1999-2000 Hunt Award Research Report
Honor Students With Learning Disabilities: The Future Is Now!
Matthew J. Zagumny, Ph.D., and Karen VanGalder, BS
Tennessee Technological University
In 1962 the term learning disabilities (LD) became part of the educational rubric to describe and identify students of average or above-average intelligence who have difficulties learning and performing in school (Reiff, Gerber, & Ginsberg, 1993). These disabilities may affect a singular functional area (e.g., listening comprehension), or may be associated with dynamic and global learning disabilities, including social and emotional disturbances. The difficulties associated with learning disabilities in functional, social, and emotional domains convince many students with learning disabilities that they are not capable of learning, resulting in far-reaching academic, social, and emotional consequences.
For the select high school graduates with LD who are accepted to postsecondary institutions, the barriers to continued academic success can be daunting. These include less student-teacher contact, long-term assignments, delayed feedback on academic progress, less structured learning environments, and novel social/emotional situations removed from typical support networks (i.e., family and friends). These obstacles can lead to lower self-esteem, interpersonal difficulties, and higher levels of stress (Cosden & McNamara, 1997). Researchers have just begun to examine the social/emotional difficulties among students with LD and the academic impact of those disabilities.
The purpose of the current study was to assess differences between psychology majors with learning disabilities and those without learning disabilities on five socioemotional factors: social anxiety, goal orientation, social alienation, masking deficiencies ("real" or perceived), and coping strategies (positive and negative). Gender differences and differences between members and nonmembers of Psi Chi and psychology clubs were also explored.
Participants and Procedure
The URL of a 57-item online self-report survey (http://www2.tntech.edu/psichisurvey/) was sent via an e-mail letter to the 944 current Psi Chi presidents and faculty advisors in the United States. The letter elicited voluntary participation from all psychology majors (Psi Chi and non-Psi Chi members) from each institution by directing potential participants to the secure survey website. The survey was a modified version of the instrument piloted by VanGalder and Zagumny (1999), based on the work of Cohn (1998). Responses from 890 participants collected via the 5-point Likert scale online survey from April 30, 2000, through September 15, 2000, provided the data reported here. Seven hundred and ninety-seven usable surveys were collected from participants with an average age of 22.25 (SD = 5.67). The sample consisted of 81.4% women; 3.5% of the participants reported a diagnosed learning disability, 67.9% were Psi Chi members, and 35% reported being a member of their institution's psychology club. Of the 26 respondents who reported a diagnosed learning disability, 15 were members of Psi Chi and 10 were members of psychology clubs. The large majority of respondents reported their race as White (89.5%), with 2.3% reporting race as Black, 1.9% Hispanic, 2.5% Asian, 0.1% Native American, and 2.4% another race. First-year college students constituted 4.3% of the sample, 16.4% were sophomores, 29.2% were juniors, 43.8% were seniors, and 4.9% were graduate students.
Gender and other group differences were examined utilizing independent-samples t tests. Results showed students with diagnosed learning disabilities reported significantly greater social/academic anxiety (M = 2.38, SD = .67) than those reporting no learning disabilities (M = 2.09, SD = .58), t(795) = 2.48, p = .013. Students with an LD also reported greater positive coping strategies (M = 2.56, SD = .65) than those without an LD (M = 2.33, SD = .43), t(795) = 2.58, p = .01. Additionally, students with an LD reported significantly greater goal orientation (M = 2.99, SD = .55) than students without an LD (M = 2.51, SD = .44), t(795) = 1.95, p = .05.
No gender differences were found between reported scaled scores on the five socioemotional dependent variables. As anticipated, Psi Chi members reported greater goal orientation (M = 2.82, SD = .44) than non - Psi Chi members (M = 2.75, SD = .47), t(786) = 1.96, p = .05.
It appears that students with learning disabilities who participated in the online survey tended to experience greater academic anxiety, engaged in more positive coping strategies, and reported greater goal orientation. Students with learning disabilities must learn to compensate for situational barriers (academic, social, etc.) in order to obtain success in college. While greater anxiety is reported among these students, they may develop more effective coping strategies to overcome these anxieties. Likewise, greater reported goal orientation among students with learning disabilities may result from compensatory attitudes toward their academic environment. It may very well be necessary for honor students with learning disabilities to have a greater goal orientation in order to reach the academic achievement necessary for meritorious recognition.
These results must be cautiously interpreted. First, due to the self-report methodology, the accuracy of reports of those with and without learning disabilities cannot be independently verified. While 100% accuracy of reported diagnosed learning disabilities may be argued, it is likely that more than 27 of the 797 students experience learning difficulties that could be diagnosed as a learning disability. The integrity of the data is probably more threatened by underreporting learning disabilities rather than overreporting. A second limitation relates to the statistical conclusion validity of the conducted t tests. The number of respondents reporting a diagnosed learning disability severely reduces the statistical power of the tests conducted. Continued data collection is necessary (and planned) to ameliorate this problem.
The current study assessed neither academic achievement of respondents (e.g., grade point average) nor the learning environment (e.g., breadth and depth of services available to students with learning disabilities). Future research should address the access and effectiveness of university services available to students with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning difficulties. The role that faculty play in identifying and encouraging qualified psychology majors with learning disabilities to join Psi Chi should also be examined. The current national study of psychology majors and Psi Chi members revealed that learning disabilities and learning difficulties do not preclude students from honor society membership. To the contrary, learning disabilities may motivate students to discover effective attitudes and behaviors to overcoming instructional, institutional, and social barriers to their academic success.
Cohn, P. (1998). Why does my stomach hurt? How individuals with learning disabilities can use cognitive strategies to reduce anxiety and stress at the college level. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 31, 514-516.
Cosden, M. A., & McNamara, J. (1997). Self-con-cept and perceived social support among college students with and without learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 20, 2-12.
Reiff, H. B., Gerber, P. J., & Ginsberg, R. (1993). Definitions of learning disabilities from adults with learning disabilities: The insiders' perspectives. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 16, 114-125.
VanGalder, K. F., & Zagumny, M. J. (1999). Social and emotional self-perceptions among students with learning disabilities at vocational and liberal arts postsecondary institutions. Manuscript submitted for publication.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Matthew J. Zagumny, PhD, received his doctorate from Central Michigan University in organizational psychology. He worked as a research specialist at the Medical College of Wisconsin, served as director of research and evaluation for Kent County (Mich.) Community Mental Health System, and for the past eight years has been a professor of psychology at Tennessee Tech University, where he is also a coadvisor of the Psi Chi chapter. Zagumy's main line of research is in cross-cultural STD/HIV prevention, including health education and the learning of health-promoting behaviors. This research agenda also involves examining learning and psychosocial issues for exceptional learners (at-risk), particularly in the area of health behaviors.
Karen VanGalder, BS, received her bachelor's degree in 1999 from Tennessee Tech University, where she is currently a master's degree candidate in educational psychology. This project is a continuation of her research with regard to issues facing college-aged adults who have learning disabilities. Her master's thesis involves a national examination of psychosocial issues related to college students with learning disabilities. Her future plans include the pursuit of a PhD in exceptional learning.
Authors' note. We would like to thank Dr. Zac Wilcox for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.
Winter 2001 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 12-13), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2001, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.