Case Study – Biosciences and Organisational Difficulties

Case Study A: A Biology student has difficulties with the Maths courses and seeks support. Case Study B: A biology student has dyslexia and seeks extra time and computer access during exams. Case Study C: A marine biology student has dyslexa and hearing difficulties. She describes how this impacts on her studies including laboratory and fieldwork. Case Study D: A biological science student has acquired dyslexia and memory loss. Case Study E: A biology student with dyslexia and dyspraxia. Case Study F: A biosciences professor describes setting an alternative – non-written – assessment for a severely dyslexic student.

Case Study A is taken from the University of Washington DO-IT website 

Case Study B is taken from the University of Washington DO-IT website 

Case Study C is taken from the Geography Discipline Network (GDN) Inclusive Curriculum Project (ICP) Case Studies, HEFCE Project, University of Gloucestershire,

Case Study D and E are taken from the

Case Study F is taken from the HEFCE ADSS Project, Herrington, M.(ed), (June 2002) "Making reasonable adjustments – with Disabled Students in Higher Education, Staff Development Materials: Case Studies and Exercises. Case Study 12. Amending Assessment for a Dyslexic Student ", Univeristy of Nottingham, 

(All information extracted and accessed November 2007)


Case Study A

My name is Kim. I am a nineteen-year-old senior majoring in biology and I’m determined to get my master’s in genetics counseling. I want to be a genetics counselor in a large medical center.

Access Issues

Biology majors are required to complete three upper-division math courses and two statistics courses. I have a learning disability, Dyscalculia, which affects my ability to do some forms of mathematics. I documented my disability with the disability services office, and I spoke to my academic advisor regarding my concerns about completing the math and statistics courses. He advised me that these courses are critical because of the need to do and understand research and to understand information in biology courses involving math and because the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) are required for graduate school applications in genetics counseling. These requirements and the implications of not doing well in math courses concerned me greatly, so I also spoke to the learning disabilities specialist in the disability services office.


The learning disabilities specialist closely reviewed my documentation, especially my strengths and limitations with math. After consulting with the biology department, she also advised that completing the math requirements would be critical for successful completion of the biology course sequence and for admission to graduate school. Course substitutions for the math and statistics courses did not seem helpful or appropriate in my case. The learning disabilities specialist suggested that we devise a practical plan for me to prepare to take the math and statistics courses. We then met with the math specialist in the campus learning skills center. After many meetings, we developed and followed this plan:

  • I worked closely with my adviser and the math specialist to plan my course schedule for each semester in order to reduce my course load the semesters that I took math courses.
  • I carefully identified math instructors whom I thought would be willing to spend more time meeting with me.
  • The learning skills center recruited an advanced math tutor who worked with me in each course, went to some classes with me to better understand the instructor, and met with me at least twice per week.
  • My parents helped to pay the tutor.
  • Each semester that I took math courses, I enrolled part-time to increase my study time for the math classes; disability services also requested that the housing office grant a policy exception that allowed me to remain in the residence hall those semesters.
  • Often the math tutor went to my meetings with the math specialist and the course instructor. The math specialist taught me some learning strategies and helped to reduce my anxiety. She and the math instructors also suggested some math tutorial software. The disability services office and instructors provided testing accommodations (extended time) and note-taking services for these classes as disability accommodations. I completed the mathematics courses with average to above-average grades. These action steps resulted in success toward meeting my career goal.


This case study demonstrates the following:

  • Seeking or advocating for course substitutions may not always be the most appropriate or best long-term solution for students with certain academic or career goals. Case-by-case planning is important.
  • Active student participation and responsibility and disability management are key elements of a plan to meet academic and career goals.
  • It may take several student services staff and faculty and other support staff (such as tutors) for students to secure the necessary assistance.
  • Students with Dyscalculia can sometimes succeed in math-intensive fields, with adequate planning and motivation.
  • Academic requirements are valid in many cases and may not need to be modified for a particular student with a disability.
  • Short-term compromises (taking a reduced course load and hence extending the time until graduation; having to study harder for certain courses) often have beneficial long-term consequences.
  • Parents can play a key role in helping their children succeed in college studies (e.g., funding special assistance).


