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Student Case Studies: SpLDs

Look at these scenarios illustrating how a student’s needs can be impacted by their university experience.

Drew and Jordan

Drew and Jordan have examinations to take at the end of their first year of study. They have different approaches to their preparation.

Read Drew and Jordan’s case study

Drew and Jordan are on the same degree course, studying for a BA (Hons) in Modern History.

At the end of their first year, they have a series of written exams to complete their assessments for that year.

Consider the following two versions of their story:

Version 1

Drew goes into their first exam not really knowing the material as they haven’t revised enough. They have put it off and prioritised their football and social activities instead. They’ve always been reasonably good in exams so they aren’t too worried about this. As they sit down and look at their exam paper, Drew realises that there are only some questions that they can answer due to their poor preparation. They prioritise these and start to write their answers, but all the time aware of the exam clock ticking and the scribbling of lots of answers by other students all around. Drew spends time trying to answer anything they can but they realise that they have underperformed and at the end of the exam there just isn’t enough written down on the exam paper. Drew vows it will be different next time. But it doesn’t help them now.

Jordan enters the first exam a little apprehensive about how it will go. Jordan is dyslexic but has decided that at University they will keep this information to themselves as they don’t like the label and think they can do well through hard work and commitment. Based on previous experience, Jordan has worked extra hard to revise for the exam, even though as usual it has seemed to take them longer than their peers. But Jordan is used to this. Jordan knows that it takes them longer to work out the meaning of the questions and what the examiner is looking for and it also takes them longer to compose and write their answers. In the February exams this meant that Jordan had got the same grade as Drew who hadn’t seemed that bothered and had spent all their time playing football and socialising instead of revising. Jordan sits down and looks at the paper. They strategize which questions they can answer the fastest – reading each one several times. Jordan takes their time to gain understanding as last time they had wasted time by missing the point, due to time pressure. Jordan knows that they won’t finish the paper but at least they will get some of their hard-fought knowledge down.

When they get their grades, Jordan and Drew again get similar marks. Jordan is crestfallen and their tutors can’t understand why Jordan’s grades for their course work are so high in comparison with their exam grades. Drew is happy with what they got, though his tutors warn them they need to work harder and prepare better in future.  

Version 2

During January of their second year, Drew and Jordan have a further series of written exams to complete.

Drew again goes into their first exam not really knowing the material as they haven’t revised enough. They have done a little more work but again put this off and prioritised their other activities instead. They are a bit apprehensive but having done a little more work this time they think they’ll be ok. As they sit down and look at their exam paper, Drew again realises that there are only some questions that they can answer. They prioritise these and write what they can and again realise that their poor preparation is going to mean they probably won’t write as much as they would like. Drew finishes writing before the end of the exam and looks around them. Drew vows it will be different next time but at least they’ll still get similar grades to their friend Jordan who works hard but just doesn’t seem any good in exams.

Jordan enters the exam apprehensive as usual. But slightly less so as since Jordan’s last exams they have disclosed their dyslexia to the University which has meant, among other things, that Jordan has been awarded 25% extra time in exams and timed tests. Jordan has again worked extra hard to revise for the exam. Jordan knows that it takes them longer to work out the meaning of the questions and what the examiner is looking for and it also takes them longer to compose and write their answers. They hope that the extra time will give them time to do this and that this will mean they will get the grades that they feel their knowledge and talent deserve. Jordan sits down and looks at the paper. They take time to select those questions that they feel most knowledgeable about, reading each one several times. Jordan takes their time to gain understanding and planning out their answers. Jordan starts to write, checking the clock to give them confidence that they will have time to complete all their answers so they can show their hard-fought knowledge on paper.

When they get their grades, Jordan gets their best grades yet. Jordan is really happy with their work and for the first time feels that they will be able to get the degree classification they strive for. Drew on the other hand gets low grades and some negative tutor feedback. In a moment of frustration, he accuses Jordan of getting special treatment by having extra time. Jordan and some of his other friends reply that they all saw Drew run out of things to write and Jordan adds “extra time only benefits those people who need it. And if you don’t know it, all extra time means is that you don’t know it for longer!”. Drew thinks about this and decides he really does need to knuckle down to his revision in future. 

Pause for thought

  • What, if anything, might tutors have done to support Jordan differently during his first year at the University? 
  • What changes to your assessment could you introduce to support Jordan in playing a full part in your course?  

