Learning Challenges (Cognitive Issues)

For this module, learning challenges are referred to as a group of learning difficulties that may be the result of undiagnosed or diagnosed learning disabilities (LD). In Canada, as high 10% of post-secondary students may be affected with some type of a learning disability that can cause anxiety for them in their academic careers (Cox and Klas, 1996) [1]. This number is not reflective of the growing number of students with LDs, but the availability of improved screening tools and the growing movement in many post-secondary institutions to provide access for all potential students. However, because there are no visible signs from these students it is therefore extremely challenging to respond to their learning needs. Consequently, it is crucial that faculty and instructors are provided with the knowledge to understand, recognize, and respond to these learners so they feel “safe” to self-identify.

What is a Learning Disability (LD)?

“Learning Disabilities refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.” [2]

Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:

  • Oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding);
  • Reading (e.g. decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension);
  • Written language (e.g. spelling and written expression); and
  • Mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving).

Learning disabilities may also involve difficulties with:

  • Organizational skills;
  • Social perception and interaction;
  • Perspective taking; and
  • Difficulties with socio-emotional skills and behaviours.

What Do I Do If I Think a Student Has a Learning Disability?

  • Assistance for students with learning difficulties may depend on the type of learning disability and its severity.
  • Important to document and collect observations. Note if there are patterns in a student’s learning not just an isolated case.
  • Consult the Dalhousie Office of Student Accessibility and Accommodation or another learning specialist to determine if the possibly of a learning disability exists.
  • The Dalhousie Office of Student Accessibility and Accommodation can assist the student and you to develop the most appropriate learning plan for a student facing learning challenges. [3]


LDs should not hinder a person from attaining goals. Understanding the specific challenges and learning strategies to deal with LDs can alleviate a lot of frustration and contribute to a successful learning experience for instructor and student.

[1] Cox, D., & Klas, L. (1996). Students with learning disabilities in Canadian colleges and universities: a primer for service provision. Journal Of Learning Disabilities, 29(1), 93-97. doi:10.1177/002221949602900111
[2] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada
[3] Dalhousie Office of Student Accessibility and Accommodation