Brain Injury
Implications for Learning

A downcast-looking young man, whose head is being bandaged by a medical professional who is standing behind him.

With the highest incidence of brain injuries occurring between the ages of 15 and 24, postsecondary students are at particular risk for acquiring a brain injury.6 Estimates of postsecondary students who will sustain a traumatic brain injury range from 20-34%. 7 8

In cases of moderate to severe brain injury, students may experience significant difficulties when they return to study. According to Ruoff (2011) some individuals will have extreme difficulty processing and recalling complex information, and may even lose prior learning of important concepts. A brain injury may impair a student’s ability to recall information when needed, such as in testing situations, and may also experience challenges conveying their thoughts in speech and writing. Studying and study strategies will likely take more time and effort, sometimes resulting in a reduction of extracurricular activities and changes in relationships with peers.9 Students with brain injuries may also exhibit personality and mood changes and may experience mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression.

In cases of concussion/mild traumatic brain injury, students can experience visual or memory impairments, fatigue, confusion, attention difficulties, headaches, mood changes, and other effects that may even go undiagnosed or untreated. Most people will recover from a concussion within 7 days; however in some cases symptoms can persist for up to a year. Athletes who participate in contact sports may be particularly susceptible to sustaining concussions and may have more a more complicated course of recovery, especially if they have sustained previous concussions in the past.10

Ruoff (2001) notes that “erratic performance” following a brain injury “should not be interpreted as failure or a sign that the student with a brain injury cannot learn or lacks intelligence.” The impact of brain injuries are complex – each case is unique and the effect a brain injury has on an individual can frequently change over time, and can even fluctuate from day-to-day. Even in mild cases of brain injury, one should never assume that a student is being lazy or faking. They may be experiencing unexpected or delayed neurological consequences and will likely require some accommodations to successfully continue with their studies.

Common Accommodations for Students With Traumatic Brain Injury

The following accommodations and classroom modifications are a list of suggested accommodations, but are not comprehensive or exhaustive, nor will all accommodations listed be necessary in all cases. Other accommodations may be implemented based on the individual needs of each student as recommended by your campus Disability Services Office or other professionals.

Common Characteristics of a Student with TBI Commonly Suggested Accommodations/Classroom Adaptations
Experiences slower mental, verbal, and physical responses to questions and/or other demands. Extra time on tests/exams & flexible due dates until symptoms resolve.
Difficulty expressing themselves in speech & writing. Provide access to speech-to-text software, a scribe, or keyboard and word processor for work requiring written response.
Has difficulty understanding course material; planning & sequencing steps of assignments. Match student with a tutor who can explain course concepts & assist breaking down large assignments into smaller, more manageable steps.
Mental fatigue, vision problems, headache, sensitivity to light and/or noise. Allow student to write test/exams in a distraction-reduced room with dimmed lights & short breaks.

Minimize exposure to computer & television screens.

Note taker and/or audio recordings for class notes.

Use of reading software for textbooks/class materials.
Experiences challenges balancing demands of personal and academic environment, planning, and management of schedule. Recommend reduced course load until symptoms resolve.

Help student make use of planners, scheduling software, and/or match student with an organizational tutor to assist student to stay on top of academic deadlines and demands.
Student has difficulty maintaining friendships, or appears to be socially isolated.

Appears to be depressed or experiencing mood changes.
Encourage student to get involved in a peer mentoring program, support group, or study group.

Suggest student make an appointment with mental health counsellor or psychologist.
  • 6. Ruoff (2001)
  • 7. Richardson (2005)
  • 8. Laforce Jr., & Martin-MacLeod (2001)
  • 9. Kennedy, Krause, & Turkstra (2008)
  • 10. Peskind, Brody, Cernak, McKee, & Ruff (2013).