Case Study – Geography and Language / Comprehension Difficulties
The following case studies are taken from: The Geography Disciplines Network (GDN) Inclusive Curriculum Project (ICP) Case Studies, HEFCE Project, University of Gloucestershire , (information extracted and accessed September 2006).
Brian is a third year student with dyslexia, majoring in physical geography with ecology as a minor.
His course involved spending his second year at a Canadian university. Brian found the transition from sixth form college to university pretty straightforward. He speculates that the sixth form college environment provided a better springboard into higher education than the sixth form of an 11 – 18 high school, as there was more emphasis on developing independent learning skills.
At the start of the course Brian found that most staff were understanding about his dyslexia. Office staff in his department had clearly been sent a profile of his needs by the Disabilities Office, but it wasn’t clear whether the information had been passed on to all staff who taught him. This uncertainty continued throughout his course – the most difficult time being when he found out that his third year dissertation tutor didn’t know about his dyslexia. Brian felt that the onus had been placed on him to tell all his tutors separately about his dyslexia.
More positively, Brian felt that his application for a laptop computer from Disabled Students Allowances was well handled, both by his University’s Disability and Computing Services and by his local LEA. His computer arrived relatively rapidly and has made it much easier for him to work efficiently.
Getting through the reading has been the most problematic aspect of degree study. It would have been helpful if tutors providing reading lists for tutorials and seminars had pinpointed particular chapters or page numbers. Handouts from tutors sometimes contained abbreviations which were impossible to de-code. He finds that he has chosen courses with exam-based assessment rather than essay-based coursework because these tend to involve less reading around the topic. Brian also chose to base his dissertation on field and lab work, resulting from his own observations, rather than on a more paper-based study partly because this reduced the quantity of reading he had to do.
Some lecturers were difficult to follow if they used packed powerpoint slides or wrote quickly. The ones who provided outline notes to annotate were the most helpful.
Brian generally found oral work more straightforward, especially group discussions, or situations where he was answering questions. However, formal verbal presentations presented difficulties: reading off a written script he finds a particular challenge, and there wasn’t usually time to learn a script well enough to speak without notes.
Tutors showed a very great range of responses when marking Brian’s work; there was little evidence that they knew how to respond to, for example, spelling mistakes in his work, even though he reminded markers about his dyslexia by means of brightly coloured stickers provided by the university. One tutor corrected a huge number of individual mistakes on one script, and another even appeared to dispute the whole notion of dyslexic students in higher education, although the university has clear policies and procedures to welcome and support them.
Alternative exam arrangements were made for Brian (extra time and a separate room), and these generally worked well. But he found setting up the arrangements via the Disability Service a great hassle. They seemed very disorganised. He had to have a new needs assessment with an educational psychologist even though he’d had a previous one just before he left college.
His description of the support in Canada provides a contrast with his experience in the UK. “I have to say the support I was given in Canada was much better specifically in organisation and level of support. While there I knew other people with dyslexia, though in some cases stronger and some weaker. This was taken into account and different services were offered. For example copies of certain textbooks were available on tape for me, but not for others with weaker dyslexia. Obviously it would be best for everyone, but with limited resources I think tailoring the needs more specifically is a good way of helping people more positively.
The books on tape given allowed me to keep up with set reading, something I otherwise usually fail to do. If main course books here (in the UK) were on tape I believe it would have a dramatic impact on my degree.”
Other positive aspects of the Canadian experience were the easy transfer of information about Brian’s dyslexia from his UK university’s international office to Canada – and its ready acceptance there. In Canada he found the interactive style of teaching suited him better than the more passive experience of UK university lectures. He learnt more that way, especially transferable knowledge and the chance to challenge and debate, to be proved wrong one time, and right another. The testing regime suited him better too, as each half semester was treated as a self-contained unit. He didn’t have to revise detailed information from previous units after a long time gap, as he has had to do in the UK, although the learning from one unit did build in a general way from the previous units.
Chris is just coming to the end of the first year of his degree. His major subject is psychology but about one third of his time in the first year has been given to geography courses, and he hopes to continue to include geography as a minor subject in his second and third years. He was diagnosed as having dyslexia in the early years of secondary school.
Chris had some contact with the Disability Adviser before he arrived and has since used this central service to arrange an update to his statement of needs, to support his claim for Disabled Students Allowances to buy a laptop, and to arrange extra time for his exams. Although staff have been mostly very helpful, his experiences with the service have been mixed. The exam arrangements were straightforward to organise, but Chris had sent psychologists’ reports to the office which subsequently went missing; and he found the process for obtaining the laptop very longwinded.
