Research to Practice Brief
Improving Secondary Education and Transition Services through Research
February 2004 ē Vol. 3, Issue 1
An Effective Model for College Students With Learning Disabilities and Attention
Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders
By Elizabeth Evans Getzel, Shannon McManus, and Lori W. Briel
As a result of the increasing number of students with disabilities entering
post-secondary education, disability support services offices across the nation
are faced with providing more varied and specialized services (Henderson, 1999;
Stodden, 2001). Yet there is a limited body of knowledge within the postsecondary
education and disability field on what services and specific accommodations
are appropriate under various conditions (Eichhorn, 1997; NCSPES, 2000).
Amid this changing postsecondary environment, students with disabilities frequently
feel overwhelmed, resulting in low retention and graduation rates (Getzel, Stodden,
& Briel, 2001; Wille-Gregory, Graham, & Hughes, 1995). Further research
is needed on the types of supports provided and their impact on the educational
outcomes of students with disabilities, as well as on the various models of
One such model is a supported-education model for students with disabilities.
Students served through this model typically have significant obstacles and
life-skill issues (e.g., medication management, personal assistance services,
financial assistance, time management) to overcome in order to successfully
complete their education. Current supported-education models designed over the
past decade have focused on students with psychiatric disabilities or attention
deficit disorders (Loewen, 1993; Pettella, Tarnoczy, & Geller, 1996; Unger,
1998) and have not been fully integrated into postsecondary education support
The VCU Supported-Education Model
The intent of the study conducted by the Virginia Commonwealth University-Rehabilitation
Research and Training Center (VCU-RRTC) was to determine the effectiveness of
a supported-education model as part of the services offered through the Disability
Support Services Office (DSS) and the impact of these services and supports
on studentsí educational outcomes. The model was implemented through the
VCU DSS office on both the academic and medical campuses as part of the range
of services offered by these offices. The VCU model uses the principles of supported
education, which is a consumer-driven, individualized support system utilizing
community and university resources. The model structures these resources to
meet the short-term and long-term goals of students (Cooper, 1993; Egnew, 1993;
The model was designed to provide intensive educational supports to a cohort
of students with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders
(ADHD). Beginning in the fall semester of 2001 and ending in the fall of 2002,
a cohort of 26 students participated in the study. Students with disabilities
came to the program either through referral by faculty members or DSS staff
or through self-referral. Students were referred as a result of academic problems
including failing one or two courses, being on academic probation, or falling
behind in their coursework. Students represented undergraduate and graduate
students from both the academic and medical campuses.
Once students with disabilities entered the program, academic specialists (staff
at the VCU RRTC) worked with them to identify their specific educational support
needs. This information was used to develop a student profile on each participant
and to develop an Individualized Academic Support Plan. Based on needs identified
through the plan, the student and the academic specialist scheduled office visits
or communicated by e-mail or telephone to determine the effectiveness of the
To assess the impact of the model on student outcomes, the study examined
the relationship between intensity and frequency of services and student performance
and retention. For study purposes, intensity of services was defined as the
number of contacts students had with staff members. Contact was defined as office
visits, telephone conversations, or e-mail correspondence. Frequency of services
was measured by the number of times services and supports were used by students.
Students self-reported their use of services and supports during contacts with
the staff and during follow-up structured interviews. To compare the results
of the students, the cohort of 26 students with disabilities was divided into
two groups (frequent and infrequent) at the end of the study period. Eleven
students with disabilities were identified as part of the frequent group based
on their continual contact with staff members and incorporation of supports
into their learning routine. Fifteen of the students were identified as part
of the infrequent group, because they either did not return for follow-up meetings
or were in contact with the staff only once or twice during a semester. Post-hoc
coding of the data was conducted, examining the intensity and frequency of services
received during this time period. After the cohort was divided, a comparison
was made between the groups to determine their educational outcomes (i.e., overall
GPA, academic progress, and retention).
Comparison analyses were also conducted on the differences within the cohort
of students. Variables used in comparison studies were grades, class attendance,
types of supports used, the number of resources accessed on campus and in the
community, and overall adjustment to college. Data were also collected from
structured interviews conducted with each participant. The information collected
through the interviews included satisfaction with services, feedback concerning
the delivery of services through the supported-education model, strategies and
supports that proved useful, and effective university and community resources.
