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.
Academic confidence will be gauged using the Academic Behavioural Confidence (ABC) Scale, developed throughout the early 2000s to explore and explain differences in the study behaviours and learning strategies of students at university. Academic confidence has been linked to academic capability and ultimately, to academic achievement.
Data was collected by self-report questionnaire from a sample of n=166 university students, who had declared either a dyslexic learning difference or not. By comparing differences In ABC between students with dyslexia (n=68) and those with no identified dyslexia (n=98), evidence emerged that in this sample, non-dyslexic students show substantially higher levels of academic confidence than their dyslexia-identified peers. From the non-dyslexic group, a sub-group of students (n=18) was identified who presented attributes and characteristics that were similar to those in the dyslexic group. Students in this sub-group were described as quasi-dyslexic, and their academic confidence was also compared to that of both the identified dyslexic group, and the remainder of the non-dyslexic group. Analysis showed that the quasi-dyslexic students also had significantly higher levels of academic confidence than their dyslexia-identified peers. Attempts to explain this are presented, and it is argued that one interpretation is to suggest that identifying dyslexia in university students may be counter-productive because it can negatively impact on their academic confidence, and possibly on academic achievement.
To identify the sub-group of quasi-dyslexic students in an ethically appropriate way, a fresh metric was developed, that was not rooted in the more conventional Identifiers of dyslexia related to literacy and other cognitive variances. This metric, the Dyslexia Index (Dx) Profiler, framed dyslexia through the lens of study skills and learning behaviours at university, and hence was contextually similar to the ABC Scale. The Dx Profiler is not being proposed as an alternative mechanism for identifying dyslexia in adults, but as a more neutrally focused tool when compared with existing dyslexia identifiers, considered to be inappropriate for use in this study.
Data analysis focused on Hedges g effect sizes as the key statistic for comparisons, supported by t-test outcomes. Principal component analysis was used to explore more nuanced differences between the groups, and a preliminary regression analysis was conducted to add supporting evidence to the analysis. These results indicated a large effect size (g=1.04) between the ABC of students with no identified dyslexia and their dyslexic peers, and a moderate effect size (g=0.48) between students with quasi-dyslexia and those with identified dyslexia. For students in the dyslexic group, significant differences in ABC were also revealed as a function of how these students were told of their dyslexia, with those whose dyslexia had been diagnosed as a disability showing the lowest levels of ABC.
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 an individual’s 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 strategies and processes in relation to their sense of academic purpose.
This is achieved by exploring the confidence they express in meeting the academic challenges of university. Thus, the objective is to determine whether an association exists between levels of dyslexia-ness and levels of academic confidence. 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 viewed as a learning difference, notably by grounding the study in contemporary approaches towards understanding dyslexia as a multifactorial condition (Tamboer et al, 2014; Tamboer et al., 2017), and by locating dyslexia on the spectrum of neurodiversity (Cooper, 2009).
By taking the multifactorial, neurodiversity approach to dyslexia, an innovative profiler has been developed for this project to gauge dyslexia-ness, and which attempts to offer an alternative understanding of this learning difference. This is one which does not focus on deficit-discrepancy models or on disability. Instead, it is built from dimensions of dyslexia that tend to be typical amongst university students with dyslexia, but which can be equally revealing of study behaviours of non-dyslexic students. This development of this tool has been essential so that ethical issues related to disclosure that would arise through use of a proprietary dyslexia screener with non-students were avoided. The study provides evidence to suggest that students who know about their dyslexia present lower levels of academic confidence in comparison to their non-dyslexic peers. The study also shows that the manner through which students with dyslexia learn of their dyslexia also appears to have a significant effect on their academic confidence.
Hence, this study is thought to be an innovative approach to exploring more about how dyslexia may impact on studying at university with evidence suggesting that the medical, deficit model of dyslexia, implied by diagnosing it as a disability - in Higher Education learning contexts at least - 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. Hence this contributes to the discourse on the non- or late-reporting of dyslexia in university students (e.g.: Henderson, 2015).
