and dyslexia at university
A doctoral thesis
Middlesex University, London
Andrew Dykes B.Ed, M.A, M.Sc, FHEA
This thesis is the account of the study, research processes, data analysis and discussion of an attempt to understand more about how the academic confidence of university students with dyslexia in the UK is affected by their dyslexia.
The underpinning theme of the research draws from aspects of the inclusion agenda in education contexts which advocate a rethink in the design and delivery of learning curricula to reduce the persistent reliance on literacy-based formats, claiming that this is inherently unjust. This is to argue for the adoption of an alternative learning and teaching environment which properly accommodates learning diversity. This would be one that consigns into redundancy, the need for special conditions and reasonable adjustments to curriculum delivery and assessment for students with unseen differences or disabilities.
Throughout the study the research has been continuously published online through a suite of webpages that have been built to diarize the project, to encourage the reflective review of progress, for hosting the research questionnaire, and as a sandbox for testing research processes and visualizing data outcomes. Now archived, these webpages (available at: www.ad1281.uk/archive.html) were an integral part of the complete project and remain as testimony not only to the work that has comprised the study, but also as a record of a personal, professional, and academic learning development journey.
I acknowledge with thanks, the study support and academic guidance provided by the research community at Middlesex University, the Research Degrees Administration Team at the Department of Education and in particular, the advice, interest and encouragement of my supervisory team.
I also express gratitude to Middlesex University for the 3-year Research Studentship funding without which this research project would not have been possible.
Andrew Dykes B.Ed., M.A., M.Sc., CELTA, FHEA
Middlesex University, May 2019
This project explores how university students' academic confidence may be affected by them being identified as dyslexic.
The premises being tested are firstly that students with an identified dyslexic learning difference tend to show lower levels of academic confidence than their non-dyslexic peers; but secondly that students with a dyslexia-like learning and study profile which may be indicating unidentified dyslexia, but which will be designated as quasi-dyslexia, tend to show a higher academic confidence than their dyslexia-identified peers, hence suggesting that knowing about one's dyslexia may be a factor that negatively impacts on academic confidence at university. It is thought that to date, this factor may not have been considered in attempts to explain disparities between the academic confidence of students with dyslexia and their non-dyslexic peers.
Exploring how academic confidence is affected by learning differences widely attributed to dyslexia is thought to be a fresh approach to exploring the ways that dyslexic students tackle the challenges of managing their studies at university. Evidence-based arguments draw on the theoretical view that academic confidence is a sub-construct of academic self-efficacy, and this has been identified as a significant contributor to academic achievement. Hence it will be shown that identifying dyslexia in university students may be counterproductive to the attainment of these students' academic outcomes, with depressed academic confidence being a contributing factor. The Academic Behavioural Confidence Scale, (Sander & Sanders, 2006) was used to gauge academic confidence as this is a metric which is gaining traction as an appropriate tool for exploring the impact of actions and behaviours on study at university and how these may impact on academic output.
Because existing dyslexia identifiers generally adopt a deficit-based approach which is contrary to the inclusive theme adopted by this study, a fresh, Dyslexia Index (Dx) Profiler has been created which attempts to take a more neutral position as an evaluator of dimensions of study-preferences and study behaviours that may provide indications of dyslexia-like learning characteristics. The Dx Profiler has been designed to provide an indication of a student's level of dyslexia-ness, a term which is introduced in this study as an indicator of the strength of dyslexia presented by the research participants. It is not being proposed as an alternative mechanism for necessarily identifying dyslexia in adults.
The outcomes conclude that the identification of learners as different because they are dyslexic may have a measurable, negative impact on their academic confidence. Analysis of the data produced a moderate effect size of g=0.48 between the Academic Behavioural Confidence (ABC) of students with identified dyslexia and those with quasi-dyslexia; and a large effect size of g=1.04 between the ABC of students with dyslexia and their non-dyslexic peers. The ABC of the dyslexic subgroup was lower in both cases. Principal component analysis revealed more complex inter-relationships between the factors of dyslexia and factors of academic confidence, which showed that some components of dyslexia had a greater impact on academic confidence than others. It has also been shown that the way in which students with dyslexia are told of their dyslexia can also impact negatively on their academic confidence.