Case Study B 

My name is Rajiv and I’m a biology major. I have severe Dyslexia, a learning disability that affects my reading and writing skills.

Access Issue

I receive testing accommodations (extended time and computer access) through the disability services office. My biology course exams include several essays. I requested to use a computer software program that highlights words while it reads them out loud for my exams as well as other reading and writing assignments. My biology professor was concerned that this or other software programs (like word prediction programs) might give me an unfair advantage.


The professor went to the disability services office to meet with me, the learning disabilities specialist, and the assistive technology specialist. We demonstrated the highlighting program in the assistive technology lab so he could see what it does and how it helps me. He agreed to allow me to use the highlighting software, but he did not want me to have access to any other software or assistive technology during exams. He also specified that the networking capabilities of the system be shut down so I could not access information on my home computer system or on the Internet. He was very concerned about cheating and academic dishonesty and wanted to be sure that I was monitored while taking exams. I took my exams for the course in the assistive technology lab, as agreed, with a test proctor in the room.


This case study illustrates the following:

  • Computer access and software programs can accommodate students with disabilities in the test-taking process.
  • When the student, professor, and specialists communicate and share concerns or resources, there are practical solutions to accommodating the student and meeting the instructor’s requirements.
  • It is sometimes helpful for the professor or teaching assistant to see the technology and meet the support service staff to gain understanding of technology solutions.


Case Study C

Rosie is a Marine Biology student who has dyslexia, Mearles Irlen syndrome and has a hearing impairment.

‘I’m partially deaf in my left ear so in very loud environments with about 50 people I pick up say about 50% of what you say, I lip-read about 25% and then I make the rest up! 

Staff are very helpful. With regard to my dyslexia, I take longer to write things down, notes for example – if I ask, either a slide will be left up for longer or they are quite happy to give me the powerpoint presentation, and I can take my own notes from that. With regard to the hearing impairment, none of the staff have a problem with either wearing or walking near a recording device.

It’s much harder in a lab environment because I can only hear 50% of what is being said – it’s harder to fill in the gaps because they are not your common words – they’re complex chemical words. If there’s hydrochloric acid and you mistake it for hydrocarbon there’s a bit of a difference if you put the wrong one in the jar! It can slow me down a bit, but luckily most of my friends know that I’m a bit slow on the uptake so they help. What would help would be a very precise written instruction sheet. A lot of staff do do instruction sheets but they’re not always very precise. Being able to record the lab session would also help but then having the time to go back and listen to it while I’m doing it isn’t really feasible. I don’t bother taking the recording equipment into the labs – I rely on my friends in those circumstances.

With lectures and tutorials I don’t have a problem as such, it’s just that some people talk too fast or have a really strong accent – getting past the language barriers is sometimes a problem but that’s probably the same for everyone.

I’ve got Meare’s Irlen Syndrome as well and a lot of tutors provide handouts on coloured paper now, which makes it much easier for the flow of reading. A few still use white paper which means it takes a bit longer, – it’s harder because you tend to have to re-read passages. Going back to the lab situation, if staff prepare a handout, you spend a lot of time working on the chemicals and studying the handout, so it is helpful to have it on coloured paper. I’ve got coloured lenses as well which do help to a degree – if I didn’t have them I’d start getting a headache after about 25-30 minutes but with them I can prolong it to 1 ½ – 2 hours, but I still have to have a good break after that. It would be really good if the Student Union Shop stocked notepads which had coloured paper. With Powerpoint presentations, coloured backgrounds are easier on the eye.

I have to manage my fieldwork trips as they’re a lot different to a two hour practical. There’s no rush to do anything, most of the time with Marine Biology you’re sat waiting for the tide to come in or out! So there’s more than enough time to go back to the tutors and ask them specific questions about anything I may have missed. I also rely on my peers, but a lot of it is observation – sitting and waiting and watching. The tutors were very good; any material that we had to memorise was out from day one. The tutors were very good; any material that we had to memorise was out from day one. Unfortunately all handouts were done on white paper, there was no coloured paper on the field course.

I had a problem being near the sea as waves tend to make a lot of noise, so with my hearing impairment, it made it harder to hear what someone was saying. But the tutors were more than happy to repeat anything.

