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Disability Awareness Week Keynote Shares Ideas on Keeping All Students Engaged

At first, they thought she might be cheating. Katie, as Thomas J. Tobin tells the story, too suddenly and without an obvious explanation changed from a failing college sophomore to someone who could write a paper worthy of an A grade.

Tobin, the keynote speaker during Disability Awareness Week at Salt Lake Community College, said he and others eventually discovered that Katie had found a different, more suitable way for her to handle assignments. “She was told to sit at a laptop and type her first thoughts in response to an assignment,” Tobin said. “Katie couldn’t do it. They tried putting an assignment on a piece of paper and told her to write with pen and paper to respond. Katie couldn’t do it. But when they said, forget that, let’s just talk about the idea to write about, just talk to me and tell how you would respond – Katie could do that.”

When the writing center at Katie’s college connected her with speech recognition software, allowing her to speak her thoughts and have her computer do the writing, the change in her work was “dramatic.” She graduated in 2014 cum laude and became a social studies teacher.

Tobin, a faculty associate on the Learning Design, Development & Innovation team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, heard several reactions to Katie’s story. Find “barriers” to learning and remove them. Help faculty and staff gain a better understanding of services available to students. Students have different learning styles, a reaction which Tobin quickly debunked.

“Let me tell you something radical but based on 38 years or research – learning styles don’t exist,” Tobin said. “Learning styles as fixed characteristics don’t exist.” Rather, he said, learning preferences tend to formulate in the moment based on what is happening in a person’s life at the time. A time-strapped single dad, for example, who has 45 minutes during his commute to digest an assigned article for class can do so with a PDF that has an audible option. “That’s not a learning style, it’s a circumstance that dictates a way to learn,” he said.

Tobin stressed to his audience that there needs to be multiple ways of representing information for all students, to help everyone and not just people with disabilities. As an example, he said finding ways to connect with students via their mobile devices is proving to be one of the more efficient, effective methods to communicate ideas and instructions when traditional approaches fall short. He also reminded audience members how, regardless of age, people learn by activating three chemical pathways in the brain. “We have to understand why there is a need to learn something,” he said. “Then you have to understand what you need in order to learn it, and then to understand how to practice or put it into a skill you can demonstrate.” In other words, he said, teachers need to find multiple ways to keep students engaged.

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