One limitation of the research has been the untested validity and external reliability of the Dyslexia Index Profiler. However, the tool has served its design purpose for this study and this is indicated by good internal consistency. It is believed that the Dx Profiler could be developed into a robust, standardized tool which could provide a fresh approach for identifying dyslexia-like study profiles across university communities without necessarily identifying dyslexia per se. This could be particularly useful as an aid for designing targeted learning development interventions and support more widely across university learning communities.
1.1 Academic confidence and dyslexia at university
This study explores how the academic confidence of students at university is affected by dyslexia-ness, the term used throughout this thesis to describe the intensity of dyslexic characteristics or dimensions. The research is about gauging how the dyslexia-ness of students with identified dyslexia, or with previously unidentified dyslexia-like profiles (termed quasi-dyslexia), impacts on their study processes in relation to their sense of academic purpose, by exploring the confidence they express in meeting the academic challenges of university. The academic confidence of students with few or no indications of dyslexia will be used for comparison.
In the context of this project, dyslexia is considered as a learning difference in resonance with the more positive attitudes towards dyslexia that have emerged in recent years. Notably, this has been demonstrated through approaches towards understanding dyslexia partly as a multifactorial condition (Tamboer et al, 2014; Tamboer et al., 2017), but also by locating dyslexia on the spectrum of neurodiversity (Cooper, 2009). Neurodiversity is a concept which is said to have emerged out of civil rights lobbying by the autism community in the closing decade of the last century (Griffin & Pollack, 2009) and as well as dyslexia and autism, the spectrum of neurodiversity can include, for example, Asperger's Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (Baker, 2011).
The neurodiversity approach considers that individuals with such conditions are presenting atypical brain-wiring, that is, neurological differences in comparison to the population more generally, but that these should not be considered as disorders because their profiles present a range of strengths as well as weaknesses (Armstrong, 2015). By taking the multifactorial, neurodiversity approach to dyslexia, a fresh, innovative profiler has been developed for this project which attempts to offer an alternative understanding of learning difference. This is one which does not focus on deficit-discrepancy models or disability, but instead, aims to use the dimensions of dyslexia that tend to be typical amongst university students with dyslexia to provide a mechanism to gauge dyslexia-ness.
The purpose is to determine whether an association exists between levels of dyslexia-ness and levels of academic confidence amongst the participants in the study. Through this process, the study will evidence that students who know about their dyslexia present lower levels of academic confidence in comparison to their non-dyslexic peers. This is thought to be an innovative approach to exploring more about how dyslexia may impact on studying at university and will argue (in sub-section 2.1) that the medical, deficit model of dyslexia, implied by diagnosing it as a disability in Higher Education learning contexts, may be academically more counterproductive than helpful. This is despite such diagnoses expediting a route to differentiated learning support and the funding that is provided for it. The research also contributes to the discourse on the non- or late-reporting of dyslexia in university students (e.g.: Henderson, 2015) by suggesting that the evidence collected and analysed brings into question the value of such late-learning identification of dyslexia. The study also adds to the limited range of research relating to the academic confidence of university students who are from minority groups, especially those deemed to have a learning disability in whatever ways this might be defined.
The study also aims to add to the argument which favours a shift in the delivery of university learning towards it being more inclusive and accessible, and particularly more adaptable and flexible because encouraging the design and development of more accessible curricula is argued to be preferable to retrofitting the curriculum to the learner (Lancaster, 2008) by way of 'reasonable adjustments' (discussed in sub-section 2.1(I)). An outcome would be that learners with dyslexia would feel more included and less 'different' (e.g.: Dykes, 2008; Thompson et al., 2015). It may also suggest that identifying students' study profiles as falling within the dyslexia envelope on the spectrum of neurodiversity, or as a multifactorial learning difference need not result in a dyslexia label as this could be counterproductive for positively advancing their academic achievement.
