Getting academically fit

Plan now for better outcomes in college and career. Take the right courses and learn assistive technology.

By: College Success @ Perkins

College can demand a lot from students — solid academic skills, including reading and writing, communication skills, and the capacity to possibly live on their own, managing their own time and work. Often, students are expected to achieve these new goals all on their own. It’s a lot for most college students! For students with visual impairments, taking time to address the unique needs of learning academic skills, and building stamina, can help with this transition, leading to more successful outcomes. With a plan in high school – and with practice! – your student can gain those skills.  

Academic fitness takes time and work

We can look at middle school and high school as a foundational time.  During this period, students can gain both the knowledge (facts and figures) and the skills (critical thinking, reading and writing, math, social skills, self-advocacy) they’ll need to conquer the demands and expectations of college and the workplace. 

College demands independence, for sure. But studies show that habits of mind, such as curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, and stamina for complex, challenging tasks, are equally important for success. These habits do not arrive overnight; for students with vision impairments aspiring to attend college, intentional focus upon acquiring these habits of mind takes time and practice.

College is, at its core, an academic experience.

Getting “academically fit” in high school can help a student determine if college is really the right fit for them after high school, or if entering into the working world first may help refine their skills and interests. Gaining work experience can also give students a chance to determine if they enjoy the academics that define college. Pursuing challenging coursework in secondary school can help students to identify areas of high interest and low interest, allowing for more informed focus for further training or education. Completing more rigorous work in these years will help a student have a more realistic understanding about the significant increase in work (reading and writing, for example) that may arrive in college. This can allow time while still in high school to gain the tools, such as access technology, to manage it. 

A student’s struggle with more challenging coursework may also help a student, their family and educational team, recognize other learning challenges unrelated to vision impairment, such as working memory, executive functioning, processing disabilities, among others. Discovering these additional gaps can also allow time to develop strategies, and a transition plan that aligns with a student’s true strengths and challenges. Finally, greater experience with more difficult work throughout secondary school can increase resilience when things get hard.

While it’s hard to acknowledge the data, we do know that over 60% of students with vision loss who attempt college do not complete it. The reasons are complex, but one of the contributing factors is a lack of academic skills. Read on for more information.

Challenging courses

There are a few ways to explore your student’s response to increased academic demands. First, encourage your high school student to take the most challenging courses available, starting as early as possible. Build the assistive technology skills to meet those demands. Remember, many colleges require prerequisites, such as world language and math, so making a plan for all four years of high school may help your student sort out what they need to take first, second, and so on. Doing so will also allow your student to identify gaps in the skills they may need to meet the demands of challenging classes. Then, work with their TVI to make a plan to gain skills, for example, in typing and in access technology.

Any plan should include gaining independent proficiency in using a laptop prior to the start of senior year, in order to have a variety of tools to use to access different materials. This is also critical for effectively transitioning into the working world as well.  

Building stamina 

Reading and writing are crucial academic skills. Reading (text books, articles, PDFs, online resources, for example) is required for nearly all college level courses. Writing is one of the key ways students in college demonstrate what they’ve learned and extend those ideas to reflect the topics or ideas in a particular class. While a student may be getting A’s and B’s in high school courses, these grades may not accurately reflect a student’s independent, academic skills (including the assistive technology skills to manage and complete this work totally on their own, on time.) 

It’s not unusual for students to encounter significantly more work in college level classes, compared to high school expectations. Your student may need to be able to manage independent reading over 75 pages per week, for the whole semester. This requires stamina and skills, built with practice and experience. Colleges assume that students have had experience independently writing papers, on time, properly formatted, meeting academic standards, up to and exceeding 7 pages in length. In the first few weeks of college, students will most likely be required to produce such assignments, independently. Has your student done this yet? Check out this article for more insight about the changes to expect from high school to college!

Typical college prep courses

Typical high school course loads include 4-5 “academic” courses per semester, so be sure students are taking rigorous, academic courses to best prepare. These courses will push your student to not only learn a lot, but to learn to juggle a lot of tasks and details, as well. Courses such as Chorus, or Study Hall, do not meet this criteria of “academic” even though they provide meaningful enrichment or time to complete school work. Further, the more challenging courses will create the need to complete work outside of the school setting, with increasing independence. 

Independent work completion

In exploring the value of rigorous curriculum, it’s also important to consider your student’s independence in completing the same work as their peers. Your student will need to develop effective, efficient, independent methods for reading, note-taking and writing. Further, students should learn to manage nightly homework assignments, completed at home, which will push them to develop the skills to complete work, independently. This builds stamina to manage and complete a couple of hours of work most nights by the end of junior year. College will demand this and more, but it takes time to develop effective, efficient tools to get this work done. College will also demand additional time management skills, as the rigid schedule of high school is replaced by a very different, more dispersed schedule, demanding that students learn to manage free time, with little guidance.