This project 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 outcomes of the study support a contemporary view favouring a shift in the delivery of university learning towards it being more inclusive and accessible, and particularly more adaptable and flexible. 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). Resonating with this, the thesis will support the view 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. It will be argued that this might be achieved by adopting the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL, Rose et al., 1999; Rose & Meyer, 2002), an original approach to redesigning classrooms and curriculum delivery to extend the rights of students with disabilities for better access to the general education curriculum. UDL provides 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. Hence, the principles of inclusivity are embraced, and the emerging disconnect between the 'one-size-fits-all' curriculum and communities of learners that are becoming increasingly more diverse might be ameliorated (Edyburn, 2010).
Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the positive strengths and qualities that form part of a spectrum of apparent differences could be integrated into the development of the learner in ways that will encourage a greater sense of academic agency to emerge through stronger academic confidence. Hence, this may contribute positively towards better and more successful academic outcomes at university (Nicholson et al., 2013). 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 lens of academic confidence, as a sub-construct of academic self-efficacy (Sander & Sanders, 2006a), that this research project has been tackled.
1.2 Research Design and methodological overview
The study has been underpinned firstly by a review of a range of literature on the nature, aetiology, identification and assessment of dyslexia, with dyslexia amongst university students framing the selection strategy. This informed the establishment of a fresh descriptor, dyslexia-ness, as one element of the research design. This is a measure of the intensity that the attributes and characteristics of dyslexia have on study behaviours at university. Dyslexia-ness has been operationalized through the development of a profiler which aimed to be valid for use across the wider student community rather than being targeted specifically at students with identified dyslexia. This was key to the study as it enabled a test sub-group of quasi-dyslexic students to be established, being those who appeared to be presenting many characteristics and attributes typically associated with dyslexia but who were not identified as dyslexic. Thus, comparisons could be made with both a control subgroup of students with formal identifications of dyslexia, and a base subgroup of non-dyslexic students, as determined by their low levels of dyslexia-ness in the profiler.
Secondly, a comprehensive review of the theory and previous research relating to academic confidence, principally operationalized through academic behavioural confidence, has been presented. This is located within the framework of the parent construct of academic self-efficacy, itself identified as an element of Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) in extensive earlier research by Bandura (e.g.: 1997b, 2000, 2001). SCT is outlined and selectively reviewed in relation to education and learning. Hence, the use of academic confidence as a construct is discussed from the theoretical perspective, with data collected using the existing, Academic Behavioural Confidence (ABC) Scale, which sets out to gauge students’ actions and behaviours in academic study (Sander & Sanders, 2006a).
This was a primary research project using a mixed methods approach. Data collected from a sample of university students through an online, self-report questionnaire was largely quantitative, although additional qualitative data were invited. Statistical analysis set out to explore research questions about the extent to which dyslexia-ness impacted on academic confidence. Null hypotheses are stated, and evidence to address these is based on effect size differences between research group and subgroup sample means, supported by conventional independent sample means’ p-value outcomes. Principal component analysis has been used to reduce the multifactorial data collected into meaningful dimensions of both dyslexia-ness and academic confidence. This process has been used to determine whether a greater understanding of the differences can be derived by exploring the data at this level. A tentative regression analysis has also been conducted to further explore the interrelationship between the two principal variables of dyslexia-ness and academic confidence. This aimed to provide consolidating evidence for addressing the hypotheses. The qualitative data has not been formally analysed as the intention was that it might add deeper meaning to the discussion element of the thesis, not least to contextualize the statistical outcomes and conclusions. However, the richness of this data suggests that a further, more detailed analysis may be warranted as a later study.
