What I Learned From Learning Differently

Everyone learns differently.  This is a universally accepted truism.  But that one student may have a markedly dissimilar learning process from those around him or her and shouldn’t necessarily mean a decreased chance in success for that student.    

The idea of alternative learning processes has been a recurring topic of conversation amongst my group of friends over the years, and I realized just how many of us who had gone on to college had been alternative learners. One friend of mine recalls being harassed by her teacher for drawing in class, but being able to answer in detail everything the teacher asked regarding the previous few minutes of lecture. While the teacher and others no doubt saw her as distracted or standoffish, as she later explained it, drawing was a necessary creative outlet preventing her from becoming distracted.  Another friend in college who admitted to being incapable of reading facial expressions always made a concerted effort to ensure he could clearly hear what was said.  

For others, it’s the unusual learning process itself and not any diagnosed learning disorder that earns the “alternative learner” classification. Some, like a musician friend of mine, tend to be at their happiest when they’re over scheduled and working well into the night to finish major projects. They are the procrastinators, unable to distinguish a looming deadline from the others hiding somewhere on the future’s inky horizon until the last second. Others of us are compulsive editors and list makers who worry and perseverate about perfecting an assignment before letting it go.

Some, like me, have diagnosed disabilities – in my case, it’s Asperger’s Syndrome. Others, though they may in time grow suspicious of an undiagnosed disability, are unsure of the origin of their struggles.  My buddy Jay was among this group.  He was always one of the brightest kids in class, but his moderate disdain for authority figures and his tenacious, argumentative way of representing himself made for the occasional misunderstanding.  We had different interests – his in math and programming, mine in English – different social woes, and like all alternative learners, different ways of making it to graduation.  

Here are a few things I’ve taken away from being an alternative learner in the company of many others:

Learn how you learn best

There’s nothing worse than struggling and not knowing why.  But once you’ve figured out that what you struggle with isn’t the writing part but understanding the exact requirements of your essay assignments, or that your anxiety over the mountain of homework you have can be eliminated by keeping an assignment book, you can take steps to work through the issue.   Advice from others can be helpful, but what works for them – say, setting a timer to keep honest with study time – might work against you.  Learning to trust yourself is a huge step in being successful.  If you know you need one-on-one support with science, go get it. Don’t let friends blowing it off to watch a basketball game convince you how easy the material is. The best way to take responsibility over and control of your learning process is to know it.

Know your support network

Most teachers get it, and some don’t.  Most of my teachers went out of their way to accommodate any differences in my learning style.  When they found out my profound anxiety about getting homework in on time conflicted directly with the idea of a spontaneous, unannounced assignment (ironically, rendering me incapable of turning them in on time), they’d be happy to give me an extension.  Taking Honors and Advanced Placement classes is where it got a bit muddy. A couple of my teachers actually refused to give me accommodations; they claimed it would do me no favor, that I would instead need to rise to the level of the class.  One of these classes, I withdrew from.  The other, I stuck with, and relied on my academic support teacher for support and intervention.  Of course, it goes without saying that the many therapeutic talks with close friends also did a lot to spur me on in difficult moments.

…and don’t let the stigma stop you.

The support services might be right in front of you, but taking advantage of them isn’t painless. For those in school, fitting in is a real concern, and some students may fear sacrificing their social status for academic success. Leaving class to go take the test with the special education teacher feels awfully conspicuous.  I usually did well in school, but I had a one-on-one aide for several years.  I would feel a twinge of heat from embarrassment whenever he gave me notes, or insisted I take a walk to calm down, or did anything that made his function in my life obvious to others. I would feel much the same way if anyone found out I went to academic support instead of home economics or technology or shop class.

The anticipation of this reaction from fellow students was worse than the reaction itself. Most often, the reaction I got about going to academic support was more along the lines of: “Oh man, I hate Home Ec! I would do anything for another study-hall!” I remember fellow students joking that the accommodations I got were unfair.  I remember hearing: “I wish I could type my essay – why do you get to?”  and  “Why do you get extra time on the math test?”  My first line of argument would be to point out just how “fortunate” I felt sitting for an arduous time and a half on the SAT exams, or having to find a way to type and print everything because my handwriting looks like hieroglyphics. But after the weird pang of guilt for not coming about my success the way everyone else did subsided, I would remember something else I was told and had to remember: that accommodations weren’t a privilege, but were meant to level the playing field. Not all classmates will be capable of seeing it this way, but no matter. Regardless of the importance of recognition or acceptance from peers, the alternative learner should never let another classmate, or even worse, the anticipated reaction of that classmate, convince him or her of what’s fair or what’s best. This bit is very clear in hindsight but easy to forget in the moment.

Make use of adaptation strategies

Adapting to new situations is a key to success as an alternative learner. As my own disability means a particular aversion to change, I’ve always relied on adaptation strategies. Even in college, I always walked through my schedule at least once before the first day of class. I tried to make sure I was familiar with the teachers and would sometimes start reading the textbooks early.  

My friend Jay is another great example.  At the beginning of each new class in high school, Jay would complain that he hadn’t done well on the first test.  

“After that I could suddenly grasp the teacher’s test style,” Jay relates.  Jay will fully admit that he probably has an undiagnosed learning disability. And one primary area of struggle for students with several kinds of learning disabilities or higher functioning disorders (and this is certainly true for me), is adapting to a new situation or set of standards.  As he became acquainted with the teacher’s unique requirements and style, he would always find “those little things that were going to make it a bit easier for me to pass the class.”  He would then typically ace all of the subsequent tests.  How many of Jay’s perceived problems with authority stemmed from misunderstandings arising from this painful process of learning the parameters of a class?

A key component of becoming adaptive as an alternative learner is taking the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, as Jay did with each of his difficult first tests. It wouldn’t be uncommon or unjustified for an alternative learner to become discouraged at this point. Many alternative learners are no less goal-oriented, and their standards for themselves no lower than the students at the top of the class. Often, the frustration comes from the knowledge that though the alternative learner knew he or she would need to put in extra work and then put in the extra work, he or she still received a poor grade.  A self-destructive, “what’s-the-point” mindset can soon ensue.  But while it may be tempting, don’t scrap the whole process or lose hope for completing goals simply because of one missed assignment or failed test.  Instead, an informed, practical re-visioning of your process may be in order. Keeping always in mind that you above anyone else should know the ins and outs of your learning process, at this juncture, the support network can be very useful in offering valuable perspective.     

And this brings me to my last lesson taken from being an alternative learner.  Listen to German opera while studying physics, if it helps you concentrate.  Write an outline for your essay after it’s already done, if it helps you more in revising than in planning. Take notes on the bus.  Think of the end of your poem for English class on the walk home. Do all of your math homework on your down time during the school day when you’re more awake and tutors are within reach. Keep yourself on track by making appointments with teachers and advisers. Find what works for you, and

Do whatever it takes!

Image via flickr user V.H.S. 

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