The thesis will support the premise that dyslexia may now be best considered as an alternative form of information processing (Tamboer et al., 2014) in teaching and learning environments that are sufficiently adaptable and flexible to accommodate dyslexia without differentiation. This would be more likely were institutions to develop their learning spaces, curricula, pedagogical processes and assessment procedures to be more accommodating of learning diversity without the need for the 'reasonable adjustments' defended in legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 in the UK, designed to advance and protect the rights of disabled individuals across society. This might be achieved by adopting the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an original approach to redesigning classrooms and curriculum delivery that emerged from a reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 1997 in North America. This emerged from renewed interest in extending the rights of students with disabilities to better access to the general education curriculum in addition to earlier rights gained to equal physical access to buildings and teaching spaces. UDL, originally attributable to extensive work and research conducted by the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the USA and particularly to Rose and Meyer (Rose et al., 1999; Rose & Meyer, 2002), is a blueprint for institutions to become accessible and inclusive without the need for differentiation of learning spaces or curriculum delivery previously thought as the most appropriate way to accommodate the atypical learning needs of disabled students. UDL aims to embrace the principles of inclusivity and remedy the emerging disconnect between communities of learners that are becoming increasingly more diverse with the 'one-size-fits-all' curriculum (Edyburn, 2010).
Such diversity has been witnessed in the UK by the success of widening participation initiatives designed to encourage learners from under-represented groups to attend university. These are students typically from lower socio-economic communities, non-white ethnicities, learners with disabilities or mature and part-time students who were previously only rarely seen in HE (Moore et al., 2013). It will be argued that when learning disabilities or differences cease to impact on access to, and engagement with learning it is reasonable to suppose that the persistent disability model of dyslexia, tacitly implied by 'diagnosis', 'reasonable adjustment' and 'support', will have reduced meaning. Instead, the positive strengths and qualities that form part of a spectrum of apparent differences can be celebrated and integrated into the development of the learner in ways that will encourage a greater sense of academic agency to emerge through stronger academic confidence, and that this may contribute positively towards better and more successful academic outcomes at university (Nicholson et al., 2013).
To gain a greater understanding of the issues is at least a first step towards meeting the learning needs of learning differences (Mortimore & Crozier, 2006). Hence the aim of this research project is to explore the relationship between specific aspects of academic confidence at university and the learning difference of dyslexia. Zimmerman (1995) spoke of academic confidence in the context of academic agency which he described as “a sense of [academic] purpose, this being a product of self-efficacy and academic confidence that is then the major influence on academic accomplishment” (ibid, p202). It is through the concept of academic self-efficacy, the parent construct of academic confidence (Sander & Sanders, 2006a) that this research project has been tackled. Exploring how academic confidence may be affected by the learning difference of dyslexia is important because in addition to adding weight to the UDL agenda, relationships revealed may also contribute to the emerging discussion on the design of learning development and 'support' for groups of learners who feel marginalized or disenfranchised because conventional learning curriculum delivery tends to be out of alignment with their learning strengths, or due to their perceived stigma about being labelled as 'disabled' in learning contexts (Dykes, 2008; Shaw & Anderson, 2018).
When commenced (2014/15), this project was particularly topical in the light of proposals at that time for some aspects of dyslexia support to be disassociated from the (UK) Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) in the near future (BDA, 2017). Although these proposals were deferred, not least as a consequence of lobbying from leading dyslexia support organizations such as the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) and the Association of Dyslexia Specialists in Higher Education (ADSHE), the position of dyslexia in respect of DSA claims remains uncertain. In the light of the research outcomes of this current study, detaching dyslexia from the disability agenda might be considered as a positive move. However, unless the adoption of UDL principles in HE institutions become more commonplace, students with dyslexia may subsequently find it more challenging to gain access to the learning guidance that accommodates their learning differences in the current framework of learning and study at university, because the support that had been previously available through the DSA would be withdrawn. Hence this research may contribute to a raised level of discourse about creating more inclusive curricula that supports a social justice agenda by arguing for a wider provision of undifferentiated learning development services that are available for everyone studying at university. This will be one that is fully accessible and actively promoted to the complete, coherently integrated student community in HE and which moves away from the negatively-connotated perception of learning support as a remedial service, both amongst academics and students at university (Laurs, 2010).
1.2 Research Importance
This study is important because it makes a major contribution towards filling a gap in research about how the academic confidence of dyslexic students at university may be affected by their dyslexia when compared to their quasi-dyslexic and non-dyslexic peers. There appear to be no peer-reviewed studies that specifically explore the interrelationships between academic confidence and dyslexia in HE contexts. Asquith's (2008) dissertation explored how dyslexia was related to self-esteem and to academic confidence, hypothesizing that dyslexic students who were receiving support would present higher levels of each of these constructs in comparison to dyslexic students who were not. Asquith tested the data to identify significant differences between mean values of academic confidence, evaluated using the Academic Behavioural Confidence Scale (Sander & Sanders, 2003) and dyslexia, using Vinegrad's Adult Dyslexia Checklist (Vinegrad, 1994).