The results discussed in this section will focus on the following data collected
during the study:
- Studentsí self-report of strategies incorporated into their learning
- Studentsí reasons for participation and nonparticipation; and
- Studentsí academic outcomes.
Eleven of the students with learning disabilities or ADHD received frequent
and intensive services during the study. The services and supports that students
reported as being most helpful are described in Table 1. Students
described incorporating into their learning routine such study skills as writing
strategies, proofreading strategies, color-coding of information, developing
mnemonics or memory aids, organizational strategies for research articles, and
cell charts for organizing information. Role-playing was also a study skill
identified by students with disabilities who had a clinical component in their
academic course of study. Students were able to practice answering potential
questions that they were likely to experience during their practicum experience.
Students also developed personal skills including self-advocacy and stress
management. Students worked on better understanding their disabilities by obtaining
(a) resources about their specific disability, (b) information on local support
groups, and (c) referral information for further evaluation if needed. Students
also explored effective ways to disclose information to professors or clinical
staff (see Table 1). In addition, stress management training
was a part of the program.
Some students in the frequent group reported that career exploration activities
were extremely helpful in determining their course of study and helping them
to focus on their coursework. Students identified informational interviewing,
job-shadowing experiences, and work experiences (paid or unpaid) as useful in
examining the impact of their disabilities on their career and further defining
their career direction.
Table 1. Services and Supports Identified by
Students in the Frequent Group (n = 11)
Services and Supports
- Writing strategies
- Proofreading strategies
- Color-coding information
- Mnemonics for memorization
- Test-taking strategies
- Time-management strategies
- Organizational strategies for research articles
- Cell charts and timelines for organizing information
- Video-taping for self-evaluation
- Role-playing practicum exam questions
- Developing steps within their Academic Plan on how to self-identify
to the office of disability support services using the VCU Student Handbook
and how to hold discussions with staff members on appropriate strategies
for requesting accommodations.
- Developing steps within their Academic Plan on initiating the use
of accommodations with faculty, and monitoring their use by reviewing
students' Academic Plan with staff.
- Providing opportunities for students with disabilities to network
with one another to discuss their college experiences and the services,
supports, or strategies that have proven helpful.
- Better understanding of their disability and its impact on learning
- Stress-management skills
- Informational interviewing
- Job shadowing
- Volunteer work experience
- Short-term internship experiences (non-credit) for students with disabilities
who might not otherwise qualify for university sponsored internships
because of grade point average or lack of internships in their program
- Screen-reading software (with study-skill features) for reading, writing,
and take-home exams
- Voice-recognition software
- Personal digital assistants (e.g., Palm Pilots)
- Templates for recording information
- Modified assessment form using "edit" mode by inserting
more specific questions in red font to differentiate student questions
from the form
- Graphic organizer software
- Accountability system in which the student e-mails staff with a weekly
Students in the frequent group reported that participating in the study gave
them a better understanding about themselves and how they learn. Increased exposure
to technology programs and software was also extremely beneficial in helping
them progress in their program of study. Such software included screen-reading
software for reading, writing, and test-taking; voice-recognition software for
writing; and personal digital assistants for time management and organization.
The person-centered, student-directed philosophy of the program helped students
take responsibility for developing and implementing their educational supports.
Staff members followed up with e-mails and telephone messages to the 15 students
with disabilities who were not fully participating in the program. Some of the
reasons that students did not frequently participate included personal life
issues (7 students), the program did not meet their needs (3 students), and
students needed only short-term strategies (2 students). There were 3 students
who left the study with no further contact information available.
A comparison of academic outcomes and the average GPA between the two groups
(see Table 2) revealed that 8 of the 11 students in the frequent
group progressed in good standing in their course of study. Of these 8, 1 student
graduated, 2 were on the deanís list, and 5 progressed in their program
in good standing. One student was dismissed from the program, but not from the
university. None of the students were placed on academic probation or warning,
and 2 students left VCU for personal reasons. In comparison, 8 of the 13 students
in the infrequent group progressed in their program in good standing, 1 student
was dismissed from the program (not from the university), and 4 were placed
on academic probation or warning. At the end of semester, GPAs for the two groups
showed a significant difference, with the frequent group averaging 3.03 compared
to 2.29 for the infrequent group.