1.3 Research Importance
This study has identified a gap in the existing 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. No peer-reviewed studies were found that specifically explore these interrelationships in HE contexts. Searching across journals databases revealed only an unpublished dissertation (Asquith, 2008) which explored how dyslexia was related to self-esteem and to academic confidence. This study hypothesized that dyslexic students who were receiving support would present higher levels of each of these constructs in comparison to dyslexic students who were not. A significant feature of the study was an assumption that a proportion of the apparently non-dyslexic students recruited into the study may present characteristics of dyslexia, as determined by use of the Vinegrad Adult Dyslexia Checklist (Vinegrad, 1994). Hence, three research subgroups were established: dyslexic students, non-dyslexic students and quasi-dyslexic students although this term was not used. Asquith identified significant differences between mean values of academic confidence, evaluated using the ABC Scale, finding significant differences between dyslexic and non-dyslexic students in her sample. Investigating differences between dyslexic and quasi-dyslexic, or non-dyslexic vs quasi-dyslexic students did not appear to have been attempted. Nothing was said about how ethical tensions were resolved in relation to apparently identifying dyslexic students previously considered to be non-dyslexic, and how this may have been disclosed and followed up. Asquith’s study has been a useful example of one of the earliest uses of the ABC Scale, especially with dyslexic students. However, this current study takes a more robust approach to developing and addressing clearly focused research questions, addressed by a research design rooted in an extensive review of the pertinent literature, together with a more sophisticated analysis of data collected.
1.4 Terminology & Register
I Academic Confidence
Academic confidence is 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). The literature argues 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 it 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, not least due to their relevance to university contexts. 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 related to the parent construct of academic self-efficacy (Sander & Sanders, 2003). ABC emerged from attempts to explain differences in the reasons provided by university students from two different cohorts to defend their preferences for particular pedagogical processes, namely learning through role-play or 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 better 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 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, with 17 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 conventional academic protocols, 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 the researcher, 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 bulleted, shown in a reduced font-size.
1.5 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 strongly advocated the learning support value of a dedicated learning technology suite staffed by dyslexia and disability specialists; whilst others with apparently similar dyslexic profiles appeared ambivalent. This was evidenced through the former making frequent use of the suite and services whereas the others rarely visited the suite or contacted the staff despite initially registering for access. It was hypothesized that this disparity might, in part at least, be due to differences in the attitudes and feelings of student
ts with dyslexia to their own dyslexia, but particularly to their perceptions about how it impacted on their access to, and their engagement with their learning at university. The analysis outcomes were mixed, making it difficult to establish clear conclusions, revealing that the issue was far from straightforward. This was in part attributable to the small sample sizes of the research groups, but also to a research design which, with hindsight, could have been better developed. However, 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 scale items into questionnaire design; secondly, considerable value was ascribed to the development of profiling charts to visualize quite complex interrelationships between variables. 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 process that has been carried forward into this current study.
1.6 Research questions and hypotheses
Research questions were formulated thus:
Firstly, do students who know about their dyslexia present different levels of academic confidence to that of their non-dyslexic peers? If so, can factors in their dyslexia be identified as those most likely to account for these differences, and are these factors absent or less-significantly impacting in non-dyslexic students?
Secondly, do students with no formally identified dyslexia, but who show evidence of a dyslexia-like learning and study profile, that is, present quasi-dyslexia, present different levels of academic confidence to that of their dyslexia-identified peers? If so, are the outcomes sufficient to suggest that identifying dyslexia in student learners is detrimental to their academic confidence?
Hence these research questions enabled two, corresponding hypotheses to be formulated:
Ho(1) = There is no difference between dyslexic and non-dyslexic students' levels of academic confidence;
AH(1) = Non-dyslexic students present a higher level of academic confidence than their dyslexic peers.
Ho(2) = There is no difference between dyslexic and quasi-dyslexic students' levels of academic confidence;
AH(2) = quasi-dyslexic students present a higher level of academic confidence than their dyslexic peers.
Furthermore, amongst students with identified dyslexia, does the manner in which these students have learned of their dyslexia impact on their levels of academic confidence? Is there evidence more specifically, that students whose dyslexia has been diagnosed to them as a disability present lower levels of academic confidence than those whose dyslexia has been reported to them in other ways, for example, identified as a difficulty. If so, this implies that insufficient merit is accorded to the importance of presenting dyslexia in non-clinical terminology, more aligned with the out-dated medical model of disability.
Hence these subsidiary questions prompted a further hypothesis:
Ho(3) = Amongst students with dyslexia, there is no difference in academic confidence between students whose dyslexia was formally diagnosed to them as a disability, and those who formally learned of their dyslexia in other ways;
AH(3) = Students who were formally diagnosed with dyslexia as a disability present lower levels of academic confidence than their dyslexic peers who formally learned of their dyslexia in other ways.