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Unaccommodating attitudes: perceptions of students as a function of academic accommodation use and test performance.

Dr. Marilyn Bartlett, a woman diagnosed with dyslexia, began working at a prestigious law firm in New York. However, in order to continue working at this firm, Bartlett needed to pass the Bar Examination, which requires a substantial amount of reading in a relatively short period of time. Because of her dyslexia, Bartlett was unable to pass the test in the time allotted, and as a result, she lost her job. After the New York State Board of Bar Examiners repeatedly denied her requests for accommodations, Bartlett filed a lawsuit against the Bar Examiners, claiming discrimination. The presiding judge concluded that Bartlett was unable to read in the same condition, manner, or duration as an average reader, and as such, she was entitled to receive the accommodation of extra time on the State Bar Exam (FindLaw.Com, 2008).

Bartlett's case illustrates the profound impact that learning disabilities can have on a person. That is, although an individual may be highly intelligent (e.g., Bartlett had obtained two advanced degrees), learning disabilities can negatively affect that person's cognitive and perceptual processes (e.g., dyslexia affected how fast Bartlett could read), and thus hinder the person's ability to complete certain tasks (e.g., Bartlett could not finish her bar examination in the time allotted). It is no surprise, then, that learning disabilities have been shown to negatively impact an individual's academic success (e.g., Vogel & Adelman, 1990, 1992; Wilczenski, 1993; Zhang, Katsiyanis, & Kortering, 2007). Given such academic difficulties, it is easy to see why many students with learning disabilities report having a negative academic self-concept (Renick & Harter, 1989).

In an attempt to ameliorate some of the negative consequences of learning disabilities, many educational institutions offer accommodations to students who have documented learning disabilities. Although Dr. Bartlett's example illustrates one of the most common academic accommodations available to students (i.e., extra time to take an exam), there are many other types of accommodations, such as having access to another student's lecture notes or receiving a test in verbal form rather than in written form. In general, these accommodations have been shown to be useful in minimizing the academic performance decrements associated with learning disabilities, as numerous studies have found that students with learning disabilities benefit to a greater extent than do students without learning disabilities from the use of academic accommodations on tests (Baker, 2005; Elbaum, 2007; Lang et al., 2005; Runyan, 1991; Schulte, Elliott, & Kratochwill, 2001). Not surprisingly, these students also report that accommodations are extremely beneficial to their academic success (Dziekan, 2003).

Because they have been shown to predict both subjective (Dziekan, 2003; Lang et al., 2005) and objective (Baker, 2005; Elbaum, 2007; Lang et al., 2005; Schulte et al., 2001; Zhang et al., 2007) academic achievement, it seems reasonable that academic accommodations should be used whenever possible by students with learning disabilities. Unfortunately, research suggests that accommodations are not administered consistently and effectively to people in need. For one, there is evidence to suggest that accommodations are not always granted by institutions and employers. Specifically, a number of studies investigating workplace accommodations indicate that previous work performance (Florey & Harrison, 2000), attributes of the disabled worker (Stone & Colella, 1996), source of the accommodation request (Cleveland, Barnes-Farrell, & Ratz, 1997), and several other situational factors influence people's willingness to grant accommodations to an individual.

In addition to research demonstrating the hesitance to grant accommodations, there is also a growing body of literature indicating the hesitance to request accommodations. In other words, although it is critical that institutions consistently grant accommodations to those with documented disabilities, such compliance is irrelevant if people with disabilities are unwilling to request accommodations in the first place. The extant literature in this area suggests that making this request is a complex decision-making process involving input from an array of situational factors (Baldridge & Viega, 2001; 2006), one of which is the "anticipated image cost" of making such a request (Baldridge & Viega, 2001; Lee, 1997). That is, individuals may anticipate a high image cost from admitting their disability to others or from requesting help in the form of accommodations (Baldridge & Veiga, 2006). In short, people may be reluctant to ask for accommodations because they believe that the social costs may outweigh the performance benefits.

