Specific learning disabilities, or specific learning differences (SLDs) are neurological (rather than psychological) differences that affect the way a person learns and processes information that usually run in families and are independent of intelligence. They can have a significant impact on learning and the acquisition of skills many of us take for granted. SLDs cover a range of difficulties that often co-occur including dyslexia (literacy), dyspraxia (coordination), dyscalculia (numeracy) and ADD/ADHD (focus). To understand SLDs more fully, Rhys Jones, now a Lecturer, tells the story of his own dyslexia, and from her own experience Louise Robson advises educators on how to support students with SLDs.
Supporting SLD students – an academic perspective
Louise Robson, Department of Biomedical Science, University of Sheffield
As an academic with over 25 years of experience teaching physiology, one of the biggest changes I have seen over the years is the recognition of, and subsequent support for, students with SLD. At the very start of my career I would say there was very little recognition of this in higher education (HE), and such students had to identify (through a process of trial and elimination) what worked for them. Of course, this also meant that some students would not go to university, as they had not been able to identify their own way of working, and so they didn’t meet the entry criteria (i.e. get the right grades). Thankfully, over the years support for students has improved dramatically. Many HE institutions now have dedicated professional support teams, whose role is to assess what additional support is needed by a student, provide information to academic departments on what is needed (e.g. extra time for examinations), and provide support directly (e.g. providing mentors, notetakers, specific tutorial support, etc.). The amount of support available to students is probably at an all-time high. However, while this is a positive step forward, it brings other challenges for academic staff.
The first challenge is, given the wide range of specific learning support differences, how can academics ensure they are supporting their students effectively. After all, each student has a different set of support needs! This is where specific training for staff becomes important, particularly less experienced staff. Attending a session on the types of specific learning differences, how students can be supported, and how to make your teaching more inclusive is critical to being an effective teacher. The learning support needs for many students are very similar, so consider a policy of releasing teaching materials (e.g. Powerpoint files) to all students in advance of sessions. If this is then matched with lecture capture, so that students can revisit the lecture afterwards, then you are supporting a wide range of students with learning support differences. In your teaching, be as inclusive as possible. Use a range of teaching and assessment methods, so that students are not disadvantaged by having the same types of approaches over and over in their degree programmes. The key point is to recognise that students learn in different ways, and you can facilitate this learning by making some fairly straightforward changes to your teaching.
Finally, never assume that because a student is at university and has not been identified as needing support, that they don’t need any. Over the years I have identified several students who were subsequently diagnosed with specific learning differences. Identifying such students is tough, as there are often just subtle differences in work that flag a student needs additional support. These small differences are often not apparent in just one piece of work, but it takes several pieces for you to recognise a pattern of activity. Oh, and it’s not only the struggling students you should look at. I once had a very high achieving student get the highest level of support in the third year of her studies, after a throwaway comment in a one-to-one meeting around struggling with writing essays.
Overall, while there are challenges to helping students with specific learning differences, recognising that there are many different ways students learn and adapting your teaching accordingly can bring huge benefits to the student cohort as a whole.
Dyslexia – a personal perspective
Rhys Jones, Cardiff University
I am a Senior Lecturer of Evolutionary Biology at a Russell Group University, and I am dyslexic.
I left high school after a teacher took me to one side and enquired, “Why are you in my class?” I replied that I was excited at the future application of the technology they had been talking about, but before I was able to finish my sentence, he interrupted to inform me, “All you will be doing when you leave school Jones is stacking shelves.”
It was a crushing blow to my confidence by a figure of authority who, as a teacher, had failed to live up to his responsibilities not only in terms of student engagement in the subject, but of student wellbeing too. I promptly left school with no qualifications and a hatred of education.
It is a story I hear all too often, where daydreaming, struggling dyslexic students are often perceived as timewasters or troublemakers. This was certainly the case for me growing up in the seventies when diagnoses of dyslexia were all but unheard of.
Fortunately, there have been significant advances in diagnosing and supporting students with dyslexia in recent years. It is now commonplace for lectures and accompanying PowerPoint presentations to be released several days in advance of a session being delivered. Cardiff University goes one step further by employing Panopto, a state-of-the-art video capture system that allows students to play back recorded lectures as revision aids on their own laptops.
As with releasing lecture material early, Panopto technology benefits all students, not just those with dyslexia. Removing the need to undertake comprehensive note-taking during a lecture not only facilitates more effective knowledge transfer but presents a more enjoyable learning experience for the student.
Although it certainly bucks the trend, students that achieve poor grades at school can often go on to excel within a university setting. It is an environment that appreciates that not all students learn in the same way, where dyslexic students can flourish just as well as all other students.
I was not diagnosed with dyslexia until I was 34 years old and reading my third degree. During my PhD study, a colleague looked over to my work station and exclaimed, “Wow, you’re dyslexic!”
I can remember initially being quite shocked at the accusation, but then something about his statement rang true. He was also dyslexic and had noticed distinct similarities between the way our seemingly chaotically cluttered desks were organised.
I approached Cardiff University’s Disability and Dyslexia Service, where a team of specialists put me through a series of tests in order to assess my condition. Despite establishing a high IQ, my reading age was found to be consistent with that of an eleven-year-old child, and within a matter of hours they were confidently able to diagnose me as dyslexic.
If I am completely honest, the diagnosis came as a relief. At last I had a label for my condition. At last I was able to understand why I had to work twice as hard as my colleagues to achieve a similar standard of reading and writing. Finally, I could feel at peace with who I was and how my brain worked, instead of constantly being stressed, worried and frustrated. I could now develop the coping mechanisms I needed to compensate for my disability.
Although dyslexia is widely considered to be a highly debilitating condition, there are situations when it can be extremely advantageous. Part of the test involved solving three-dimensional puzzles presented on a two-dimensional plane. At first viewing, I was able to answer each of the puzzles in little over 2-3 seconds. This elicited a smile from the Educational Psychologist who then informed me I had been allocated a full minute for each one. Such is the enhanced ability of a dyslexic’s spatial awareness and three-dimensional mapping.
In fact, nowadays I do not think of my dyslexia as a disability. There have been many circumstances where my “disability” has been an advantage in problem solving at work. It has been especially beneficial when discovering camouflaged animals during field work or reading small behavioural cues of study species. As a Lecturer, it helps me to identify and support members of our student cohort facing the challenges of study with specific learning disabilities.
Although many organisations are now understanding the true value of incorporating dyslexics and people with other specific learning disabilities into workplace teams, there is still a stigma surrounding these conditions. Many of those diagnosed hide their condition, fearing they will be looked down upon by their work colleagues or that it will present a barrier to promotion.
We need to recognise and embrace the qualities of dyslexia and see them as an opportunity to excel. Only then will we see many more of our brilliant colleagues feeling confident enough to step forward and admit that they too are dyslexic.