Table 2. Academic Outcomes (n = 24)
(n = 11)
(n = 13)
Progressing in program (dean's list)
Progressing in program (good standing)
Dismissal from program
Academic warning/academic probation
Left school for other reasons than academic (financial, personal, etc.)
This study provides initial results on the services and supports provided
through a supported-education model for students with learning disabilities
and ADHD and the impact on studentsí educational outcomes. However, some
limitations should be noted. Further studies are needed on larger numbers of
students with disabilities to determine the effectiveness of the model and the
services provided. Comparison data are needed to determine the outcomes of students
who receive services through a supported-education model versus those who do
not. Additionally, the model must also be tested in a variety of postsecondary
settings including two- and four-year colleges and universities.
The results of the study indicate that for some students experiencing academic
problems, the access to services and supports through a supported-education
model can be beneficial. However, personal issues still remain significant barriers
for students with disabilities to fully participate in higher education. A majority
of the students who did not fully participate in the study had personal issues
that prohibited them from doing so. Further efforts are needed to (a) prepare
students with disabilities enrolled in postsecondary programs to manage their
personal needs and supports, and (b) explore institutional changes that will
enhance the availability and delivery of services. In addition, future research
should utilize a rigorous design that controls for the presence of personal
issues and group differences.
Although the number of students with disabilities entering postsecondary education
has increased, issues and challenges prevent some from successfully completing
their degree programs. Continued research can clarify the range of educational
supports needed, the specific accommodations appropriate, and the critical institutional
structures required for students with disabilities to successfully progress
in their programs of study and remain in higher education.
Cooper, L. (1993). Serving students with psychiatric disabilities on campus:
A mobile support approach. Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 17(1),
Egnew, R. C. (1993). Supported education and employment: An integrated approach.
Psychosocial Rehabilitation Journal, 17(1), 121-127.
Eichhorn, L. (1997). Reasonable accommodations and the awkward compromises:
Issues concerning learning disabled students and professional schools in the
law school context. Journal of Law & Education, 26, 31-63.
Getzel, E. E., Stodden, R. A., & Briel, L. W. (2001). Pursuing postsecondary
education opportunities for individuals with disabilities. In P. Wehman (Ed.),
Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities.
Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Henderson, C. (1999). College freshmen with disabilities: A biennial statistical
profile. Washington, DC: HEATH Resource Center of the American Council
Loewen, G. (1993). Improving access to supported education. Psychosocial
Rehabilitation Journal, 17(1), 151-156.
National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Education Supports. (2000b,
June). National focus group project: Perspectives of students with disabilities
in postsecondary education: A technical report. Honolulu, HI: University
of Hawaii at Manoa.
Pettella, C., Tarnoczy, D. L., & Geller, D. (1996). Supported education:
Functional techniques for success. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 20(1),
Stodden, R. A. (2001). Postsecondary education supports for students with
disabilities: A review and response. The Journal for Vocational Special
Needs Education, 23(2), 4-9.
Unger, K. V. (1998). Handbook on supported education: Providing services
for students with psychiatric disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes
Wille-Gregory, M., Graham, J. W., & Hughes, C. (1995, Spring). Preparing
students with learning disabilities for success in postsecondary education.
Transition Linc (pp. 1-6). Columbia: MO, University of Missouri-Columbia,
Center for Innovations in Special Education.
Authors Elizabeth Evans Getzel, Shannon McManus, and Lori W. Briel are with
the Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center
on Workplace Supports.
VCU Professional Development
The PDA Web site provides additional information about the supported education
program and other services and supports provided for students with disabilities,
families, faculty, administrators, and other staff members.
National Center for the Study
of Postsecondary Educational Supports (Rehabilitation Research & Training
This site includes information about training and conferences related to postsecondary
educational supports, plus numerous research reports produced by the staff of
this national center.
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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.
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