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Published January 29, 2019 | Biology

Understanding Difficulties Experienced by Students with Learning Disabilities: A Photovoice Initiative

Challenges in Teaching Students with LD

As CEGEP instructors, we are mandated to create an inclusive classroom environment that could support the engagement and academic achievement of our diverse learners. However, constructing an inclusive classroom to reach all students – especially those with learning disabilities (LD) is challenging.

Objectives and Description of the Photovoice Project

As a means to better understand the learning difficulties and issues of my students with LD, I have drawn on the photovoice technique. Photovoice “aims to capture the reality of people’s lives and make these realities accessible to others using photographic images” (Povee, Bishop, & Roberts, 2014, p. 895). By representing their barriers through photography, students with LD are offered opportunities “to express themselves in new and imaginative ways” (Mcintyre, 2003, p. 52) and become conscious of the barriers that affect them most in learning science (Mcintyre, 2003, Wang & Burris, 1997)

To engage in the photovoice initiative, I asked my students with LD to take pictures of barriers that they experience in learning science for a semester. Moreover, they wrote diaries explaining the ways in which the photographed barriers affected their learning. To protect the identity of my students, a pseudonym was given to each one of them.

Story of Keisha: Issues and Strategies to Cope with her LD

Keisha was one of my nursing students who had to take a mandatory biology course. For her photovoice project, Keisha focused on her internal barriers (i.e., her learning disability) which prevented her from being successful in the biology course that she was taking. Keisha photographed “WORDS” and wrote how spelling and writing issues affect her learning:

Picture taken by student to explain her learning disability

When I was younger I was diagnose with speech delayed, and having that it really affect my comprehension and literature in school. Which mean I wasn’t at the level of reading or writing for my grade. I had to practice every night reading with my parents, and school I had to be taking out of the class to go with a teacher for an hour or I had to go to group therapy for speech.  I had to do that for a couple of years. Still to this day I still have speech problems…. Sometimes when people tell me spell out a word or to write I get so nervous because I have really hard time spelling; it will either take me longer than usually to spell out a word or I miss spell which since to happen most of the time. That why when I have to do a written test I either fail or barely pass because they are checking for spelling…. Whenever I a word started with a “z or x” I had no clue how to say it, so I would stare at it for like 15-20mins in till someone realize that I was having trouble…

Keisha, a nursing student

Keisha photographed her biology textbook to explain difficulties she encounters in learning biology.

Sometimes Keisha wonders what it would be like if she didn’t have a learning disability. She feels that she has to work 10 times harder than anyone just to get the passing grade.

Being very motivated and engaged with a strong-will to succeed, Keisha has developed strategies to overcome her difficulties. For instance, using Google to sound out medical terms helps with terms she couldn’t pronounce on her own.

I have been getting better over the year. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be at where I am at right now. Still to this day I have trouble reading and writing, but the point is, is to never give up.

Keisha, a nursing student

Impact of my Students’ Photovoice Project on My Teaching Practice

The photovoice project offered me insights on my students’ respective disabilities. Listening to my students’ voices made me realize how little I knew about the impact of their disabilities on their lives and in learning biology. Moreover, I also became knowledgeable about strategies that worked for my students with LD. For example, from Keisha’s photovoice project, I came to understand that finding the definition of biological terms on Google and using Google to sound the terms was helpful. Such a strategy could be proposed to other students who have the same LD as Keisha.

The photovoice projects made me more conscious and motivated to create inclusive classrooms and offer remedial support for my diverse learners. For example, I met with Keisha on a weekly basis to help her in biology. Taking into account her issues in reading and writing, I developed strategies for her to write and remember the meanings of biological terms. I developed a biology version of Hangman game to help her write and memorize biological terms. I also constructed a game where Keisha was invited to match biological terms with images. Many times, we have also used Google to sound biological terms. Then, Keisha would repeat the words several times until she felt comfortable with terminologies. Over the course of the semester, Keisha became more engaged and confident in performing well in biology. She passed the course.

Photovoice: A Tool to Enhance our Teaching Practice

Overall, the photovoice project enlightened me about the different types of disabilities that my students experienced. Instead of “guessing” their difficulties, the photovoice project gave me a clear and detailed understanding of issues they experienced in learning biology. The photovoice project empowered me to develop and implement strategies for my diverse learners. My students with LD offered me feedback on the effectiveness of the strategies that I was proposing.

Moreover, the photovoice project helped me to build a strong working and trusting relationship with my students as we met on a weekly basis to discuss the pictures that they have taken, and come up with solutions to best support them in my course.

Have you tried a similar strategy? I would like to hear from you.

About the Author

Neerusha Baurhoo She is a PhD Candidate in Education at McGill University and has taught biology at Vanier College. Her research focuses on exploring academic barriers that CEGEP students with learning disabilities (LD) encounter in science education. As well, she is examining barriers that college science teachers experience in teaching their students with LD, and strategies that they employ to overcome their challenges.

In May of 2017 she gave the following conference at the Acfas Colloquium

Les stratégies pédagogiques développées par des professeurs au collégial pour favoriser l’apprentissage des sciences chez les étudiants ayant des troubles d’apprentissage.

She has also published several articles dealing with ways of helping struggling science students:

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