With written exams, for the most part it’s not a problem – the information is in there somewhere, it’s just a matter of finding it. But there are a few questions where you have to sit down for maybe a quarter of an hour just to understand the question because the wording doesn’t quite flow properly so you have to re-read and re-read. I get 10 minutes extra per hour which is quite good but you start getting panicky if on the first question you’ve wasted ten minutes just reading it. Everyone else has read it and done it straight away and I’m still trying to make sense of it – that can be very panicky because you know you’ve got eight more questions and you’re going to waste what could be ten minutes on each one. It can get unnerving.

With regards to alternative assessments – I honestly don’t have any idea of what could be better. If you told me I could do a project with my mates on my course instead of an exam, that to me would be a lot easier. For example, I’ve got this really good friend who’s one of these people who is really good at everything. Say you wrote down a paragraph which I found hard to understand, he would read it and translate it into words that I could understand without being too taxing and then I could go ahead and do it. But is it right that I should be assessed on someone else’s ability to understand a problem?

In class, tests tend to be multiple choice. Just being able to identify the words – like I said earlier – [is problematic.] If the word hydrochloric is written down, I may read it as hydrocarbon as the first few letters are very similar. Many a time I’ve looked at something, I’ve studied it and thought ‘right – that’s absolutely the right answer’ and then I’ve looked back up to see what numbered answer it is and I’ve marked the letter I thought I was looking for but it was the wrong numbered answer. Not being able instantly to identify similar aspects of sentences, words etc. is a problem because it’s a key thing in the multiple choice test. I’d definitely go for a written examination instead of a multiple choice because I can put it in my own words. On a written examination it’s harder to get the good marks but the marks you do get are more representative of the student. For someone who can just glance at a word and pick up the wrong meaning, multiple choice can be quite scary.

I don’t find written work a major problem but obviously there are barriers there. You’ve got essays and reports which don’t need to be done in an hour so I have time to plan them and ask someone to look over my work which is easier. There are barriers there but they are easier to overcome.

From the DSA, I got a PC with Texthelp and Inspiration which I find really helpful – I use it all the time. I like the mind-maps – I’ve just done a report on the field trip and I started off with one word and then came back to it – I don’t have to sit there for hours planning the report. If something pops into my head I’ll go and put an extra leg onto the mind map. I find it very good, it’s an extension of my memory because I’ve got a terrible memory. It was one of the most useful things that came through the DSA. I also got a Dictaphone which works as a very good paperweight at the moment, it’s not that good – it came with a sky-mike – it didn’t come with any instructions so I’ve never been able to work out how to use it. The Dictaphone is good for this environment – quiet 1:1 – but in a lecture, you can’t pick up the lecturer if he moves away from it. With the sky-mike it’s supposed to pick up the lecture wherever the lecturer moves but I haven’t sussed out how to work it.

I also got a talking dictionary which is quite good but I tend to use the software dictionary instead of the Oxford talking dictionary. I really only use the talking dictionary for pronunciation of words. Luckily my subject being Biology most of it’s in Latin – it sounds strange but Latin is actually a very simple language – the construction of words is easy to pick up. The computer also helps because I’m able to sit at home at my leisure and work and I can download any helpful software onto it.

With oral presentations, I find memorising the talk hard because I’ve got a very bad memory. Trying to keep the presentation fluent – keeping it going without stuttering is difficult, so to combat that I generally keep an A4 sheet with bullet points on it but it’s all about multi-tasking which I’m not good at. Having to talk while looking down at my notes and reading the next sentence is hard because I can’t take it in; I have to stop talking to read the next bit which gives a pause – and a prolonged pause in a talk isn’t good. Once I know I’ve done something wrong it’s a snowball effect it all goes downhill from there. The hearing is not so much a problem during the presentation but when it comes to questions at the end it’s a problem when I encounter people who have very high pitched voices.

I tell people beforehand that I have a hearing problem and ask them to talk to my good ear. In a formal lecture I’d make a joke of it and say ‘speak up I’m deaf’! My deafness is actually high-tone deafness – it’s a certain frequency band that I’m deaf at – generally men are not a problem because they have lower voices but some women have very squeaky voices and it’s like sitting listening to a guinea pig, I can’t hear it at all. For me personally it’s very tone dependent – this ear picks up both tones and the other ear only picks up low tones so in lectures I can only pick up maybe the beginning of a sentence where people start off quite low but lose the end of it.

