Psychopedagogists’ Conceptions of the Learning Process and Psychopedagogical Interventions Involving University Students with Disabilities and/or Learning Difficulties


This study aimed to describe psychopedagogists’ views on the factors intervening in the learning process of university students with disabilities and/or learning difficulties. These students were attended by an institutional psychopedagogical service at a Brazilian university. Thus, the study also aimed to outline the main interventions carried out in this context. Five professionals who attended the students were interviewed and a qualitative content analysis of their responses was conducted. The results indicate emotional aspects were highlighted as factors that, according to the psychopedagogists, interfere with students’ learning process. Adapting psychopedagogical interventions to adults was considered a challenge by professionals, who emphasized the use of listening and emotional support as central tools in this process, even though some participants believed such tools are not traditionally used in psychopedagogical protocol.

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Rozek, M. and Martins, G. (2017) Psychopedagogists’ Conceptions of the Learning Process and Psychopedagogical Interventions Involving University Students with Disabilities and/or Learning Difficulties. Creative Education, 8, 142-155. doi: 10.4236/ce.2017.81012.

1. Introduction

Equitable policies of access to higher education, recently implemented in Brazil and in other parts of the world, have modified the profile of the student who enters university (Almeida et al., 2012; Stevens, 2014) . Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to consider the diversity in personal and school experiences of students prior to reaching higher education, as well as how these aspects impact their experience throughout their undergraduate courses.

Currently, many students are the first members of their families to attend higher education institutions, which means they may have had little contact with “intellectual and artistic artefacts of the hegemonic culture” (Almeida et al., 2012, p. 906) and even had a previous history of low quality schooling. In addition, many students are adults, workers, with little time to devote to study (Stevens, 2014) . Lastly, there has been a gradual increase of students with disabilities in higher education (INEP, 2014).

Therefore, universities are currently challenged not only to ensure access, but especially the permanence and the academic success of students (Almeida et al., 2012; Saravali, 2005) . In this context, it is imperative that universities, even if later in relation to other levels of education, start discussing the topic of Inclusive Education (Marian, Ferrari & Sekkel, 2007; Santos & Hostins, 2015) , especially from the pedagogic perspective (Santos & Hostins, 2015) . According to Rodrigues (2004) , universities have shown little concern with teaching methodologies and the causes of academic success/failure. In this sense, the author believes that the difficulty in providing more equal opportunities to students and in ensuring their success is mainly related to the conceptions of teaching and learning traditionally adopted by universities.

Considering these aspects, this study originated from the need to reflect upon the work that has been conducted in a Brazilian university, involving students with disabilities and/or learning difficulties. In this university, the work is done by a psychopedagogical service linked to the Graduate Program in Education, in partnership with an institutional interdisciplinary action service (Psychosocial Attention Center). The latter refers students who need psychopedagogical attention to the service.

The psychopedagogical service has attended the external and internal community since 2006. It involves the diagnosis and intervention in the learning process and is performed by trainees who are enrolled on the Psychopedagogy Specialization Course of the Graduate Program in Education. These trainees are monitored and supervised by a professor of the course. Considering the above, this study aimed to describe the professionals’ views on factors intervening in the learning process of university students attending the psychopedagogical service, and to outline the main interventions used in this context. Before to present the methodological procedures and the results of the investigation, we will briefly describe the main concepts that supported our discussions and the results of some studies in this field.

2. Conceptions of Learning and Not Learning

An approach based on the rationale of Inclusive Education should begin from a perspective on learning and development that considers the individuals’ background and their particular knowledge construction processes. From this point of view, knowledge structures seem to be built by the individual throughout of the course of their interaction with the social environment, although they are grounded in intelligence as human capability (Pain, 1988) . Therefore, the advance in cognitive development is also considered a unique process, so that not necessarily all individuals, will invariably reach more advanced cognitive levels (Becker & Marques, 2000) . For these authors, this is a common mistake when interpreting Piaget’s constructivist theory, since what the author says is that the passage from one stage to another “mainly depends on the social environment that can accelerate or delay the onset of a stage, or even prevent its manifestation” (Piaget, 1973: p. 4) .

Thus, knowledge is developed by the collaboration between teaching and learning individuals (Pain, 1988) . For Vygotsky (1991) , it is in the relationship with others and through it that the conversion from the social dimension processes to the individual dimension takes place, which is the base of the learning process. That being so, the author believes that the historically constructed social environment provides the physical and symbolic tools that the organism will use as a mediator in this process.

The construction of knowledge can be then considered to involve individual experiences that motivate people to learn or not to learn, that is, all learning is linked to meanings that are very specific to each individual. For example, according to Becker and Marques (2000) , the process of learning inevitably implies an emotional ambivalence, as it involves the individual accepting that he or she still doesn’t know something and, at the same time, the pleasure of discovery. The way each individual deals with this ambivalence is something very peculiar and may be related, among other factors, to their perception of self-efficacy, that is, the degree to which individuals believe they are able to achieve certain objectives (Souza, 2010) .

Taking all these aspects into account, it is plausible to assume that learning difficulties may be related, but not necessarily, to some intellectual or sensorial disabilities, among others (Saravali, 2005) . For this author, in many situations, these difficulties result from interactional failures, such as those involving the individual’s relationship with the social environment that alter or hinder cognitive development. This may occur even among students with disabilities who often have their learning potential underestimated and, as a result, tend to have less demands made of them by the social environment.

3. Learning in the Higher Education Context

How can all this apply when the student is an adult attending higher education institutions? For Saravali (2005) , there are two profiles of adult students. On the one hand, the adult has already reached the formal level of cognitive development, but that does not mean that he will necessarily apply this logic to all contents to which he or she is exposed. On the other hand, there are students who have not yet built formal structures, especially due to unfavorable conditions in their schooling process.

Obviously, these two profiles may be thought, didactically, as two extremes of a continuum, among which many other cases exist. Moreover, in addition to issues involving students’ cognitive development, it is necessary to consider other aspects that permeate their learning. Among these, the challenges inherent to the university context and to the life cycle of the student who enter it can be mentioned. The student, usually in transition to adult life, must adapt to a new logic of knowledge construction, mainly guided by a position of greater autonomy and independence represented by the figure of the teacher and by the family (Almeida, 2007; Cunha & Carrilho, 2005) . In this sense, he or she must be able to use a set of learning strategies that enable greater self-regulation (Souza, 2010; Tavares et al., 2003) . The student also has to deal with the challenge of entering a new, enlarged and diversified social group, which is not always easy (Almeida, 2007) . Apart from this, it is necessary to choose a career and to continuously assess the appropriateness of the choice (Almeida, 2007; Bardagi & Hutz, 2009; Bardagi & Hutz, 2014) .

Another important factor in the adaptation and academic success of university students is represented by the conditions offered by the university, such as the quality of teaching in the classroom (Magalhaes, 2013; Moreira, Bolsanello & Seger, 2011) and the institutional student support services. As for the latter, discussions about learning in higher education, including those belonging to the field of Inclusive Education, are unanimous in pointing out the need for psychopedagogical support services to students (Almeida et al., 2012; Faria, 2010; Vega et al., 1999; Saravali, 2005) . However, it is important to emphasize that Psychopedagogy in Higher Education has scarcely been investigated in research at the national level (Faria, 2010) .

4. Method

4.1. Participants

The participants were five professionals who provided psychopedagogical services to university students. All professionals were former students of the Psychopedagogy Specialization Course of the Graduate Program in Education and attended the students during their traineeship. The definition of the number of participants was given by all professionals who attended students at the time of data collection and who agreed to participate in the study.

One of the five participants was male and they are from 28 to 42 years old. All of them had concluded higher education (four in Pedagogy and one in History).

4.2. Instruments and Collection Procedures

Data were collected through a semi-structured interview developed for this study, based on the guiding questions listed below.

1) How does the learning process of students referred to the service occur?

2) What factors intervene in the learning process of these students?

3) How is the psychopedagogical intervention conducted with these individuals?

This instrument was individually applied to each participant at the university, after they agreed to participate in the study and signed the Free Informed Consent Form. The interviews were conducted by two members of the research team, recorded and later transcribed for analysis.

4.3. Analysis Procedures

Data analysis was based on a qualitative approach, with a descriptive and analytical character. Qualitative research, according to Minayo (1998, p. 22) , “works with a universe of meanings, reasons, aspirations, beliefs, values and attitudes, corresponding to deeper relationships, processes and phenomena that cannot be reduced to the operationalization of variables”.

Therefore, we ran a qualitative content analysis (Bardin, 2010) , seeking not to determine the frequency of responses in each category, but the nuances of meaning in each one of them (Laville & Dionne, 1999) . Based on this framework, the following analysis procedures were implemented: 1) initial reading, exploration, preparation and organization of the material; 2) identification of the units of analysis, elaboration of categories and classification of units according to the categories; 3) treatment of results, inference and interpretation from contextual elements and literature support. Table 1 presents the themes and categories resulting from this process.

Table 1. Thematic axes and categories resulting from the analysis process.

5. Results and Discussion

The results will be presented according to the themes and categories shown in Table 1. Vignettes will illustrate the main results of each category, which will be discussed in the light of the reviewed literature.

5.1. Factors Intervening in the Students’ Learning Process

Participants were unanimous in mentioning the emotional aspects category as a factor that is closely linked to the students’ academic difficulties. They mentioned, for example, the student’s demotivation and insecurity which seem to be related to a history of failure in their school life. In addition, the presence of fear due to challenges brought about by university life and an impoverished self- image in relation to the students’ own competencies were also stressed, an aspect that has been highlighted in the literature (Souza, 2010) : “[…] fear is a typical example, fear of making an oral presentation and could make them give up, which may easily happen; it is very easy to give up at the first symptom of ‘I will not be able’” (P1)1

Another participant, in turn, emphasized emotional issues related to low autonomy and independence of the student in relation to the family. In this sense, there is an understanding that such features are important when facing the challenges of university life and the need to adapt to that context (Almeida, 2007; Cunha & Carrilho, 2005) , and impact on the learning process: “My goal with her was that she could emancipate herself a little more, because she was very dependent on her family; her parents treated her like a little child, and she, in turn, responded accordingly. […] But at the same time, she had other demands of her life, even in college, that were already consistent with the 21-year-old person she was; these demands were greater than she could bear at that time; then with her and her family, I started a process designed to encourage her emancipation, increase her independence and find alternative actions to take in the face of difficulties she encountered, especially with a focus on her learning” (P4).

The analysis of the emotional aspects category allowed the identification of a conception of learning among the participants that not only considers the influence of cognitive aspects, but also interactional and emotional ones (Pain, 1988) . However, some statements showed that, despite such an understanding, not all the professionals are sure whether working on emotional aspects should be a task of Psychopedagogy: “[…] Then, at the same time you have these issues about learning and development, you also have the emotional issues that do not specifically fit the psychopedagogist” (P2).

Perhaps this question arises from the understanding that although cognitive, emotional and interactional aspects influence the learning process, that influence would occur independently or in a dissociated form. This view, however, was not homogeneous among the participants, since one, in particular, perceived all these elements as being inseparable and mutually influential: “That girl, for example, she said she had a huge interest in cooking, but her mother would not let her touch the stove; then she could only do things that did not involve heat, because her mother feared she might burn herself. Hence, we were preparing her slowly to say to her family that she was able and she wanted to do it, that it was her wish […] And this process was closely linked with her autonomy and learning, we didn’t want her to be dependent on what the teacher said: ‘Look, you have to study this and this and this’, but that she could talk to the monitors” (P4).

A similar view may be also identified from a participant who observed that learning difficulties could also be associated with the quality of schooling experience prior to university. Poor educational opportunities do not result in the development of formal cognitive structures (formal logic), which tend to be slightly mobilized by traditional education: “Public school students receive a text from their History, Geography or Portuguese language teachers; the teachers give a question and in order to answer it the student only searches for the word of the question, checks where the paragraph is and copies it. […] It is [a] reproductive [logic], based on identifying where the words are. It is never something aimed to analyze, reflect or make a judgment because it requires much more […]” (P5).

Consequently, these results show a conception of learning that considers the interaction between the person who teaches and the person who learns, highlighting the historicity as well as the dynamic and unique nature of the knowledge construction process by the subject (Becker & Marques, 2000; Pain, 1988; Vygotsky, 1991) . Considering this conception, a lot of cases misdiagnosed as presenting cognitive deficits are actually cases where the student has a potential but he or she didn’t develop the necessary structures, which, as Saravali (2005) points out, may even occur with adult students who enter university: “[…] there is the cognitive aspect related to the students adopting other ways of thinking that was not present in this kind of activity, which requires another way of thinking, since they do not have a deficit, they have capacity and potential. […] I believe that their potential and capacity exist” (P5).