Although current research on the accommodation request process focuses on accommodations in the workplace, it is reasonable to argue that similar social concerns (i.e., image cost) may inhibit the accommodation requests of students in academic environments. Specifically, if students with learning disabilities fear that their peers perceive learning disabilities and/or academic accommodations in a negative manner, many students may be hesitant to admit that they have a learning disability (Williams, Sabata, & Zolna, 2006) or to request accommodations that could help improve their academic performance (Baldridge & Veiga, 2006; Clair, Beatty, & Maclean, 2005). Interestingly, recent research indicates that students with learning disabilities may be correct in anticipating their peers' negative reactions. In an experimental study, Paetzold and colleagues (2008) administered a word search task to participants for which there were rewards for good performance. Before the task, a confederate approached the experimenter and requested accommodations (i.e., extra time on the task), and the experimenter either granted or denied the confederate's accommodations via an announcement to participants. The results showed that granting accommodations to the individual was perceived to be less fair than was not granting accommodations, suggesting that accommodations are believed to give an unfair advantage to individuals with learning disabilities. Moreover, their results indicated that accommodations were perceived to be especially unfair when they helped the individual perform well on the task (Paetzold et al., 2008), even though increased task performance is precisely the goal of granting accommodations.

It follows that if people perceive accommodations as unfair (Paetzold et al., 2008), then students with learning disabilities may be reluctant to request such accommodations for fear of being perceived negatively by other students (i.e., high image cost; Baldridge & Viega, 2001). However, research has yet to explore whether students themselves are actually perceived negatively for using such accommodations or whether people's negative perceptions are directed primarily at the accommodation process. As such, the purpose of the present study was to examine the interaction between accommodation use and test performance on the perception of a hypothetical student. Participants were asked to imagine a situation in which a student either did or did not take accommodations on a test and subsequently did better or worse than the participant on the test (1).

Several specific predictions were advanced. First, because the act of granting accommodations has been shown to be perceived more negatively than the act of declining accommodations (Paetzold et al., 2008), a main effect of accommodation use was expected, such that targets who received accommodations would be rated more negatively than would targets who declined accommodations. In addition, because accommodations are perceived in an especially negative manner when they help an individual perform well on a task (Paetzold et al., 2008), an interaction between test performance and accommodation use was predicted, such that when the target performed better than the participant, targets who received accommodations would be rated more negatively than targets who declined accommodations. Conversely, when the target performed worse than the participant (and thus the target's poor performance posed no personal consequence to the participant), it was predicted that all targets would be rated equally, regardless of whether they received or declined accommodations.

METHOD

Participants

Participant volunteers consisted of 69 undergraduates (31 women, 38 men) at a small liberal arts university in Texas who were recruited from the university's on-campus housing locations (e.g., dormitories, fraternity houses, apartments). They ranged in age from 18 to 27 (M = 20.48, SD = 1.52) and self-identified as White (73.5%), African-American (1.5%), Hispanic-American (11.8%), multi-racial (7.4%), "Other" (1.5%), or elected not to report their race (4.4%).

Design and Procedure

As part of a 2 (Accommodations: Received or Declined) x 2 (Test Performance: Better or Worse than the Participant) between-subjects design, students were asked to participate in a 10-min study purportedly investigating the types of students who work best together. Upon agreeing to participate, they were asked to sign a consent form and were then given verbal instructions explaining the nature of the study. Each participant received a packet that described a hypothetical student who had been offered the accommodation of extra time on a test (2). Following the study, the data were analyzed and the participants were debriefed via email and provided with a summary of the results.

Because accommodations and learning disabilities have the potential to be psychologically reactive topics, several precautionary measures were taken to conceal the purpose and independent variables of the study. First, a cover story (which explained that the study was designed to "examine what types of students work best together") was included to disguise the purpose of the study, thus preventing participants from exhibiting socially desirable judgments about the target student. Second, the present study also contained a "filler" scenario (i.e., one that contained no manipulations and was not analyzed) about "a student who usually turned in homework late and still happened to make many intelligent comments during class time." The filler scenario was included to prevent demand characteristics by making our particular independent variables less salient. Finally, in order to verify that the filler scenario and cover story adequately masked our hypothesis, a pilot test was conducted before the outset of the study. Participants in the pilot study were presented with the cover story and then asked to read the two scenarios (i.e., the filler scenario and the experimental scenario), to rate their perceptions of the student on the dependent measures, and then to guess the purpose of the study as well as the independent variables we were investigating. No participants correctly determined that the study was specifically about academic accommodations and/or test performance, and thus we administered the current study confident that our purpose, variables, and hypothesis were sufficiently disguised to prevent demand characteristics.

Measures

Participants were given an experimental packet consisting of six pages. The first page included general instructions and the cover story of the study. Following the cover story were items assessing participants' demographic information (e.g., gender, age, GPA). The next page contained the filler scenario and a set of dependent variables (identical to the dependent variables in the experimental scenario), which asked participants to rate the target student on a variety of dimensions, including intelligence, likeability, and respect.

The next page contained the experimental scenario, which described a hypothetical student who either received or declined accommodations for a test on which the student either did better or worse than the participant. Importantly, the only information that varied between conditions was test performance (i.e., the student scored higher or lower than the participant) and accommodation use (i.e., the student chose to or chose not to receive the accommodation offered). Participants then rated the target student on four primary dependent variables, all of which were measured on a 5-point Likert scale from 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree). First, participants indicated the extent to which they believed that the target was intelligent ("I think this student is intelligent"). Next, participants indicated the extent to which they believed that the target was likeable ("This student is likeable"). Participants then indicated (on two items; [alpha] = .76) the extent to which they believed that the target was respectable ("I respect this student," and "In my opinion, this student would make a good role model for others"). Finally, participants rated (on three items; [alpha] = .78) the extent to which they believed that the target's grades were fair ("This student deserved the grade they received," "This student receives fair grades from the professor," and "This student deserved their grade").

On the last page, a manipulation check asked participants to recall, without turning back to previous pages, (a) how the target student performed on the test in comparison to the participant (better or worse), (b) the type of disability the target student had (dyslexia, ADD, or no disability), and (c) whether the student took accommodations on the test (yes or no).

RESULTS

A series of two-way between-subjects analyses of variance (ANOVAs) was used to analyze the influence of accommodation use and test performance on the perceived intelligence, likeability, and respectability of the target student, as well as the perceived fairness of the target student's grades. Given our specific, a priori predictions, we felt that the use of ANOVAs (in lieu of a MANOVA) was justified and would provide the most powerful test of our hypotheses. T-tests were similarly used to test a priori hypotheses involving the simple main effects. An alpha level of .05 was used for all statistical tests. Twelve participants were excluded from data analysis for failing the manipulation check.

Consistent with predictions, there was a significant main effect of accommodation use on the perceived intelligence of the student, such that participants rated targets who received accommodations (M = 3.45) as significantly less intelligent than targets who declined accommodations (M = 4.04), F (1, 52) = 11.31, p < .05. As expected, this main effect was qualified by an interaction between accommodations and test performance, F (1, 52) = 4.05, p < .05. As Figure 1 shows, targets who performed better than the participant were perceived as less intelligent when they received accommodations (M = 3.44) rather than declined accommodations (M = 4.36), t (28) = -3.67, p < .05. Conversely, targets who performed worse than the participant were perceived to be equally intelligent, regardless of whether they received (M = 3.46) or declined accommodations (M = 3.69), t (24) = -1.02, ns. There was no main effect of test performance on intelligence, F (1, 52) = 3.51, ns.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

There was no main effect of accommodation use on the perceived likeability of the student, F (1, 52) = 1.78, ns. However, the predicted interaction between accommodation use and test performance was revealed, F (1, 52) = 6.19, p < .05. As shown in Figure 2, when the target performed better than participants on the test, targets who received accommodations (M = 3.06) were liked less than targets who declined accommodations (M = 3.57), t (24) = -2.48, p < .05. By contrast, when the target performed worse than participants, targets were liked equally well regardless of whether they received (M = 3.31) or declined accommodations (M = 3.15), t < 1, ns. Again, there was no main effect of test performance, F < 1, ns.