The bane of my life is tutors that go too fast – with both handouts and verbally. It’s difficult enough to listen to what they’re saying while writing – that in itself is really hard, so when they’re talking at a fair rate of knots you come away with a quarter of what you should. There’s one tutor who has a very strong Hindi accent and I can’t hear anything he says because the pitch of his voice is too high. I have tried recording him but he speaks too fast for that as well.’


Case Study D

Abi is a Biological Science student who has acquired dyslexia and memory loss. In the following audio clips she discusses the way this affects her studies.

Lecture problems and difficulties:

Recommendations for university support:

Summary of university support:


Case Study E

Anne is a Biology student with dyslexia and dyspraxia.  In the following video clips she describes specific issues with her studies.

Essay writing:

Reading and revision:


Case Study F

This case study is written by Professor C R Black, School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham

Presenting situation

Last year it was brought to my attention that a second year student taking a five credit (37.5 hours of study time) Semester 4 dissertation was so severely dyslexic that she needed to have a note-taker in lectures and would also need to have examination papers prepared as tape-recordings. The usual form of assessment for the dissertation module is an extended essay. I was asked if I would be prepared to set an alternative assessment.

Staff response

I consulted various people to establish whether this was possible and what form the assessment should take. These included:

  • the vice-dean responsible for teaching to check that an alternative assessment was permissible; it was, as the Module Catalogue stated that the exact form of assessment was at the module convener’s discretion.
  • the chair of the Student Disabilities Committee to seek his opinion; he was totally supportive.
  • my wife, who is also an experienced university teacher, to see whether we could devise an alternative assessment that was equally challenging but did not involve an extended essay; she suggested the student be asked to prepare a 10 minute radio broadcast with an associated support pack for listeners to the "BBC University Radio World About Us" programme. The student would be asked to choose an area of environmental plant biology relevant to the parent taught module she was taking and prepare an interesting and newsy report.
  • Margaret Herrington in the University’s Study Support Centre, who has responsibility for ongoing support for students with disabilities, to confirm that this proposal was acceptable and fair to the student; she was enthusiastic and offered studio support to help prepare the recording.
  • the student to ensure she was happy with the proposed alternative assessment; she was, although slightly apprehensive about whether she could rise to the challenge. She was given approximately 8 weeks to complete the assignment.


The student submitted the completed radio broadcast and listeners’ support package on time and said she enjoyed the assignment. Her work was assessed independently by two academic staff and awarded a high 2/1 mark. The tape, though clearly made in several instalments, showed evidence not only of wide reading and good understanding, but also the ability to present the material effectively to meet the needs of the target audience.

Feelings and observations

My feelings are that both the student and I enjoyed the assignment as something different from more conventional assessments, even though I was initially reticent about setting this student a different type of assessment from others, in case I discriminated against them, either positively or negatively. Once it was decided that I could set this type of assessment, no additional workload was involved in supervising or marking the work. I personally find it interesting and stimulating to set students a range of coursework that helps to develop additional skills, and believe they enjoy and benefit from the challenges provided.

An important point for me was that the exercise reinforced the view that, although some students may have difficulty in expressing themselves in extended prose or under examination conditions, they may nevertheless be able to show their full potential when set alternative challenges in areas requiring different communication skills. I am happy to continue to offer students advanced level coursework assignments that are tailored to meet their needs and requirements as I feel they and their teaching staff both gain additional benefit and satisfaction from assignments that are of mutual interest.


After the success of the ‘reasonable adjustment’ described above, the idea was extended and offered to more students the following academic year.

"We have set a similar exercise for a second year group of about 80 students for the first time this year. We have divided them up into groups of 5 and asked them to prepare a 5 minute "TV" clip on any topics related to the impact of environmental stresses on plants. Each group elects a team leader and decide how to structure their presentation – e.g. have an anchorman back in the studio, roving reporters and interviewees. They can use visual aids if they wish. One or two groups are even planning to video themselves. It should be interesting to see how things turn out!

The assessment criteria include: Originality (10); Knowledge of topic (10); Clarity of presentation (10); Communication skills (10); and ability to enthuse/inform audience (10)"

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