I have a student whose academic performance seems starkly disproportionate to his potential. He is full of interesting ideas and questions and enthusiasm, and frequently talks to me before and after class. I enjoy his company and I was fully expecting that his classroom work would be excellent.

It's not. In fact, he's only narrowly passing my course. His homework assignments are painfully underdeveloped and his test scores mediocre. Other instructors have reported similar experiences with him. It seems so incongruous. I don't think it's a problem of work ethic; he is in his late thirties or thereabouts and is happy to be pursuing a degree in my field (linguistics). I can't shake the sense that he puts a ton of effort into his work but can only get so far. Given the level of our oral conversations, it's difficult to believe how much and how regularly he misinterprets written guidelines.

Obviously, it's possible that there's something going on here that isn't any of my business. But the student himself keeps looking really disappointed in himself and his results, and my suggestions thus far that he simply keep at it and ask me lots of questions are starting to feel useless.

I have no actual credentials in psychology. However, I keep wondering if I should give the situation a little nudge. The idea of suggesting that my student get evaluated for learning disabilities makes me feel like I'm meddling or overstepping a boundary, but I keep wondering if I'm looking at an executive function disorder or even some kind of dyslexia.

Does anyone have any thoughts or advice?

  • 3
    he is in his late thirties Maybe he has a family to support, a night-shifts job to pay the bills that makes him not able to perform as well as the younger students?
    – Cape Code
    Oct 16, 2015 at 10:06
  • You said that he's misinterpreting written guidelines. If that includes homework/papers, have you tried sitting down with him and thoroughly discussing the guidelines or instructions and what's expected? Make sure that he takes notes or writes down the 'extra' information.
    – mkennedy
    Oct 16, 2015 at 17:25
  • 2
    If you haven't, you might also sit down with him and say, "I want you to succeed and excel in my class. Can we talk about how I can help you do that?" Is it conflicting priorities? Did he have issues when he was younger that precluded attending uni then, etc.
    – mkennedy
    Oct 16, 2015 at 17:30
  • Due to the confidentiality of medical information, it may be possible that he already has registered with the disability centre and you just don't know about it.
    – Celeritas
    Oct 29, 2015 at 3:17
  • I didn't have any diagnosis but I could follow the chalk-talk in an engineering summer program, but I couldn't do much of the engineering and programming. I made sure to major in mathematics (and I do have a high IQ).
    – Wakem
    Feb 2, 2022 at 16:38

6 Answers 6


I might meet with the student and ask about class performance without pushing any particular hypothesis. Going with the sandwich (good thing/bad thing/good thing) approach: "StudentName, I appreciate your active participation in class -- it's incredibly heartening -- but I'm noticing that your performance on assignments and exams doesn't show the same level of understanding that I hear from you in class. I really want you to do well here. What's going on? Can I help?"

And then listen. Have several referrals ready beforehand -- disability office, yes, but also the writing center, tutoring center, any helpful affinity groups the student might be appropriate for, and so on -- so that you can make the most useful, least overwhelming suggestions.


The best solution will depend on your location and the seniority of the student. But I would first recommend contacting your institution's disability support officer or similar if one is available. They will be bested placed to advise you on how to proceed.

Depending on how well you know the student you may consider bringing it up directly with them. However, I would be very careful about doing this. As you say they may feel you are meddling and many people can be very defensive if you suggest they have a learning disorder. Personally, I would only talk to the student if you know them quite well and have talked to the disability support officer.

  • While, as you say, this depends on locale, most American institutions operate under the assumption that the student is responsible for tracking down resources on their own. Instructors generally cannot contact the "Office of Accessibility and Inclusion" (or the "Disability Resource Center" or whatever) on behalf of a student. An instructor can recommend that a student contact that office, but even that is a little iffy. On the other hand, an instructor my contact that office in order to get advice on how to broach the topic with a student. Feb 2, 2022 at 17:43

Yes, as others have said, a conversation with the Disability Services office is a great place to start. Collect one or more brochures and specific resources from them to offer your student. Then, next time he comes in to office hours, after having your normal conversation about whatever he came in for, offer him the materials. Don't act concerned or critical -- just be matter of fact, and say (this might be a white lie, but that's okay) that you have offered these resources to other students you've had where you felt that their academic results were not reflective of their potential, and that these services can be very helpful. Then say a couple of glowing things about him and how glad you are to have him in your class. Wrap up with something friendly such as: "Please let me know, at any time, what additional sorts of accommodations I can arrange, to support you in your studies. Even after our semester together is over, you will always be welcome to come in let me know how things are going, or to ask for assistance with your studies. I'm here to help."

The point is that you have been helping as well as you know how... but as you acknowledged, you are an expert in your field, but not in how to diagnose or accommodate learning difficulties.

By the way, in your conversation with Disability Services -- you may want to send them a couple of your assignments. They might have some specific suggestions for how to incorporate some principles of Universal Design into your assignments, to make them more user-friendly to your special student, and any other students you have now, or might have in the future, with some not-so-obvious special needs!

  • And while acceptable, the word 'disability' still has a bad connotation... I would avoid it, saying that "I want to understand why your grades do not match the potential I believe you to have"... positive spin ftw :) Oct 17, 2015 at 17:14
  • @FábioDias - I don't think I ever suggested using the word "disability" when speaking with the student. I said things like "their academic results were not reflective of their potential." Also, one of the things that differentiates my Answer from some others is that I specifically avoided suggesting saying things like "I want to understand why etc." My point is that the professor can offer resources, and s/he can offer to listen and to accommodate -- but I would not recommend that the professor try to do the things that an educational psychologist is trained to do. Oct 17, 2015 at 18:23
  • And I didn't say you did, I was complementing the answer, not criticizing it.. It was merely the best place to put that specific comment to highlight that idea... Oct 17, 2015 at 22:32

Does he wear glasses / contacts?

...it's difficult to believe how much and how regularly he misinterprets written guidelines.

This quote makes me think that it could very easily just be a sight problem. You mention that he is really bright and that the work ethic is good. This quote makes me think that it is purely a reading problem brought on by poor sight.


Many of these are great suggestions. You could talk to the student first. Or then talk to both the student and parents. While I highly doubt they dont know about a disability it might be likely possible if hes highly functioning as you said orally. Maybe he has a reading learning disability. It could also be maybe the family cant afford testing. You might suggest to the student that if he is disabled he can get accommodations that could help him in the class. Or see if he wants extra help because you want too see him succeed. It could also have to do with age. Sometimes school is much harder when you are older. I suggest saying it if course all in a nice way but maybe the parents or student do not know about getting class accommodations or think they can get extra help. I would do this before just sending out a warning of an F notice. Good luck. I'm not sure when this was listed or if it was resolved hope it works out!! Ih also it maybe the student doesnt tell you about the disability because he doesnt want different treatment. I am learning disabled and didnt tell my professors for that reason.

  • It was listed October 16th 2015, so a question from long ago... dates are shown on the questions including when edited etc.
    – Solar Mike
    Dec 29, 2019 at 7:52
  • 3
    The question states the student is in his late 30's, so involving parents would be inappropriate. perhaps you could edit your answer to make these small corrections. Dec 29, 2019 at 10:44

In a previous academic course, a student quite obviously had some sort of not particularly mild autism spectrum disorder (e.g. the student brought a family member to office hours to act as a sort of translator). In lunchroom conversations with other professors it became clear that others were aware of the same issues and that institutionally they were not recognized. The issue was brought to the attention of the relevant administration, and it turned out that neither the student nor the student's family was aware that the student was entitled to assistance and had consequently never requested it nor notified anyone in the institution of the student's needs. I don't know exactly what the student's discapacity is (I have no need to know this information), but I do know that the situation was rectified and the student's needs are now addressed.

The moral is that if one suspects such a situation, one should identify the relevant administrative actors and contact them. This should be done with the appropriate discretion and tact. In particular, it may not be a good idea to addess the issue directly with the student. Different students want their discapacities handled in different ways; some wish to maintain maximum privacy, some do not. It is best to make no assumptions and to put the matter in the hands of someone trained to deal with such matters, both in terms of the interpersonal aspect and the legal aspect, neither of which is necessarily simple or straightforward.

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