If your student is NOT bringing work home, and completing it independently by junior year, it’s critical that you ask questions. If your student struggles with work completion without an adult(parent, teacher, paraprofessional) overseeing it or identifying starting points, or if your student struggles to complete work on time, you may need to explore why that is happening. For example, what may be impacting your student’s work load, or their ability to complete such work? Request that more rigorous assignments be part of your student’s academic life, identical to their typically sighted peers. 

Without challenging assignments and tasks, your student will not be able to demonstrate their abilities (or reveal additional challenges) or even recognize what they may need to work on to meet their goals, such as reading faster, or typing faster. And you, and their teachers, may not otherwise have crucial information about additional needs such as assistive technology training, or learning strategy support, to ensure that academic skills often learned by peers via incidental learning, can be explicitly taught (such as “to do” lists, or use of a planner).

Identical work as peers; assistive technology can help

Ask your student’s Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI) how to get your student’s access technology skills ramped up to address this critical skills area, so they can complete all assignments efficiently and effectively, with increasing independence. Many skills go into that independence, and learning them in the K-12 educational environment allows college aspiring students greater opportunities to maximize their learning, with independence. Review the Technology Competencies Checklist to learn more about where your student is in their skills, and develop a plan to help them engage with the identical work as their peers.  

Talk with your student’s teacher and make sure they are getting the identical, rigorous assignments as their typically sighted peers.

By the time your student graduates from high school, they should be able to type approximately 60 words/minute, and use a number of different tools to read and access information online. These may include using a laptop with ZoomText or JAWS, or equivalent screen reading and other functionalities. For students with low vision, learning to use a laptop, equipped with zooming capacity and screen reading functionality can save time and improve efficiency of reading books and online resources. It can also help students to avoid the visual fatigue and neck strain that comes with reading large amounts of assignments for hours at a time, which often makes students avoid reading due to the real discomforts that come from using a single access method.

Teaching assistive technology skills may need to be outsourced to professionals who teach this all the time and know how to effectively, efficiently teach them. Many deliver these lessons virtually and very effectively! These lessons can help students develop and sharpen these crucial skills, which their typically sighted peers have been exposed to and often learn through incidental learning. Students learning with visual impairments benefit from explicit, repeated instruction as they build these new concepts. This allows a student to develop the problem solving skills to deal with new learning opportunities like online research, and accessibility to mainstream virtual learning platforms. Students then have the chance to gain confidence and experience learning with multiple tools, based on their learning strengths and preferences.  

Courses to consider

Here’s the short list of courses that will help prepare your student for college. Note, additional considerations, such as modified or unmodified curricula and paraprofessional support are important issues to explore early in your student’s high school career, so that your student is as independent as possible by the end of their junior year. College disability services look very different from high school. In many, if not most cases, the supports that students have in high school will not carry into college; students will need the skills to learn independently (beyond receiving accessible course materials via the Disability Services Office, or DSO).  

A basic college prep curriculum includes the following: 

Assessing post-secondary options

With these considerations in mind, coupled with plenty of time to prepare, your student will be exposed to critical thinking and increasingly complex ideas. At the same time, your student will learn to juggle expectations, prioritize tasks, and engage in independent planning. When challenges arise, your student will begin to understand what academic rigor feels like, how to meet those demands, and how to assess if they really have the skills (and the interests) to take on college demands. 

They will also be able to make a more informed assessment about the type of post-secondary experience that will best help them meet their goals. For example, while our society rewards students aspiring to attend college and get a degree, for many students, their interests are not aligned with this goal. They may not enjoy or appreciate that traditional, classroom based learning, often of unrelated topics or ideas. They may not have the reading or writing skills needed to engage in college level reading and writing, for many reasons (but not because of lack of technology skills!). This article explores the many ways to approach planning to meet various post-secondary goals and needs for additional skill training. 

Gap year and training programs

Alternatively, students and their families may realize that the student’s talents and skills need more development before taking on college. They can choose a Gap Year, instead. Or, they may decide that while college level academic work is not for them, a training program which explores employment opportunities that play to their strengths and interests, could be a great fit. Regardless, students will have put in the hard work on the front end to learn more about themselves, their needs, and the next, most realistic step forward. Getting academically fit will help your student gain important insights about how their interests, skills and options align. They will make better informed decisions that make sense for them, leading to better outcomes, and opportunities.

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