Does Active Learning Disadvantage the Learning Disabled?

Black and white line drawing of the upper torso of a young male in a thinking pose. Two question marks are on either side of his head.Active Learning is a good thing, right? As an instructional designer, I’ve read a great deal of research compiling evidence for teaching practices that promote active learning as a way to engage students and secure better learning outcomes. In my role consulting with faculty on curriculum design, I often suggest ways to increase student participation in their learning that match the learning goals and objectives articulated by the instructor. So it was a surprise to read a dissenting view in a Tomorrow’s Professor post by Fernando Gonzalez, an assistant professor of software engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University, titled For Some, Active Learning Can Be a Nightmare. [Full citation for original publication: Gonzalez, Fernando. “For Some, Active Learning Can Be a Nightmare.” ASEE Prism 26, no. 4 (December 2016): 52.]

To be clear at the outset, this is an opinion piece, based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. There is no research backing Gonzalez’s claims, at least not yet. The article is short, and I encourage you to read it for yourself. In summary, Gonzalez provides a short overview of active learning, then states that “…[active learning] can be a nightmare for students with learning disabilities (LD). While learning disabled students – including those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, visual and auditory processing deficits, ADHD, nonverbal learning disabilities, and many others – vary in how they learn and on the type of accommodation they require, a common characteristic found in most LD students is needing more time to assimilate information from a lecture.” This he contends, makes it difficult for the learning disabled student “…who may not be able to learn the material in time to participate in the active learning activity immediately following the lecture or may have problems with the activity itself.” He notes that he has severe dyslexia and states he would not have “survived” an undergraduate education heavily based on active learning, and certainly would not have then been able to go on to get a PhD.

There are weaknesses in Gonzalez’s argument, starting with his construct of active learning as mostly being “…strategies [that] consist of a lecture where the student listens passively, followed by an activity that serves to clarify and reinforce what the student has learned.” There are many active learning strategies, and it is misleading to characterize them in total as being difficult for those with learning disabilities, which also are many and varied.

He cites only one concrete example of a strategy, the minute paper, which, although it can be considered an example of active learning, is typically used to obtain formative assessment from students. These exercises are not typically graded and therefore pose little pressure for students.

That said, I do not want to dismiss Gonzalez’s concerns. I was unable to find any published research on the benefits or disadvantages of active learning strategies for learning disabled students. Indeed, it would be valuable for these students and their instructors to have evidence of teaching and learning strategies that are inclusive. If you are aware of research in this area, please share the information in the comments.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: