How I adapted to big lecture classes in college

For most of my childhood, I attended small public schools. The high school I attended — a small all-girls charter school — was perfect for me. The classes were about 15 to 20 girls.

I had an IEP and special education services for my math learning difference, dyscalculia. My teachers worked with me one-on-one. For math tests, I had accommodations: double time, a separate testing room, and the use of a help sheet.

I was extremely close with my classmates, teachers, and staff at my high school. I was never afraid to speak up and ask questions. Everyone offered me so much support, and not just with schoolwork. My sophomore year, my mom passed away, and I remember how people from my school came to the memorial service and were there for me.

Last fall, I was a little apprehensive about going from my small safety bubble of a high school to Arizona State University (ASU). ASU is one of the largest universities in the country. It has over 50,000 students!

There are no IEPs in college, but there are accommodations. Before my freshman year of college started, my high school special education teacher and I went to ASU to make sure I was registered with ASU’s disability services office. Through the office, I got college accommodations very similar to the ones I had in high school — double time on tests, a separate testing room, and a help sheet.

My first day of college brought fear and excitement. It took me some time to adjust to the new campus and make new friends. One of the biggest changes was the size of lecture classes. 

In high school, I was so used to knowing and talking to everyone in my classes. But in college, not knowing anyone made me nervous about asking fellow students for help. It was difficult to explain to them that I had dyscalculia, or even what dyscalculia was.

Fortunately, I was able to adjust to the big lectures in pretty much all my classes — except one: College Algebra. The lecture had over 100 students.

I had help in the class. ASU gave me a smartpen and a note-taker. I also had access to tutors from the disability services office.

But the lectures felt scattered and went by too fast. The professor skipped over the more basic material I had always struggled with. I think he assumed that if you’re in a college math class, you should be able to keep up and know all the concepts from earlier math classes.

With my learning challenges, I need a lot of one-on-one work with the instructors and a lot of tutoring. I also need to be retaught some concepts over and over. Though I tried my best to keep up, I was soon behind and getting overwhelmed by anxiety.

In my second semester, I decided to withdraw from the algebra class. This was a very difficult decision for me — I’d worked so hard to get there! I felt defeated.

Still, I wasn’t going to give up. I knew my chosen major in psychology had several math requirements. To graduate, I would have to tackle statistics, algebra, and trigonometry. I decided to take algebra and trigonometry over the summer. I was nervous about this because summer classes are accelerated, but I had a plan.

Instead of signing up for summer math classes at ASU, I decided to go with a local community college. Taking my summer classes at community college meant that the classes were going to be a lot smaller. Professors were going to be much more accessible, allowing me to explain my dyscalculia and how I learn best.

The two classes took up most of my summer — five days a week and every weekend for two months straight. I made sure I had tutoring and support in the class.

The result was great. I got a B in algebra and an A in trigonometry. I transferred these credits to ASU. Although the grades won’t count toward my GPA at ASU, the fact that I passed these summer math classes with such excellent grades meant a lot to me. It gave me more confidence in myself. I still have to take statistics at ASU, but I’m not worried. I’m more comfortable with statistics than with other types of math.

This first year of college has taught me that there are certain subjects — like math — where I need a smaller class size. But there are other subjects where I’m perfectly fine with a huge lecture hall. Figuring out that something as simple as class size can make such a difference was a big insight about myself.

Going from special education in high school to college isn’t easy. But it’s doable. If you’re a student, you always need to be learning more about what works for you.

Don’t limit yourself just because you think a certain subject might be a struggle. These days, there are so many different options to get a college degree, including taking credits at a community college like I did. No one should have to give up on their dreams and goals because they learn or think differently.


Read next