This statement reveals a dynamic view about learning difficulties, which are not understood as a fatality, something given and unchangeable, but as an open process. Although some disabilities may interfere with learning, the role of interactions or opportunities that the social environment offers to mobilize individuals towards an advance in their development cannot be denied (Saravali, 2005) . Moreover, as emphasized by one participant, it is important to be cautious about merely considering learning difficulties as “emotional blocks”, since this understanding also shuts down or prevents possible learning interventions or steps from happening: “[…] those who didn’t have any teaching experience, who were not teachers, who did not teach, then, when confronted by a patient with a learning problem, find it easier to get into this emotional side […]; how do you build writing, how do you make calculations, how do you get to a fraction? … but how do you build this in the head of an individual, how do you build a decimal number if you don’t know how this concept is built, and the guy comes and doesn’t get any of that? The first thing is thinking that the guy is blocked […], that the emotional side might be getting in the way; but here he took a leap; a piece was missing there, so he’s not getting it because we still have to build something here that was missing” (P5).

A more reductionist view about learning difficulties was also pointed out when a participant said that university students with learning difficulties would probably show more “emotional problems” than cognitive deficits, since, otherwise, many would not even make it to university. On the one hand, it is possible, indeed, that most university students do not show cognitive deficits or disabilities, a suspicion being raised only by one participant in relation to the student he attended. However, on the other hand, we can’t dismiss the possibility that many students have failures in the development of cognitive structures and that these failures may be associated with emotional and interactional issues (Saravali, 2005) .

Finally, other two factors involved in the students’ learning process are those related to the relationship with their teachers and peers. In the first case, the participants said that the proximity to the teacher facilitates learning and promotes a positive attitude towards the content: “The desire to show that ‘I can’ is much greater when he has this proximity with the teacher, whether disciplines are more complicated or not” (P1). Especially students with learning difficulties are considered to need the teacher’s encouragement and a greater flexibility in their teaching and assessment strategies: “[…] That she could be assessed within her process and within the requirements of the discipline, but with a different look; I think this is what counts the most in the process” (P3). Similarly, the participants believe that the good reception and the peers’ acceptance favor the learning process of those who have more difficulties, since the distance and the exclusion, which are more prominent in group works, demotivate students.

5.2. Psychopedagogical Interventions Performed

A wide range of different psychopedagogical interventions performed by professionals on students were identified. Some of them focused on the initial reception of students and on a better understanding of their demands. Participants recurrently stressed that interventions needed to be adapted, considering that the patient was an adult. Hence, the need to build a joint understanding with students about their difficulties, because, unlike the child, who is referred by family members, university students are invited to attend the sessions even if they don’t have clear in mind which are their difficulties and are not always willing to be actively involved in the process: “[…] the student did not realize this about himself, he didn’t recognize it; the complaint was only about failing subjects, but, in the student’s opinion, he had studied and everything was all right; nevertheless, he succeeded in practical subjects of the physical education course and failed the theoretical ones; he should be able to understand what was happening and realize his difficulty […]” (P2).

Likewise, listening and emotional support were considered necessary interventions when the patient is an adult. Listening allows the professional to come into contact with the person and their experiences, regardless of their diagnosis. It also creates a space of identification and empathy between the student and the professional: “[…] considering the time I’ve known her, the relationship that we have, I don’t see her as a patient with Down’s Syndrome. I see her as a girl sitting in front of me, with time to talk about things that sometimes she doesn’t want to reveal at home, the feelings that sometimes she doesn’t want to take home, and she knows that it was one thing we had worked upon; she knows that the person in front of her has already experienced it. So the Syndrome is left aside for a moment; we are talking from student to student now, perhaps a student who has experience, who has thought many times: ‘It’s hard, right? But come on!’ So, what is it? That’s why I’m telling you, how important it is to forget a bit about the tests, forget a bit the most practical thing and start chatting, listening […]” (P1).

