Kennesaw State University

students helping engaging with each other

Increasing Student Engagement: Including the Marginalized

Feb 12, 2015 | by Kami Anderson | Kennesaw State University

February 6, Dr. Amy Buddie, Associate Director for Graduate Student Support & Undergraduate Research /Creative Activity and Dr. Kadian Callahan, Faculty Fellow for Learning-Centered Teaching for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), presented a workshop on increasing student engagement (include link to presentation here).  Like any professor, finding ways to increase opportunities for student-centered learning stays at the front of my thoughts and preoccupations.  However, I took my thoughts a step further to figure the best way to increase engagement for a particular type of student: the High Functioning Autistic student population that I encounter in my class every semester.  According to the Learning Diagnostic Clinic at Missouri State University in a turn of the century study, “almost 30% of students with [learning disabilities] are now graduating from high school with a diploma and 56% of these graduates enroll in college” (retrieved date 11September2012).  Over the course of the past decade, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of full-time college freshmen with learning disabilities.  For universities like our, with large STEM colleges, departments and programs, these learning disabilities are not just relegated to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia.  According to Olfman (2002), the circumscribed area of interest associated with Asperger’s Syndrome can attract students with this disability, to the fields of math and science.  What are the tools we can adopt to provide a comfortable learning environment for these students and ensure their matriculation towards a degree?

Every semester, I encounter an inordinate number of students in the classroom who have self-disclosed having Asperger's Syndrome.  The percentage of self-disclosed Asperger’s students ranges from 6-10% in some of the courses I teach.  This percentage may seem small, but 2-4 students each semester calculated over the past 8 years I have been teaching amounts to almost a full section of one of my classes.  Student Disability Services offers services directly for faculty and staff with successfully meeting the needs of students with disabilities (  I have coordinated with this office in the past and have received a great deal of support.  The techniques that Drs. Buddie and Callahan have suggested in their presentation (insert link to presentation here) as well as a few techniques I used while teaching K-12 many moons ago have helped to ensure their success and engagement in my courses.  The strategies to assist the Asperger’s student in the college classroom do not require a complete reevaluation and restructuring of lectures.   For example, a simple post-it note with the statement’ “We should not look over our classmate’s shoulder unless we are asked,” placed on the student’s desk, can immediately correct behavior.  The post-it can then be removed and discarded with little to no disruption of the pace of the class.

One of the key strategies for academic success for the Asperger’s student is to decrease sensory overload.  Falk-Ross, et al, detail sensory overload as occurring in eight areas: 1) smell, 2) movement, 3) balance, 4) muscular feedback, 5) taste, 6) hearing, 7) vision and, 8) oral.  In the college classroom, movement, hearing, vision and oral are sensory components that often occur.  With the rise of adapting lectures to multiple types of learners, many college professors find that often times that classroom lecture will have many facets, the spoken lecture, a visual PowerPoint or other visual aid and student engagement through small group breakout sessions.  All of these components over the course of one 50-75 minute class may prove overwhelming for the Asperger’s students.  Safran (2001) recalls “one student with Asperger’s perceived group work to be his greatest challenge…and has begged future teachers to pay attention to makeup, structure and process of groups” (pg. 62).  Interaction amongst peers through small group discussions and activities are common in many college classrooms.  Allowing the Asperger’s student to select groups to work with and encouraging the importance of the activity, have helped with the social success of the Asperger’s student in my STEM public speaking course.  In fact, the team or group speech was the most successful speech for the Asperger’s student in many of the cases of self-disclosed Asperger’s students for the semester.  Drs. Buddie and Callahan provided a cheat sheet of quick simple activities that can easily be applied to engage the Asperger’s student.  (insert link to handout here)

A second technique that has worked well the public speaking course, is being able to integrate periods of silent work in the lecture.  For example, after providing a lecture about the informative speech, giving the students an opportunity to free write about potential informative speech topics, allows for the Asperger’s student to process the lecture and settle any auditory sensitivity.  Falk-Ross, et al, suggest that “auditory sensitivity may be addressed by the reduction of noise” (2004, pg. 50).  Check out the presentation to see how Drs. Buddie and Callahan incorporate minute-papers into their classroom activities (insert link to presentation here).

The overall desire is not just to provide a comfortable learning environment for the Asperger’s student, but also for the other students in the class.  It is important that the college professor incorporate strategies that take minimal effort and distraction.  The above techniques have not hindered the learning process for any student, but have enhanced the ability to understand and retain course concepts for the students with Asperger’s Syndrome.

On campus, the ability for the professor in all disciplines to actively engage the Asperger’s student, reinforce basic skills, not allow the student to succumb to sensory overload, yet still teach course content, may seem daunting. However the demand of the college professor to be able to recognize a need for adaptation as well as adjust aspects of how a lecture may be delivered is an important skill for guaranteeing success for the Asperger’s student and any student for that matter.  For more information about the services available for faculty for assisting students with disabilities in your classes, please visit the Students Disability Services page for Faculty and Staff (


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Falk-Ross, F., Iverson, M., and Gilbert, C. (2004).  Teaching and learning approaches for children with Asperger’s Syndrome: Literacy implications and applications. Teaching Exceptional Children, 48-55.

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