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.


Thinking outside the box on education: 4 great books with a fresh new perspective

Some of the books with the most original, thought-provoking ideas about education these days aren’t even on education. They’re on subjects such as sociology, psychology, technology, and self-help, among others, but they challenge what’s going on in schools today. Here are some books that don’t fall into the category of education, but which have a lot to say about the way we learn.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012). This book is ammunition against a school system that increasingly views classroom education as an endless stream of group projects. While it’s important for kids to learn teamwork, all too often we forget the importance of solitude, concentration, and deep thought in the learning process. I know that when I was in school, I did my best work alone. As Ms. Cain writes:

What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only useful – they’re counterproductive. They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them. Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class – you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.” [page 81]

Another book about deliberate practice is Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio Trade, 2010).

2. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), by Mark Bauerlein. (New York: Penguin/Tarcher, 2008). The title says it all. Technology may be causing untold damage to the brains of young people. I’ve written two articles about avoiding the pitfalls of technology in education (see my piece in USA Today and the follow-up post on my blog). In this passage, Mr. Bauerlein paints a disturbing picture of this country’s rising generation of scholars:

Most young Americans possess little of the knowledge that makes for an informed citizen, and too few of them master the skills needed to negotiate an information-heavy, communication-based society and economy. Furthermore, they avoid the resources and media that might enlighten them and boost their talents. An anti-intellectual outlook prevails in their leisure lives, squashing the lessons of school, and instead of producing a knowledgeable and querulous young mind, the youth culture of American society yields an adolescent consumer enmeshed in juvenile matters and secluded from adult realities. [page 16]

There’s a book on a similar topic, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), which I hope to read soon.

3. Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008). In addition to talking about the 10,000 hour rule (the theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert in something), Mr. Gladwell also discusses why Asian students often outperform their American peers, especially in science and math:

We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work. So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn’t surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kinds of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away at the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.” [pages 247-49]

4. The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss (Crown Archetype, 2009). This one may be a bit of a surprise. Am I suggesting that you can get great grades by working four hours a week? Not at all. Nor am I encouraging you to outsource your schoolwork to India. But Mr. Ferriss does present some useful advice on how to work more efficiently and effectively, whether you’re a student or an entrepreneur. Here’s an example:

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. . . . The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus. . . . . There are two synergistic approaches for increasing productivity that are inversions of each other:

  1. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20).
  2. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law). [page 75]

What are some of your book recommendations?

Give yourself the gift of great grades.  Order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!

Introverts Unite!

I love the article “The Upside of Being an Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)” by Bryan Walsh in Time magazine. I’m glad that people are finally starting to give introverts their due. I am an introvert to the extreme – I got the highest possible score for introversion on the Myers-Briggs personality test. Ten times out of ten, I would rather stay home with a good book than go to a party. That’s not to say that I’m a social outcast or don’t know how to behave around people. I just find it hard to be around large groups of people for long periods of time. I can force myself, but it’s not pleasant. I suspect that there’s a connection between introversion and academic performance. Introverts like solitude, and solitude leads to mastery of skills. As Mr. Walsh writes:

Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson believes that deliberate practice — training conducted in solitude, with no partner or teammate — is key to achieving transcendent skill, whether in a sport, in a vocation or with a musical instrument. In one study, Ericsson and some of his colleagues asked professors at the Music Academy in Berlin to divide violinists into three groups, ranging from those who would likely go on to professional careers to those who would become teachers instead of performers. The researchers asked the violinists to keep diaries and found that all three groups spent about the same amount of time — more than 50 hours a week — on musical activities. But the two groups whose skill levels made them likelier to play well enough to perform publicly spent most of their time practicing in solitude.

Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to escape the distractions of group work. This is true in school and even more so in the workplace. I hope that writers like Mr. Walsh and Malcolm Gladwell (who wrote about a similar subject in Outliers) will convince people of the power of being alone.

Give yourself the gift of great grades.  Order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!