Interestingly to note that, at the end of this statement, the participant shows an understanding of listening as a way of “abandoning the protocol”, which was also very emphasized by other participants. Listening, unlike other more traditional psychopedagogical tools, makes it possible to capture implicit aspects related to the student’s difficulties. In addition, listening emerges as a possible tool given the shortage of other tools to use in the work with adults: “What we did… I listened very much; my listening space was very wide because I needed to understand what was going on in her head, but as I told you, I did not have the appropriate instruments to work with that adult. Then I kept doing it and I succeeded in making her express her difficulties […]” (P3).

The participants also reported the importance of investigating three aspects at the beginning and throughout the sessions: the student’s history and current life experience, academic performance in different subjects, and cognitive and psychomotor development through application of tests/games/tasks. In relation to the first, it was highlighted that it is the adult student who talks about his or her history, which prevents sometimes a more accurate and complete analysis of their development, as opposed to the child’s life history that is told by the parents. Investigating the student’s academic performance, in turn, seemed to be related to the need felt by the professional to monitor the student’s involvement in academic activities: “[…] after this step, in the case of the adult learner, we check the materials, the subjects […] Because a follow-up is necessary; wanting it or not, we are there to follow this student, so I check the subjects … and then, is there something in Moodle? Did you have a look? Let’s take a peek. You have to make this kind of demands of them, because sometimes it is the only moment they have to be demanded of […]” (P1).

The application of tests/games/tasks for assessment purposes was mentioned with caution by the participants, considering that many adult students arrive to the service with diagnoses that were previously made. In some cases, additional tests were used to know some development aspects more in detail or to discard cognitive deficits. On the other hand, one participant stressed that she did not follow the standard psychopedagogical assessment protocol due to the fact that the student was an adult and, therefore, he would already be in the formal operational period: “In fact, the steps of the diagnosis that are usually followed with children and adolescents are one; with adults we can’t follow the same steps because the person is assumed to be already in the formal operational period, that is, you have already passed the stages that we investigate when the person is younger” (P2).

Considering all the interventions described above, it is possible to observe the differences in the work with adult students compared to the work with children. With adults, it would be necessary to abandon the standard psychopedagogical protocol, which does not seem to be so comfortable and safe for the participants. This may suggest that the scope and the psychopedagogical tools designed for adult students in higher education need to be further discussed and defined (Faria, 2010) . It may also reflect the permanence of misinterpretations of Piaget’s theory, in particular with regard to cognitive development stages.

However, even considering these aspects, the participants mentioned a number of interventions to meet the specific needs of students in higher education. Many of them aimed at changing the students’ behaviors, beliefs and feelings regarding their learning and academic performance. In this sense, this was the intervention that was most prominent: assistance in the organization and planning of study strategies. Unlike tutoring, focused on content, its goal was to help students learn how to learn. Guidelines were included for the student to make a better use of the lesson time, optimize the reading of texts, organize learning time, find more efficient ways of studying, so as to foster the development of self-regulated learning strategies (Souza, 2010; Tavares et al., 2003) : “[…] she’s having trouble completing activities, this is the most practical part. ‘Bring me the activity’. What is it that we do? We make a study plan, ‘Let’s take this text here, let’s divide it; do it for me, with a marker’. Because I think that organization is part of this work; teaching her, giving her the tools to help her do things independently out of here” (P1).

With a similar goal, the intervention of stimulating the student to simulate challenging academic situations within the support service setting was also mentioned, with the aim to anticipate feelings of insecurity and fear and to develop strategies to face them: “[…] we were working on a subject for which this girl has to give a class and she has never done that before, so she is extremely stressed out about it […] So what is it that we do? We deal with it in a more practical way: ‘Let’s do this: give me a class, give me this class that you have to give’. ‘But I can’t’. ‘But wait, I am a person’. She starts speaking, having insights” (P1).

Another interventional strategy used by some participants was the identification and strengthening of resources and capabilities that the student already had. Due to the low self-esteem of students attended, it was emphasized that it was necessary to identify their potential in order to motivate them and help them be more resilient in the face of university challenges. In such a way, their cognitive processes were stimulated and their learning mobilized, showing, once again, a conception of learning that considers the mutual influence of cognitive, emotional and interactional aspects (Becker & Marques, 2000; Pain 1988; Vygotsky, 1991) : “[…] she told me that she loved drawing, but the family didn’t want her to draw at home because it was kid stuff, so I said: ‘Well, since you’re attending anatomy and physiology classes and you work with the pieces, then you can use the drawing as a support for your memory’. Then she began to draw all the pieces and explained to me […] and so we started creating a way of working that she could apply to her learning process at university” (P3).

