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Case Study – Mathematics, Statistics and Operational Research and Speech Difficulties

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Source: http://dart.lboro.ac.uk/CaseStudy-NSchecked.htm (information accessed and extracted September 2008)

INTRODUCTION

Geoffrey is currently in the third year of a PhD in Mathematics. Prior to this he completed a BSc in Physics and Mathematics at the University he is currently attending, and a MSc in Mathematics at a different higher education institution. Geoffrey had always intended to move onto a PhD but felt that a (taught) Masters would give him better preparation for PhD study in his chosen area, improve his employment prospects, as well as give him experience of life at another university and opportunity to meet different people.

Geoffrey has Friedreich’s Ataxia, a condition that impairs the functioning of nerve cells gradually over time. It eventually leads to a loss of ability to move, though the brain is unaffected. A side effect of Friedreich’s Ataxia is energy loss in muscles. After experiencing no disability in early life, Geoffrey started experiencing control and coordination problems whilst in primary school. Over time these worsened, affecting mobility and speech. This also resulted in slowing down his writing speed and presentation. Geoffrey resisted the use of a wheelchair for as long as possible but has been using one since the age of 17. Another side effect that Geoffrey has experienced is that he can be affected by drowsiness if he does not take frequent breaks.

Geoffrey likes to stay as independent as possible, and although he has access to carers and assistants these are often ‘on call’ in case he needs assistance to visit the Maths Department, or go to the canteen or to social activities.

LEARNING & TEACHING EXPERIENCE

Geoffrey has experienced a number of barriers in learning and teaching situations. The following are some of the most relevant experiences and the strategies that have been adopted to address potential barriers:

Lectures

During his undergraduate course, Geoffrey had the assistance of a note taker during lectures. As he had one main note taker at this time he was able to build up a good working relationship with the note taker. During his masters Geoffrey did not have such assistance and relied on friends or lecturers to supply him with notes. His current PhD does not require him to attend lectures.

Laboratory Work

Geoffrey had laboratory work in the physics component of his undergraduate degree. Here he required the assistance of an academic assistant to set up experiments and conduct practical work. Geoffrey would assist in this and take down the results of practical experiments.

Accessing Resources

Geoffrey finds that online resources have been an ‘invaluable tool’ for him, allowing him to find information quickly and to read academic papers from his university accommodation or office. The only problem lies with some academic papers not being available online. When using the library Geoffrey’s assistants have helped him by photocopying library material and reaching books from high shelves.

Assessment / Examinations

Geoffrey has always performed well in examinations. He is allocated 50% extra time for examinations. He prefers to write or type his exam answers himself, which is very time consuming. Over time, however, examinations have become more problematic for Geoffrey, in the process eroding both his confidence and performance. In particular, Geoffrey found the length of examinations and their relative frequency on his postgraduate masters course very taxing. As a consequence he feels that his performance in these examinations did not reflect his knowledge and understanding.

Geoffrey has always met the deadlines set for coursework despite the extra time it would take him to complete work compared to fellow students

Geoffrey has little or no experience of group work, class discussions, site visits, fieldwork, or making presentations. He has done some accountancy work for work placement and reports no problems with this.

Impact on Learning & Academic Progress

Geoffrey notes that currently he tends to spend the majority of his available time reading or studying for his course in order to try to compensate for his lack of speed (in terms of writing etc.). As his area of study requires a lot of work involving calculation, Geoffrey spends a high proportion of his time on reading various texts from the mathematical literature, some of which is not directly related to his area of study. Whilst offering benefit in the long term this has slowed him down in the short term.

Geoffrey is acutely aware that difficulties in communicating freely have had a negative impact. His natural diffidence has been aggravated by the response of others. He feels that people tend to feel awkward in his company and therefore tend to ‘ignore’ him.

Geoffrey comments positively upon the support he has received from the University’s central disability support unit. This has involved the provision of academic and personal assistance, and help in applying for funding for computer equipment. Geoffrey notes that his department has also been supportive in providing suitable accommodation and computer equipment. In addition, Geoffrey states that the emotional support and motivation provided by family, friends, tutors and mentors has been much valued.