Consistent with the hypothesis, there was a significant main effect of accommodation use on the respectability of the target student, such that participants had less respect for targets who received accommodations (M = 3.36) than they did for targets who declined accommodations (M = 3.80), F (1, 52) = 4.97, p < .05. As expected, this main effect was qualified by an interaction between accommodations and test performance, F (1, 52) = 4.06, p < .05. As Figure 3 shows, when the target performed better than participants on the test, participants had less respect for targets who received accommodations (M = 3.09) than for targets who declined accommodations (M = 3.86), t (27) = -2.32, p < .05. However, when the target performed worse than participants, participants had a similar degree of respect for targets who received (M = 3.69) or declined accommodations (M = 3.73), t < 1, ns. There was no main effect for test performance, F (1, 52) = 1.72, ns.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Interestingly, there were no main effects of accommodation use, F < 1, ns, or test performance, F (1, 52) = 1.53, ns, on the perceived fairness of the student's grades. There was also no interaction between accommodation use and test performance on fairness of the student's grades, F (1, 52) = 2.79, ns.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

DISCUSSION

The results of the current study indicate that students with learning disabilities may be discriminated against when they use accommodations in a classroom environment. That is, students were perceived to be less intelligent and respectable when they received (rather than declined) accommodations, suggesting that the "unfairness" associated with accommodations (Paetzold et al., 2008) may indeed be accompanied by negative evaluations of students who use them. More importantly, our results also indicate that the stigmatization of students who use accommodations is especially prevalent when the student performs well on a task. Specifically, when students outperformed the participant on the test, they were consistently perceived more negatively (i.e., as less intelligent, likeable, and respectable) when they received, rather than declined, accommodations. By contrast, when students did not outperform the participant, they were judged similarly whether they received or declined accommodations. Thus, although the purpose of accommodations is to improve the academic performance of students with learning disabilities, when students do improve academically with the aid of accommodations, they may suffer negative social consequences.

If, as our findings suggest, accommodations have negative social consequences when used successfully, students with learning disabilities may be faced with a "no-win" situation when deciding whether to use academic accommodations. On one hand, students can decline accommodations, which is likely to decrease their performance (e.g., Baker, 2005; Lang et al., 2005; Runyan, 1991), but may lead to greater social acceptance and respect from peers. Alternatively, students can elect to receive accommodations, which is likely to increase their performance, but may diminish their relative social status. Therefore, although accommodations are perceived to be both necessary (Horvath, Kampfer-Bohach, & Kearns 2005) and helpful to students with learning disabilities (Dziekan, 2003; Zhang et al., 2007), they may also have the unintended effect of negatively influencing the social standing of students who use them. Our results, then, corroborate the fears that students may have about requesting accommodations--fears which may discourage such students from utilizing the accommodations available to them (Baldridge & Veiga, 2006; Clair, Beatty, & Maclean, 2005).

Although preliminary, the present study provides a promising starting point for further research on the perceptions of students who use accommodations. Nonetheless, it is appropriate to recognize some potential limitations. First, the present study was conducted using a paper-and-pencil format, which limits its ecological validity. Although the scenario was intended to portray as realistic a situation as possible, it is not completely analogous to what takes place in a true classroom environment. For this reason, it is necessary for future research to explore the perception of accommodations in more realistic situations that may have greater personal consequences to participants (c.f., Paetzold et al., 2008). This lack of mundane realism notwithstanding, with the dearth of research on the social consequences of accommodation requests and perceptions of educational accommodations, it can be argued that the present study offers a useful avenue for exploring the social effects of a wide array of accommodations and learning disabilities prevalent in academic environments.

In addition to concerns about external validity, we acknowledge that our results do not allow us to determine whether students with learning disabilities are perceived more negatively than other classmates for accepting and utilizing accommodations effectively, or rather if they are perceived more positively for declining accommodations but still performing well. In other words, it may be the case that students who decline accommodations and perform well on a test receive social recognition from others by showing that they can "overcome" their learning disability on their own, whereas students who receive accommodations and perform well on the same test are denigrated because they are using outside help to "overcome" their disability. It is important that future research attempt to disentangle this issue by implementing a control group to determine whether differences in perceptions of students who use vs. decline accommodations are due to enhancement, degradation, or both. In any case, our results did show that students who used accommodations were indeed perceived as consistently less intelligent and respectable than students who did not use accommodations. Moreover, regardless of whether it is the case that students who decline accommodations (and perform well) experience social enhancement or whether students who receive accommodations (and perform well) experience social degradation, it should be noted that both of these situations are generally unfavorable for students with learning disabilities. For example, if students believe that they can receive an enhancement to their social status by not using accommodations, they may be inclined to ignore a useful resource. On the other hand, if students believe that they will be ostracized for utilizing accommodations, they may similarly avoid requesting this resource.