At first tutors did not seem to be aware of Chris’s dyslexia – but the Disability Adviser wrote to departments about half way through the first term and things got easier after that. His chief problem has been with lecturers who deliver their content very quickly and run through crowded Powerpoint slides too fast to allow him to keep up with notes. The educational psychologist recommended that Chris be given lecture notes in advance, to help remedy this situation, but this has not happened. Chris is determined to follow up this issue in his second year and is confident of approaching his departments first, and the Disability Adviser afterwards for extra support if necessary, to ensure that the psychologist’s recommendations are implemented.
Chris finds the library a very daunting place. ‘I often find myself disorientated, frustrated and confused.’ It is very large, and he says he has difficulty focusing on the specific task he is there to do because of feeling bombarded by information from all the written sources around him. The fact that books are not always in just the right place on the shelf compounds his difficulty. A successful solution has been for him to have a helper with him in the library to locate the texts he needs. At the moment he is using a friend from his course for this support; their time is being paid for from Disabled Students Allowances. He finds route finding around the library moderately difficult – the colour coding of different sections helps a bit but is not a complete solution as colours are repeated on different floors. Chris wasn’t aware at the start of the course that individual introductions to the library were offered to disabled students by a library assistant with particular responsibility for disability services. He reckons he would have made use of this service if he had known about it – as well as doing the regular tour with other students.
He was offered additional learning support but hasn’t taken this up. He is happy and confident with strategies developed during school and college from supportive parents who are teachers, from a private tutor – and his own trial and error. So far, he has not used the system of attaching yellow stickers to his essays, reminding tutors about his dyslexia. He may use these in his second year but is determined not to fall back on them as an excuse for poor work. He does, though, find invaluable the extra time allocated in exams. He uses it to plan out his answers more than would have been possible; and to avoid the problem of overload when lots of ideas crowd in at once and risk getting lost.
Chris advises other students with dyslexia to make sure staff know about their difficulties, to be clear about how it affects their studies, and to use the help available in the department and around the university.
Damien is a final year geography student. He was diagnosed as having dyslexia in his first year at sixth-form college. He also disclosed another impairment which has had no effect on his studies.
Damien declared his dyslexia on the UCAS form and received information from the Disabilities Service before he arrived. In his first term he had an update of his assessment of needs and as a result was able to obtain with Disabled Students Allowances a mini-disc recorder for lectures and a laptop with specialist software. He has found the speech output on his computer helpful – but the voice-activated input was too complicated and not sufficiently useful for him to take advantage of; typing suited him better.
Each of the departments where he took first year courses was given a profile of his needs. To make sure that his situation was known about, he also went to see the director of first year studies in his major department. Throughout his course staff have been generally helpful and supportive.
Damien chose not to use the additional learning support available to students with dyslexia. This system was helpful at college, he says, with a pre-booked weekly session, but the equivalent university system felt too complex to organise; the need to have essays written well ahead of time in order to get them read by the learning support tutor seemed too much hassle. Informal systems such as proofreading by friends, or occasionally by his father, seemed more effective. He commented that a simple-to-use, official proofreading service for coursework would have been helpful.
In lectures, fast delivery by tutors proved the biggest stumbling block to listening well and taking effective notes. An overview in advance on the Internet would have helped this problem. Seminars worked well for Damien, with lively discussion at first year sessions in the UK, and second year equivalents in North America. His third year courses have not involved seminar work, which he regrets
Damien has used yellow stickers on his coursework to alert tutors to his dyslexia and to request sympathetic marking. He liked this system and said that it gave him added confidence that each tutor would be aware of his dyslexia. Nevertheless he was puzzled by the way that tutors commented briefly on poor spelling and grammar even though they were aware that it was the dyslexia that was causing the difficulty. There was not enough detail in the comments for Damien to be able to make use of them. It was as though tutors did not know how to react to the advice on the stickers in a way which was both fair and helpful to Damien’s academic development. He also found it difficult to make use of other coursework feedback, especially when the only piece of marked work came right at the end of a course. He judged that the tutors on the next course would have such different expectations and criteria for marking work, that advice from tutors on the previous course could not be usefully acted upon.
He had extra time in his examinations. The system was straightforward to organise and he did not feel at any disadvantage compared with other students.
The year in North America provided a number of insights: the American dyslexia support service differentiated levels of support more finely than their British counterparts. It seemed to Damien as though they drew more specific inferences from the psychological assessments about required support. However, the system for gaining adjustments to study from academic departments seemed more cumbersome, and to involve more running about to individual staff members than did its UK equivalent. The assessment system – with tests at shorter intervals than in the UK and less factual information to be retrieved after a long period – suited Damien better than the year-end examinations of the UK system he returned to in his third year.