Can a Learning Disability Make You a Better Student?

In his new book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell argues that having a learning disability can actually be beneficial.  I couldn’t agree more!  I wanted to share an article I wrote a while back about how my struggles with learning helped me become a top student. 

I was never officially diagnosed with a learning disability, but I often suspect I have one.  I struggled with listening comprehension throughout my academic career.  More often than not, I walked out of class having no idea what the teacher was talking about.  In science labs, I would stare blankly at the equipment in front of me because I couldn’t process verbal instructions.  In Spanish class, my ability to read the language far exceeded my listening skills.  Sometimes I hated going to school because I felt like I learned nothing there.  And yet, I managed to become valedictorian of Stuyvesant High School, one of the most competitive public schools in the country, and graduate first in my class from Columbia University.

How did I do this?  By using techniques familiar to many learning disabled students: hard work, perseverance, and playing to my strengths.  Ironically, my learning weakness may have contributed to my academic success.

I learned at an early age that my reading ability was far better than my listening comprehension.  Since I didn’t absorb much during class, I took extremely detailed notes so I could review them at my own pace.  I became a speed-writer by using my own brand of shorthand to record every tidbit of information, while most of my classmates were satisfied with a skimpy outline.  I think this really worked to my advantage.  According to a 1968 study by John McLeish, students remember only 42% of the information in a lecture by the time it ends, and only 20% a week later.  My classmates may have understood the lesson while it was being given, but when test-time rolled around, most of that understanding had evaporated.  I, on the other hand, knew the lecture better than ever because I had reviewed it several times.

I also relied on textbooks and other written material to explain what I had failed to grasp in class.  Books were my primary teachers, especially in high school.  I read complex passages over and over again until they were permanently etched in my brain.  I also took extensive notes on reading assignments to reinforce what I read.  These notes became invaluable for things like participating in class discussions and writing papers.  Whenever I wanted to support an argument, I could quickly look at my notes instead of desperately flipping through books to find some half-remembered fact or quotation.  All of this reading and note-taking was time-consuming, of course, but it forced me to develop a strong work ethic.

I also turned down offers to join study groups, since I knew I wouldn’t absorb information in such an environment.  I believe that this made me a more independent learner.  While many of my classmates asked one another for explanations and clarifications (and were often given faulty information), I would examine my books and go to the teacher’s office hours for help.  In college, I often took courses that complemented my learning ability.  For example, I took Latin classes to fulfill my language requirement because they focused on reading instead of oral comprehension; and I majored in history in part because it emphasized the analysis of written texts.

I believe that by compensating for a weakness, I became a stronger student overall.  I sincerely doubt I would have been at the top of my class if my listening comprehension had been better.  There are two things I hope you take away from this: (1) everyone’s needs are different, and you must find the method of learning that works best for you; and (2) learning disability comes in all shapes and sizes, and may be found in those you least expect.

Stefanie Weisman is the author of The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College.

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