This guide contains information on learning difficulties, and means to facilitate learning as well as links to collaboration partners. The guide covers:
- learning difficulties in reading, writing, and mathematics
- attention deficit disorder
- Asperger syndrome
- mental health
When reading the guide it is important to remember that while learning as a cognitive process is the same for everyone, learners are diverse. We can all benefit from paying attention to our learning and studying techniques.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is defined as a specific difficulty of reading and writing. About 10% of the population, 6% of adults, have dyslexia. However, up to 10% of adults experience some degree of difficulty with reading. In such cases, reading is slow or takes an unreasonable amount of time, mistakes are common or the reader does not remember what s/he read despite efforts to do so. This leads to delays in studying and possibly delays in graduation, especially if the studies involve a great deal of reading. Dyslexia is seen as a particular hindrance for adults working and living in an ever-changing and information-focused society such as ours.
Dyslexia manifests itself as slow reading and writing and frequent errors in both. The symptoms are very similar in both children and adults, but may vary individually. University students may have difficulty only in a single area of reading and writing. Reading is slowed down by the difficulty in finding the core content of the text. This also complicates writing, because writing and organising the text into entities is complicated, and remembering long instructions is difficult because of problems with working memory.
When reading, persons with dyslexia easily confuse letters and sounds, skip letters or reverse their order and handwriting may be clumsy. The difficulty with distinguishing sounds leads to difficulty in learning foreign languages, reading them, and particularly in remembering their correct spelling. Letters of foreign origin and sounds resembling each other (t, d, p, b) are mixed into each other. Problems may arise also from long and short vowels (aa or ii) and double consonants (in Finnish) (kk or pp). Dyslexia, is not, however a difficulty of understanding.
In addition to difficulty in reading, dyslexia includes difficulty in reading comprehension. Readers with such a difficulty cannot make sense of what they are reading. Even though reading is fluent, the reader does not understand the meaning. This may be caused by problems with working memory or not understanding grammatical structures. Research shows that 12% of the population have this problem.
Dyslexia, like other learning difficulties often co-occur with other learning difficulties. Dyslexia has been found connected with difficulties in learning mathematics. Problems may also arise in perception, which leads to difficulties in sensing direction, location and distance. In everyday life, this translates into, for instance, difficulties in using a calendar and missing the appointments made. Time and dates get mixed up and names are difficult to remember. This is also related to problems in executive function and time management which complicates making a study plan and keeping to it. In addition, problems arise in attention and remembering sequences like months. In everyday life, dyslexia also manifests itself tiring fast and getting a headache or sore eyes when reading. In addition, slow reading may make it difficult to follow subtitles in foreign-language tv shows and or reading foreign-language newspapers, or filling out forms.
How to support learning
If you experience problems with learning, contact the teacher at the start of the course about the best ways for you to complete the course. Do not take too many courses at one time; learn to know your limits. Using a reading diary or similar system, plan a schedule for assignments or studying for an examination. Reserve enough time for completing each assignment.
It is also useful to know different studying techniques. For additional information on studying techniques and time management, go to the Study Skills site. You may also ask the course teacher about the technique best suited for this course. Trying different studying techniques allows you to find the most suitable one for you. While it is good to think about and value your own style of learning, sometimes it is worth adjusting to the style of the school. When attending lectures, you can ask the lecturer for the outline in advance, since the majority of lecturers prepare an outline in any case. A ready-made outline helps you to follow the lecture because you do not have to write as much and you know what is coming next. You can also record the lecture for listening to later on. However, it’s best to let the lecturer know about the recording beforehand.
For instance, you can reduce mixing up letters by copying the text on a paper of different colour. Black text on white paper makes the letters jump around the page for some people with dyslexia. You can prevent this by cutting a narrow hole in the middle of another paper and placing it on the line you are reading. The paper hides the majority of the page and you will find it easier to focus on what you are reading. You should pick a calm colour, such as blue as the colour of the paper.
The line between mental wellbeing and mental health is fine: when does the stress of normal life become so great that it poses a risk to mental health?
Studying is stressful at times, and temporary reasonable stress may help us to focus on a demanding study situation, such as an upcoming examination. Lengthy periods of stress do however, cause strain. Signs of harmful stress include irritation, concentration difficulties, frustration, restlessness, tiredness, sleep problems and different physical symptoms such as stomach or back pains. Usually the symptoms of stress ease off when the stressful situation, like an examination, is over. You can foster your wellbeing by planning your time use in advance, by setting realistic goals and studying together with others. When planning time use, reserve enough time for hobbies and sports to allow the body to recover from stress.
If the stress continues and there are no opportunities for rest and recovery, the symptoms may worsen into a burnout. If stress begins to feel overwhelming and is associated with for instance memory problems, feeling low or depressed, extreme tiredness, carelessness or fear of losing control, it’s best to discuss the situation with FSHS.
A very common symptom brought on by stress and a busy and irregular lifestyle and changes in life is sleep problems. Temporary problems with falling asleep or waking up at night are nothing to worry about. They are a natural way for the body to react to strain and stress. One poorly slept night does usually not affect one’s ability to function the next day but prolonged problems may worsen concentration, cause memory problems and predispose to depression. You may try to reduce sleep problems caused by stress or straining situations by calming down your evenings, reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption for a couple of hours before going to bed and avoiding heavy exercise late at night. Also different relaxation techniques may be useful. If sleep problems continue for weeks, clearly affect your ability to function or are associated with depression, anxiety or continuous pain, you should consult a doctor. For more information on sleep problems go to FSHS pages (in Finnish).
Youth and student life with all the changes they bring are challenging times in one’s life. Mental health problems are the most common health problems of students in higher education. It is estimated that one in four Finns have mental health challenges at some point in their lives. The problems vary and may have different effects on the studying capacity: what lasts for one term for someone may continue throughout life for another. Mental health issues typically manifest themselves as depression, anxiety, and panic or eating disorders. That is why prevention and early recognition of mental health issues and their sufficient and fast treatment are important. For more information on mental health and on the help available, go to the FSHS pages.
How to support learning
The biggest barriers to studying are usually lack of information and prejudice; even a long-term problem with mental health does not necessarily affect studying. Acquiring information and creating an open atmosphere is important for encouraging open discussion about the issue. An open and accepting atmosphere requires input from all members of Aalto. Greeting, smiling and asking how someone is doing may prove to be surprisingly pleasant. Try it!
The implementation of teaching, the accessibility of the environment and services as well as the individual needs and strengths of the student and teacher all affect the support needs of the student. That is why it is important to discuss the life situation of the students, the goals of their studies and capacity for studying. It is not easy to talk about mental health issues, but hiding things, covering them up and guessing puts a strain on everyone affected. The teacher and staff representatives may encourage students to openness by their example.
Studying and learning on a barrier-free campus goes smoothly in an accessible working environment as the completion methods and deadlines of courses are flexible, materials are available online, and individual support is available.
The HOPS guidance discussions and other one-on-one meetings are natural opportunities for discussing problems in studying. The matters brought to discussion by the student are taken seriously and treated in strict confidence. Here are a few instructions for teachers or HOPS advisors for starting the discussion and keeping it in progress:
Where to find support at Aalto?