A significant feature of Asquith's study was an assumption that a proportion of the apparently non-dyslexic students recruited into the study may present characteristics of dyslexia, according to the Vinegrad Checklist. Hence three research subgroups were established: dyslexic students, non-dyslexic students and quasi-dyslexic students. This resonates with the research processes of this study where the same, three subgroups have been established. Asquith found significant differences in academic confidence between dyslexic and non-dyslexic students in her sample, but she did not appear to consider investigating differences between her dyslexic vs quasi-dyslexic or non-dyslexic vs quasi-dyslexic students.
This study is particularly interested in these latter comparisons, and has designed and developed an innovative Dyslexia Index Profiler to attempt to discriminate quasi-dyslexic from non-dyslexic students. One perceived limitation of Asquith's study was the adoption of the Vinegrad Checklist because firstly, it is intended as a prequel to any more formal dyslexia screening assessment and hence is limited in its ability to discriminate between dyslexic and non-dyslexic respondents, and secondly, the Checklist employs binary response indicators - that is, respondents answer either 'yes' or 'no' to each scale item. The checklist therefore offers no opportunity for any graded responses which may enable more subtle respondent variations to emerge. Barrett, (2005) was reported to have also found depressed levels of academic confidence in dyslexic students in comparison to their non-dyslexic peers (Sander, 2009) although it has not been possible to review the study to explore the findings in more detail as it is unavailable.
The present study is also important because it will add to the discourse on the 'dilemma of difference', first suggested by Minow (1985, 1990) as significant in determining how schools can meet the educational needs of children defined as 'different' without stigmatizing them on that basis, by viewing 'difference' through the lens of contemporary HE provision for students with dyslexia.
Hence, the originality of the research focus is considered as significant, as is the workflow that has supported the study, conducted through an extensive suite of webpages that have been constructed as part of the learning development process to which this doctorate-level study has contributed. The webpages have served as a sandbox for project ideas and development of some of the technical processes, particularly related to data collection, and for diagrammatically representing data outputs. They have also chronicled the project; they contain a reflective commentary on the project's progress throughout its 3-year timescale through a Study Blog; and they contain, present and visualize the data collected. An electronic version of the final thesis is published on the webpages, notably so that pertinent links to supportive, online material can be easily accessed by the reader.
1.3 Terminology & Register
I Academic Confidence
Academic confidence is the construct that will be evaluated and set as the dependent variable in this study. The position will be adopted that academic confidence is a sub-construct of academic self-efficacy (Sander & Sanders, 2003) which is rooted in the Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) of Bandura (1977, 1986, 1997a). It has been argued that academic confidence is likely to emerge primarily as a result of mastery experiences (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2002), this being one of the four components of SCT, the others being vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion and physiological states. Social Cognitive Theory positions self-efficacy as one of the components of human self-regulation and explores how this impacts on human behaviours. Academic self-efficacy focuses on the features of self-efficacy which are presented in learning contexts where the research contributions of Zimmerman, Schunk and Pajares have been selected to demonstrate how SCT can be applied in educational settings. In particular, Zimmerman placed academic self-efficacy as a central component of the learning process through learners' beliefs in their capabilities to self-regulate their learning and master academic challenges, acquire new ideas and communicate their knowledge. Zimmerman (1990) evidenced that students who are competent self-regulators achieve stronger academic outcomes than their otherwise comparable peers who are poor self-regulators.
II Academic Behavioural Confidence
Academic behavioural confidence is used to operationalize academic confidence (Putwain et al., 2013) through the Academic Behavioural Confidence (ABC) Scale where academic confidence has been proposed as a construct that may be distinct, but is related to the parent construct of self-efficacy (Sander & Sanders, 2003). The idea emerged from Sander and Sanders' attempts to explain striking differences in the reasons provided by university students from two different cohorts to support their preferences for particular pedagogical processes, namely learning through role-play and through peer-group presentations. Academic confidence was proposed as “a mediating variable between the individual's inherent abilities, their learning styles and the opportunities afforded by the academic environment of higher education” (ibid, p4). It was first operationalized as the Academic Confidence Scale which was later revised into the Academic Behavioural Confidence Scale because it was seen to be gauging confidence in behaviours, actions and plans related to academic study (Sander & Sanders, 2006a). The ABC Scale is designed to be a general measure of students' confidence about their academic work at university.