ACADEMIC TUTOR’S PERSPECTIVE

Geoffrey’s PhD supervisor (PS) tends to meet him once a week for an hour to discuss progress and direct future activities. PS (who is also the department’s disability support co-ordinator) identifies a number of issues that have affected Geoffrey’s progress during his PhD.

PS remarks that he anticipated that there would be issues but was not prepared for the fact that personal communication would prove to be so limited. Geoffrey has great difficulty in speaking resulting in prolonged and spontaneous discussions being effectively impossible. Verbal communication therefore tends to be limited preventing PS from probing fully Geoffrey’s understanding of concepts and ideas in the manner that he could do so with other PhD students. As a result he feels that he remains unsure of the extent of Geoffrey’s understanding of certain concepts and that Geoffrey might easily miss out on advice and guidance that would be appropriate to the progress of his research. In addition, Geoffrey is unable to make presentations about his work to other PhD students, a practice that is standard for PhD students within the department.

Other issues identified by PS include the difficulties that Geoffrey would have in researching paper-based resources in the library, both in terms of reaching appropriate texts without the help of others, and in perusing texts – in the manner that other students would do – to assess their potential benefit to him. PS also notes that ironically fire doors within the department building might prove difficult for those students using wheelchairs to evacuate the building quickly should the need arise.

In order to overcome the difficulties identified, PS notes that a number of adjustments have been made. Geoffrey maintains a written report or log of work in progress that is shared with PS on a weekly basis. This provides PS with an insight on the development of Geoffrey’s work that would be very difficult to acquire by verbal means. Geoffrey is also excused the requirement of attending weekly seminars presented to PhD students within the department. These seminars are generally viewed as part of the PhD learning experience with potential benefits to the areas or topics that a student might be researching, but for Geoffrey they can be physically very taxing to sit through. As a result Geoffrey only attends those seminars that are more directly relevant to his research. A shift of focus has also been made to Geoffrey’s PhD study, though this is not an uncommon occurrence with PhD students.

PS feels that Geoffrey’s progress as a PhD student has been affected, particularly as a result of the difficulty in probing his understanding of concepts and ideas.

On a more general level (beyond the subject of this Case Study), PS notes other factors relating to disabled students. These include a tendency on the part of disabled students to be diffident in raising issues of concern to them. There appears to be an expectation that “the system will automatically adjust”. PS feels that disabled students may often need the support of an experienced academic as a personal tutor or PhD supervisor. PS notes that there are issues concerning appropriate assessment methods, and feels that a balance may need to be achieved between multiple assessment methods. Finally, PS noted that where verbal communication might be a problem a communications strategy involving, possibly, the use of e-mail would be most helpful.

CONCLUSIONS / RECOMMENDATIONS

This Case Study highlights a number of issues. Geoffrey’s experiences sheds light upon the factors that affect accessibility for mobility-affected students, and for those who find verbal communication very difficult.

In responding to the needs of such students, academic tutors might consider the following:

  • Recognition of the extra-time and physical effort required to move from one location to another
  • Recognition and appreciation of the extra-time required to complete tasks / coursework etc.
  • Recognition of the needs of mobility-affected students to take frequent breaks to conserve physical and mental energies
  • Recognition that extra time in examinations is not a complete panacea. Such provision can be both physically and mentally exhausting, especially where a number of exams are timetabled in close proximity to one another

In terms of more specific learning and teaching issues, academic tutors might consider the following actions:

  • The provision of lecture notes on the web well in advance of lectures if note-takers are not provided / available
  • The possibility of extending deadlines (or providing lengthy lead in times) to cater for the extra-time requirements of mobility-affected students
  • Finding alternative communication strategies (such as more extensive use of e-mail, and regular reporting of progress by weekly logs) where spontaneous verbal communication is difficult

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