Reflecting on Jordan’s situation, consider: 

  • What emotional impact or stress is Jordan experiencing when no extra time provision is in place? 
  • Thinking about your own experience with in-class tests and practical tasks, is time taken to complete tasks genuinely a competency requirement or more a practical convenience for the assessor?
  • Whether Jordan’s tutors and lecturers might have been able to identify his difficulties and provided appropriate support sooner. And if so what?
  • What Universal approaches might support Jordan (and the wider student cohort) with regard to the impact of Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs)?
  • How might tutors and lecturers access support and guidance to enhance their own practice with regard to Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs)
  • Where Jordan might be signposted in order to access additional support and guidance on an ongoing basis, as they feel it is needed.

Carol

Carol is a mature student with dyspraxia.

Read Carol’s case study

Carol was diagnosed with dyspraxia at an early age and has had varying levels of help with this during childhood which have increased her confidence with motor skills and co-ordination. However, her more hidden difficulties remain. Carol describes herself as clumsy and forgetful and she has difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, time management and organisation as well as co-ordination. These in turn have impact her self-confidence and self-esteem, which is a long-standing impact stemming from childhood experience of living with dyspraxia.

Carol has difficulties with information processing and memory which impacts on her ability to understand, retain and recall information that she has heard or read. Carol’s experience is that study tasks generally take her longer than others to complete and she feels that she isn’t always able to do justice to her true knowledge and ability, particularly in written work, presentations and timed assessments such as exams.

When Carol first arrived at University, she spent a long time trying to get her bearings and trying to get to all the various events and lectures on time. This was a considerable challenge, though thankfully this became slightly easier once she made friends with some course mates who she started to arrange to meet and travel with to these events. However, she also recognised the familiar well-intentioned quips about her disorganisation and lateness. Carol also realised that she had very little recall of the routes to places and how they related to each other on the University campus and grew increasingly frustrated that she spent so much time trying to get to places on time that she was often disorganised and underprepared for the lessons themselves.

Another challenge for Carol in the early weeks was to adapt to new teaching methods such as seminars and also to the increased reading load she faced. Whereas in lectures, Carol was able to access lecture notes and slides in advance via the virtual learning environment (VLE), seminars were more freeform and involved a large amount of verbal information and discussion rather than visual information. However, even in lectures, she was struggling to take effective notes and keep track of the teaching and she had found herself sitting and letting the lecture flow over her rather than feeling much engagement with the content. The seminars presented additional challenges though. They introduced and explored new concepts and despite her best efforts Carol struggled to fully understand these and keep up with discussions. After one particular seminar the group were asked to go and read around the subject and some recommended articles and resources were given. Claire breathed a sigh of relief and resolved to do this reading to catch up in her understanding so she could better contribute at the next seminar. 

Carol’s reading speed is slow and she can be easily distracted from reading tasks, largely because much of what she reads fails to stick in her memory, meaning she has to read things over and over again to gain understanding. This in turn leads to frustration, fatigue and procrastination, despite her best efforts. Carol felt that though she could read the articles, the words seemed long and the academic language felt unfamiliar and she didn’t really access the information as she had hoped she would. Therefore, Carol’s attempts to prepare for the next seminar proved challenging with her sitting in her room for hours on end trying to read the articles and getting more and more upset and despondent. Despite a huge amount of hard work, Carol dreaded the looming seminar and when she attended, she found herself again not contributing much to conversation, particularly as she wasn’t asked any direct questions.  

After four weeks, Carol’s group were asked to complete an assignment on the learning so far. As Carol doesn’t like library and study areas as she finds them too distracting, she spent considerable time in her room trying to complete the assignment task which she worked on until the last minute. Carol describes the process of trying to understand the assignment task, completing the reading and trying to plan and write the assignment as torturous and this was made all the more frustrating for her when she got her grade and feedback which indicated she had not followed the assignment brief and highlighted a lack of planning, coherent writing and referencing.    

Six weeks into her course, Carol’s confidence has been eroded and she often finds herself crying and frustrated at the end of long days. She begins to think she may have made a mistake attending University.  

Pause for thought

  • What, if anything, might tutors have done to support Carol differently during her first weeks at the University? 
  • What changes to your assessment and teaching could you introduce to support Carol in playing a full part in your course, particularly during transition and first year?  

Reflecting on Carol’s situation, consider: 

  • What emotional impact or stress is Carol experiencing in the early weeks of her course?
  • Whether Clare’s tutors and lecturers might have been able to identify his difficulties and provided appropriate support sooner. And if so what?
  • What Universal approaches might support Clare (and the wider student cohort) with regard to the impact of Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs)?
  • How might tutors and lecturers access support and guidance to enhance their own practice with regard to Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs)
  • Where Clare might be signposted in order to access additional support and guidance on an ongoing basis, as they feel it is needed.

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