III Academic Learning Management
Throughout the thesis, the phrase academic learning management refers to the profile of study preferences and behaviours that students employ to engage with their learning at university and organize themselves to tackle its demands and challenges. It relates to the non-cognitive aspects of university study which are likely to be essential components for successful academic attainment because the teaching-and-learning model in HE assumes that students will take a greater responsibility for their learning at this level than is likely to have been their experience in pre-university learning (Coates, 2005). It is not being used in this project in relation to academic learning management systems which more usually refers to 'walled garden' type learning management systems (LMSs) such as virtual learning environments (VLEs), Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, or the academic use of open environment social media platforms, typically Facebook (Miron & Ravid, 2015).
IV Research groups and subgroups
This project is a primary research study and data have been collected from participants who agreed to provide information about their study at university. Data were collected through a self-reported questionnaire which attracted 183 responses from university students predominantly at one HE institution in the UK. Of these, 166 students provided good quality data, the others being rejected due to them being more than 50% incomplete. Research groups and subgroups were subsequently established and the definitions of these are set out in the Research Design (Section 3) of this thesis.
Following the conventional academic protocols for reporting research the majority of this thesis is written objectively and in the third-person. However some sections relate more of the personal and reflective elements of the learning journey of this research project, and hence are narrated in the first person. This also serves to distinguish between the reporting of the evidence-based outcomes of the project and my stance as a practitioner-researcher in the field of education and learning development at university. Where direct quotations have been taken from other literature, these are shown in double quotation marks; single inverted commas are used as marks of emphasis (e.g.: ‘reasonable adjustments’); direct quotations from participants in this, and other studies are italicized when presented in the narrative, or when bulletted, shown in a reduced font-size.
1.4 The preceding small-scale enquiry
The legacy of outcomes from the researcher's preceding Masters' dissertation (Dykes, 2008) has had a significant impact on the development of this current project. It was a small-scale enquiry conducted within the dyslexic student community at a UK university. The aim was to try to understand why some students with dyslexia were strong advocates of the learning support value provided by a dedicated learning technology suite staffed by dyslexia and disability specialists, while others with apparently similar dyslexic profiles appeared to be of the opposite disposition. This was evidenced through the former students making frequent use of the suite and services whereas the others rarely visited the suite or contacted the staff despite initially registering for access to the resources and services. It was thought that this disparity might, in part at least, be due to differences in the attitudes and feelings of students with dyslexia to their own dyslexia but particularly their perceptions about how it impacted on their access to, and their engagement with their learning at university.
The study attempted to reveal these differences through exploration of (academic) Locus of Control as a determining variable by discriminating research participants into 'internalizers' or 'externalizers' as informed by the theories and evaluative processes widely accredited to Rotter (1966, 1990). The hypothesis was that students who were regular ‘customers’ and frequently requested learning support, were likely to be externalizers whilst those who did not use the learning technology suite and support services were likely to be internalizers; the latter group were thought typically to present the more independent learning approaches generally observed amongst the wider student community. It was expected that this would be related to students’ attitudes and feelings about their dyslexia. As a member of staff of the suite at the time, privileged access to computer workstation log-in credentials was granted for the purposes of the research and this was used to determine which dyslexic students were frequent users of the service and which were not. By eliminating conflating variables, the research-participant base was established which provided a sample size n=41 of which 26 were regular users of the service and 15 were not. Data were collected through a self-report questionnaire which asked participants to rate the extent to which they agreed with statements about learning and study preferences and their feelings towards their dyslexia.
Two influential aspects emerged from this study: firstly lessons were learned about constructing online survey questionnaires and in particular how to design and incorporate Likert-style items into the questionnaire design; secondly, the development of profiling charts to visualize quite complex interrelationships between variables that had been identified as pertinent to academic locus of control. An important aspect of these were the opportunities they afforded to spot patterns, similarities and contrasts not so much between the profiles of individual respondents but how respondents could be grouped into subsets. It is the legacy of this profiling idea that has been carried into this current study. Together with the research focus being quite closely aligned to the current one, it has been possible to consider the preceding survey almost as a pilot to this current study.