately studied. Two previous studies support the need for further investigation into this subject matter. Hadley (2011) focused on producing research that was based on the college experience of students with disabilities. More recently, an article by Won Ho Kim and Juyoung Lee (2016) investigated the effect the academic accommodations have on the academic achievement of students with disabilities. Continuing research on this topic will ensure that students with disabilities who are striving to find success in higher educational institutions can do so with adequate resources at their disposal.
Purpose of the Study
What types of academic accommodations do college students find the most beneficial and why? It is important to examine this particular topic to allow students and faculty to benefit from the previous experiences of other students. The academic provisions students may require to be successful change through the progression of their academic careers. Sometimes students state that expressing the reason for needing an appropriate accommodation is hard to put into words which can pose difficulties for faculty to provide appropriate assistance to students. During this study, the plan is to explore why a particular provision is helpful to students’ overall academic achievement. The necessary information will be gathered through a survey where students will be given a list of the ten most commonly used academic accommodations and required to explain if and why they find that specific provision helpful. The educational importance of investigating this topic is to provide evidence that academic accommodations that students receive have a positive impact on their overall academic success.
The Problem and Research Questions
The reason why a student finds a particular provision necessary and beneficial is rarely explored from the students’ perspective. Most research on this subject matter is completed on the basis of how the academic performance is impacted by the use of academic accommodations. By exploring the issue from a student’s perspective, the effect of a specific provision has on achievement can be uncovered in further detail.
How and why do students with disabilities find a specific academic accommodation helpful?
Data was gathered to answer the research question using an anonymous online survey that was distributed to the students registered with Student Disability Services at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. The survey asked students if they found the following accommodations helpful and why: extended time, a reader (text to speech), a scribe (speech to text), note taker, record lecture, attendance flexibility, electronic textbook, distraction-reduced testing environment, the use of a computer for an essay or written responses. Students were given a month to complete the survey. The research was conducted in the autumn of 2017 and presented the following results.
The theoretical framework of this study is built upon the basis that providing students with academic accommodations has a positive impact on their academic achievement. As determined in previous research by Kim & Juyoung (2016, p. 40) the academic provisions students receive does have an impact of the overall grade point average students with disabilities earn in the post-secondary learning environment. While the instrument used to collect data is modeled after procedures utilized in a study by Abreu, Frye, Goldstein & Hiller (2016, p. 324) the information gathered relates only to academic accommodations students find beneficial but does not reveal the exact learning disability which a student may have. Further research may reveal a better fit of accommodation to disability as more learning disabilities and accommodations are discovered or developed.
An academic accommodation is an assistance provided to students to ensure that they can demonstrate their knowledge and skills without the interference of their diagnosis.
Learning disability is defined as a condition which increases the difficulty an individual to gain knowledge and skills at the same pace as his or her peers due to a neurologically based problem affecting the way information is processed.
Student Disability Services is the department of a post-secondary institution that offers assistance to students who have a documented disability that may impact their academic performance.
Assumptions and Limitations
For this preliminary study, it was assumed that the students participating are receiving at least one, if not a combination, of the academic provisions listed above.
The following factors limit the study: students may not be willing to share the academic accommodations they are receiving, students who are visually impaired may be unable to participate in the survey, students may not be able to access to the survey due to lack of technical resources, and responses to the survey are not guaranteed. A final, but important limitation is that the survey’s questions are limited to long answers. A more easily analyzed data collection method would be to use a Likert scale (1-5, strongly agree to strongly disagree) for respondents to rate the accommodations.
The importance of considering how the performance of learning-disabled students is impacted by the receipt of academic accommodations is widely identified in the literature. Although much needed, thorough studies on how accommodations affect students with disabilities, especially in the long term, are unavailable as this kind of study would require long term longitudinal student tracking and reporting. Most studies in this field are short term. Articles about college students receiving academic accommodations were reviewed in an attempt to answer the question about how these provisions impacted student success. The scope of the literature reviewed was limited to college-enrolled students (who must self-disclose, unlike K-12 level students who are diagnosed and monitored by others) regardless of age or gender in both public and private universities throughout the United States and Canada. Educationally, this is an interesting investigation because it could provide justification for the continuation of academic provisions to this student population. The particular pieces of literature reviewed were chosen because they explore not only the impact of academic accommodations, but also the overall experience a student with a learning disability has while attending a higher education institution. The topics to be covered in this review include the range of accommodations offered, the perspective of the educational institutions providing the provisions, and the positive and negative consequences of identifying a learning disability.
