As Dyslexia Awareness Month comes to an end, Dr Rahul Ganguly Senior Lecturer in the Charles Sturt School of Education reflects on additional ways universities can support dyslexic students post-high school and throughout their degree.
Orlando Bloom, Dick Smith, Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Keira Knightley, Jamie Oliver, and Whoopi Goldberg have three things in common: they are highly regarded personalities, none of whom graduated from university, and all have dyslexia.
While we celebrate all who have overcome and continue to navigate the challenges associated with dyslexia, we also shine the light on this learning disability that affects one in five Australians.
What is dyslexia?
Contrary to common misconceptions that dyslexia is a disability associated with a low IQ, dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that affects many children and adults worldwide.
Dyslexia affects the part of the brain that controls the ability to process the way language is heard, spoken, read, or spelled. It can also cause difficulties with working memory, attention spans, and a person’s organisational ability.
Dyslexia is more common than we think
One-fifth of the Australian population is diagnosed as being mild to severely dyslexic. Individuals with dyslexia continue to be under-represented in the Australian higher education system, especially in postgraduate research and coursework programs.
Additionally, the 2019 update from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that the participation of people with disabilities, including those with dyslexia, has slightly declined since 2016.
For the few students with dyslexia who gain access to university, their journey is riddled with attitudinal, academic, social, and emotional barriers that affect their persistence and attainment levels.
In her seminal study on university experiences of Australian students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Janette Ryan found that university academics’ normative expectations and practices affected students’ everyday experiences.
Furthermore, participants reported that they had not received support services, and instead, experienced “I do not belong here” feelings, based on not having their needs met or recognised, which led to many developing anxieties, and/or depression.
Similar findings have been echoed in more recent studies on the experiences of dyslexic students attempting university. For example, compared to their non-dyslexic peers, students with dyslexia consistently achieve lower grade point averages, significantly higher levels of anxiety and test anxiety, lower employment rates after graduation, and are more likely to discontinue their studies in their first or second year of enrolment.
The results suggest that the higher education infrastructure and support available for students with dyslexia in Australia and other nations is insufficient to support the successful completion of their chosen course.
What are the critical barriers for students with dyslexia at university?
For many dyslexic students, common challenges at university include:
a. difficulties completing admissions procedures
b. lack of information about support services
c. the perception that academic staff were too busy to help
d. differing levels of understanding of what dyslexia is in schools and support services available
e. lack of flexibility concerning assessment methods (i.e. emphasis on written assessment)
f. differences between educators’ beliefs and their actual practices.
So how do we support the educational endeavour of students with dyslexia at university?
Early identification. Dyslexia often becomes evident during the first few years of school and has been known to be diagnosed from as young as three years of age.
Research indicates that one way to prepare students with learning disabilities at university such as dyslexia is to encourage them to develop self-determination and advocacy skills.
Upper primary and high school teachers can be critical in helping students learn about their disabilities and to communicate their academic needs effectively.
Another critical step is to ensure that high school students with disabilities have the opportunity and necessary support to take university preparatory coursework and explore university study options.
Increasing the success of dyslexic students at university - reasonable adjustments
Reasonable adjustments and positive interactions with academic faculty often increase university access and completion rates for dyslexic students.
Like many universities, Charles Sturt University offers reasonable adjustments to courses such as allowing extra time for dyslexic students to complete their assessments.
Additionally, markers are instructed not to deduct points for misspelt words and grammatical errors.
However, while these adjustments are beneficial, they fail to consider that many students with dyslexia struggle with everyday study skills, such as identifying main ideas in the text, exam preparation techniques, reading course books and taking notes, keeping within the time allocated for exams, expressing ideas verbally, concentrating and using short-term memory.
Given the symptoms and severity of dyslexia vary considerably per individual, universities should promote a more comprehensive range of adjustments that will help level the uneven playing field for dyslexic students.
One factor that contributes to the struggle faced by many students with dyslexia during higher education is their relationship with university faculty. Research has shown that the success of a university student is highly influenced by the quality of interactions they have with their instructors.
Thus, universities should encourage lecturers to reflect carefully on the effectiveness of their teaching and assessment methods for all their students. For example, university teachers should be made familiar with research showing that the reading accuracy of dyslexic students can be significantly improved by using fonts such as Helvetica, Courier, and Arial.
Providing a system that encourages and facilitates prospective students with dyslexia to disclose their disability is also needed. This is often a key inhibitor for increased enrolments from dyslexic students as only a minority of post-secondary students with dyslexia disclose their disability to receive adjustments.
As it is common for people diagnosed with dyslexia to have an IQ above average and some are considered academically gifted, it is time to increase awareness of the supports available, both in accessing higher education and to facilitate academic success once that journey has commenced.