A third limitation of the present study is that it examined only the perceptions of students who used one type of academic accommodation (i.e., extra time on a test) for one type of learning disability (i.e., dyslexia). Because our study was a preliminary attempt to explore the social perceptions of academic accommodations, we attempted to choose an accommodation and a learning disability that are relatively common among educational institutions. However, given the wide array of accommodations available (e.g., receiving a test verbally rather than in written form, receiving notes from another student) to students with varying types of learning disabilities (e.g., dysgraphia, ADHD), future research should examine the extent to which our results generalize to other accommodations and learning disabilities.

Finally, individual differences among participants were not investigated in the present study. As such, although our results indicate that students generally perceive individuals who benefit from accommodations in a negative manner, it is plausible that some individuals are more likely to endorse this bias than are others. In support of this view, research by Garcia, Paetzold, and Colella (2005) indicates that at least two of the Big Five personality dimensions (i.e., openness to experience and agreeableness) can moderate the perceived appropriateness of accommodations. Future studies, then, should include measures assessing participants' individual characteristics in order to determine whether certain personality traits (e.g., competitiveness, Big Five traits) moderate people's judgments of students who use accommodations. For example, it is possible that highly competitive individuals may be especially likely to rate accommodations as unfair and to derogate students who utilize such accommodations successfully.

In terms of future research, it would also be valuable to explore whether the current results generalize to professors' perceptions of students who use academic accommodations. If other students in a class perceive an individual who utilizes accommodations as less intelligent, it is plausible that professors similarly perceive this individual as less intelligent. Importantly, because a professor's initial expectations toward a student can impact a student's treatment and eventual academic outcome (e.g., Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968), such a bias could cause students who receive accommodations to be handicapped not only by their disability, but also by their professor's perceptions of accommodations.

Taken together, our results suggest that students with learning disabilities may be stigmatized for benefiting from academic accommodations. Although confidentiality is one way to limit the adverse social consequences of learning disabilities and/or accommodations, it is our belief that other supplementary institutional policies could further limit potential discrimination faced by students with learning disabilities. Ideally, educational classes or lectures could be used to inform students about the increasing prevalence of learning disabilities (Heiman & Precel, 2003; Henderson, 1999; Mull, Sitlington, & Alper, 2001) as well as the necessity and benefits of accommodations (Baker, 2005; Dziekan, 2003). Regardless of which specific interventions are utilized, the present study implies that action is warranted to prevent students with learning disabilities from being perceived unfairly when they use accommodations effectively in academic settings. In addition, the present study indicates an increased need for research not only on how accommodations affect a student's academic performance, but also on how accommodations affect a student's social environment. By understanding and potentially minimizing the negative social ramifications of academic accommodations, it is hoped that students with learning disabilities will be able to maximize their academic performance without sacrificing their social standing in the process.

REFERENCES

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Horvath, L. S., Kampfer-Bohach, S., & Kearns, J. F. (2005). The use of accommodations among students with deaf blindness in large-scale assessment systems. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 16, 177-187.

Lang, S. C., Kumke, P. J., Ray, C. E, Cowell, E. L., Elliot, S. N., Kratochwill, T. R., & Bolt, D. N. (2005). Consequences of using testing accommodations: Student, teacher, and parent perceptions of and reactions to testing accommodations. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 31, 49-62.

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Footnotes

(1) Because accommodations are rarely requested in the presence of peers, a situation in which participants observe a target student's accommodation use rather than accommodation request was employed in the present study. In other words, it is more likely that other students in a classroom are cognizant of a student's accommodation use than a student's accommodation request, and as such, the present scenario was believed to be a realistic representation of the social perceptions of academic accommodations.

(2) The double time accommodation was chosen because it is a very common accommodation taken at many universities, and is reported to be relatively fair by both students and faculty (Dziekan, 2003). Furthermore, the double time accommodation has been employed in other studies on academic accommodations (i.e., Paetzold et al., 2008), and is therefore believed to be a logical starting point for exploring new research questions in this area.

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Traci Giuliano, 10905 Sierra Oaks, Austin, TX 78759.

Patrick M. Egan

Traci A. Giuliano

Southwestern University
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Author:Egan, Patrick M.; Giuliano, Traci A.
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
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Date:Dec 1, 2009
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