Range of accommodations. The range of provisions that students receive is based on individual need but must be within reasonable parameters that do not place exorbitant expectations on the institution. The purpose of these reviewed studies was to find out what were the most useful accommodations granted to students who required them. The most common method of data collection regarding range of accommodations is through in-person interviews that allow the participants to discuss the accommodations they may be receiving and the impact these accommodations have on their education. The most common accommodations requested by students, according to a majority of the literature reviewed, are the extension of time for tests and the ability to either record lectures or be granted a note-taker. According to Skinner’s study, some students are unaware of the services available to them (2004, p.91). Not having knowledge of these services, and hence not taking advantage of them, students with learning disabilities are unable to perform at optimum capacity.
While the purpose and methods of the studies portrayed in the reviewed literature have similar features, the findings among them vary. For example, Kim and Lee uncovered that “only a few services are stably effective” (2016, p. 42), while Timmerman and Mulvihill found that if it were not for students receiving accommodations, they could not do as well (2015, p. 1617). The impact that academic accommodations have on a student’s performance is directly related to the student’s aptitude. This is one reason for the variance in findings. Another reason is that, sometimes, when a student presents to his or her instructor the official Memorandum of Accommodation, the faculty member, though obligated, might not know how to implement the accommodation without interfering with the integrity of the coursework. Some have the view that granting the provision(s) will give the disabled student an unfair advantage over other students in the class.
Institutional perspective. In regard to the institutional perspective when providing accommodations to students with learning disabilities, viewpoints tend to remain congruent, “Postsecondary institutions must not only provide accommodations but are obligated to explore critical alternatives that may improve student success” as mandated by the Federal Court (Layton & Lock, 2003, p.2). This mandate ensures that all students with learning difficulties receive appropriate assistance in order to be equally as successful as students without learning disabilities. Appropriate documentation outlining the student’s limitation provides evidence to the institution that the student is entitled to assistance. “It is the student’s responsibility to initiate requests for services in the postsecondary environment” (Hadley, 2011, p.77). Sole responsibility for receiving services is placed on the individual. This may make it easier for the institution to claim ignorance. Comparing the two means of identification—by authorities for younger students (K-12) and by self-identification for college-level students—was the purpose of Layton and Lock’s (2003) study. Hadley, on the other hand, wanted to find out if self-disclosure led to a more well-rounded campus experience.
The methods of Layton and Lock differ from that of Hadley. The former researchers used surveys to do quantitative analysis, while the latter researcher used interviews to collect qualitative data about students’ experiences. According to Timmerman and Mulvihill, “The genuine experiences of the students living with disability are best expressed when the participants are allowed to freely communicate their perceptions in an open-ended interview format without forced response categories” (p. 1613). Indeed, student anecdotes can be a rich source of ideas for future research.
Consequences of identification. The consequences of identifying a learning disability can be positive and negative. Two of the articles reviewed for this research proposal address the consequences for students when they identify their learning disabilities. One article discloses positive consequences, while the other underlines negative outcomes. According to Timmerman and Mulvihill (2015), a learning disability is a condition that can affect the academic success of a student even at the university level and, if identified, can positively impact the student’s performance because he or she is able to receive services to address the obstacles (p. 1612). The researchers gathered this information through the conducting of in-person interviews with eight students. Students claimed to have an outlet for emotional support when they identified their conditions and that faculty were more open to frequent communication. For students who receive academic provisions, the barriers are removed and, academically, they are placed on the same level with peers.
McGregor et al. (2016, p.94) discussed consequences of disclosure of a disability that lean in a negative direction. “Students who self-reported LD [Learning Disabilities] perceived more bias against people with disabilities on their campus than those who reported ND [No Disabilities]” (McGregor et al., (2016, p.94). Part of the bias stems from the fact that faculty lack prior knowledge of how best to support the needs of the student population with disabilities and are difficult to reach, as well as a lack of knowledge or experience of how to accommodate without changing course content or classroom dynamics. McGregor et al., surveyed of “63,802 students” (p. 93) asked a wide range of long-answer questions where participants had to elaborate on their overall experience on a broad territory of four-year US university campuses. More research is needed to identify the most effective accommodations for the best outcome and impact on the education of the four-year student with disabilities.
In reviewing the literature on this topic, the general findings were that academic accommodations do impact students’ performance, but a further point is that not every disabled student needs every accommodation available to them. Results from the small preliminary survey conducted by author found that the two most commonly requested accommodations were extended time and attendance flexibility. So, further investigation is warranted, especially research on students in different years, freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior—which is important data to collect because, it is fair to assume, that an entry level student would need more guidance than a near-graduate would need. More research is also needed so that more effective accommodations may be found to more appropriately address individual disabilities, especially as more learning disabilities are identified. More research should also include a broader survey sample size of students requesting accommodations so that techniques and provisions can improve.
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