The same participant, in turn, also claimed to have carried out a work that aimed at promoting the student’s psychological autonomy and independence. Learning requires an attitude of autonomy and, especially at university, a position of greater independence from parents and teachers (Almeida, 2007; Cunha & Carrilho, 2005) : “In the beginning, her father brought her and sat near the door, but after this conversation that we were having with the family, she started realizing that she was 21 years old and was able to be more independent, to arrive to the building; […] So we worked with her and her family on this whole process and, at the end of the year, she was very proud because her father left her there at the Bento gate, and she came alone to the session and to classes” (P3).

Furthermore, the participants chose to conduct interventions that were explicitly aimed at cognitive stimulation through play resources. They stressed that, considering the preoperative level of the student’s cognitive development, it was necessary to use games and concrete resources (paint, needle) to arouse their interest and mobilize their cognitive and emotional functioning structures: “[…] Once, I proposed to her to work with a needle, but she got very upset because she couldn’t touch the needle, she could get hurt, jab herself, then we proceeded slowly, without starting with the needle” (P3).

In the end, the last two interventions focused on other people and professionals present in the students’ context: family and teachers. Providing advice and support to the families was necessary to help parents support the child in academic challenges, without, however, making them dependent. For the participants, working with the family aimed at enhancing the status of the adult university student, in order to define a space between family and university: “[…] And sometimes we have to say no, it’s not like that, each one has a role here: she’s your daughter; you’re her father; she’s going to university, and you’re not. So, let’s respect these lines, establish the differences […]” (P1).

The task of making contact with the teachers and the course coordinators and offering them guidance was effectively carried out by one of the participants, in order to discuss the student’s assessment process in the subjects. Explanations have been made about the uniqueness of the student in oral and written expression and alternative suggestions for the assessment process were given. However, even though they did not report to have established other contacts, professionals generally considered this work very important, showing an understanding of psychopedagogical support not only at the individual level, but also at the institutional level (Magalhaes, 2013; Moreira, Bolsanello, & Seger, 2011) .

6. Conclusion

This study aimed to describe the views of psychopedagogists on the factors intervening in the learning process of university students with disabilities and/or learning difficulties, as well as to identify and outline the main interventions conducted during the psychopedagogical service attended by these students. As for the first goal, in general, the results showed an emphasis given on emotional aspects as factors that intervene in the student’s learning, although they also highlighted the role of schooling history prior to university. Furthermore, the analysis of the factors that interfere with student learning demonstrated a diversity of conceptions of learning among the participants, which probably also implies a diversity in how psychopedagogical interventions were conducted.

Related to this, it was also found that not all participants had clear in mind the psychopedagogist’s role with adult students in higher education. In this sense, some felt they needed to abandon the traditional psychopedagogical protocol and, in this context, listening and emotional support were inevitable practices in the sessions. Would the emphasis on these practices result from a simplified understanding of the adults’ learning process and, consequently, of the possible psychopedagogical intervention strategies? This matter deserves more attention in future studies in the area.

Lastly, on the other hand, it is worth emphasizing the diversity of interventions mentioned by the professionals in relation to the students attended. This diversity seems to reveal a performance that reflects the many challenges that students face in the context of higher education. Hence, the importance of these services which cannot obviously meets all the needs of students, but represents a starting point to welcome and guide them. From the learning process point of view, which is the main focus of psychopedagogical interventions, it is important to stress that the present study provides some evidence that certain conceptions and interventions adopted by psychopedagogists seem to give origin to different experiences for the students. Therefore, further studies are needed to assess the effectiveness of the interventions, so that their results may focus more directly on the learning process, the academic success and the permanence of students in higher education.


This research was supported by Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS).


1All vignettes are identified by the letter “P” followed by each participant’s code. The speeches were fully transcribed, keeping the language used by the participant, although some grammatical inaccuracies may appear.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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