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celebrate dyslexiaDraft (2017-18)

 

Academic confidence and dyslexia at university

 

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Closing Reflections

This is the concluding part of this thesis which has reported on the small-scale research study exploring the impact of dyslexia on the academic confidence of students at university.

I have titled this section 'Closing Reflections' because it is intended to be more than a bland, final summary of the science of the study and research outcomes, much as this is no doubt the more conventional way to close a doctoral thesis.

I will take the liberty of including elements of contemplative reflection on not only what I have found out about academic confidence and how it may be affected by dyslexia, but also about how the journey has progressed from an idea largely formulated out of personal experience as an academic guide at university working with students with dyslexia. I will also reflect on the ways in which the journey has impacted on my own learning development and progression from practitioner to researcher, especially in the context of what I have learned about the research process and how the activity has re-shaped my thinking to be more evidence-based and disciplined. It is only with some regret that because I am in the unusual position of undertaking a level 8 study at a point near the end of my career timeline in learning and teaching there will be few opportunities to either pass on my learning experiences to others and also to pursue many of the questions that the research has suggested into further studies and projects.

However this section will also adhere to convention by trying to identify limitations that may have impacted on the research outcomes, how aspects of the research design may have been more carefully considered and executed to have engendered a greater robustness to the science of the project, directions for future research that are suggested by the results of the data analysis and lastly, the Bibliography and List of References.

 

Complete Thesis Contents

 

Reflections

Reflecting on academic confidence and learning differences

 

As part of the reflecting conclusions this short sub-section considers the idea of 'calibration' in the context of (academic) self-efficacy beliefs and academic confidence and briefly reviews some of the work conducted by Klassen with university students in North America where dyslexia is commonly referred to as LD (learning disability). This work is significant for two reasons: firstly, because it resonates with many of the rationales in this study and draws some of the theory reviewed earlier about self-efficacy beliefs in relation to academic confidence back into the discussion in these closing sections of this thesis which has reported on the research conducted in this study; and secondly because amongst the literature found to date, Klassen's work is singularly representative of research that is attempting to understand more clearly the relationships between learning differences such as dyslexia and the academic self-efficacy components of academic confidence in higher education contexts.

In addition to reviewing the ideas presented through Klassen's research, I will also include a reflective commentary which draws on anecdotal evidence acquired through my own experience working with students as an academic guide at university and serves no more than to present evidence of my contemplation about both the outcomes of this study and what they mean for the nature of university education and the students that are part of it, and the wider context of 'the learning self' and its relationship with learning experiences. It is a sub-section crafted more through personal, professional experience rather than couched in evidence-based critical review and although this may have no place in the closing sections of a doctoral thesis, I defend it on the grounds that firstly, reflection and rumination about the wider meaning of the outcomes of a (relatively) scientific study are markers of personal learning development level which is considered to be a fundamental component of level 8 study, without which, the project would be merely a means to an end; and secondly, contemplating the outcomes of the study invoke a spirit of continuation so that loose ends can be followed through in developmental work later, whether this be through a further study or by contributing to the wider discourse through publication.

'Calibration = confidence?' - self-efficacy beliefs of students with learning disabilities (dyslexia)

Klassen takes the view that (academic) confidence is the bridge that connects an individual learner's self-efficacy beliefs to their absolute performance in an academic task but in particular suggests that an important aspect of self-efficacy beliefs is the extent to which there exists congruency between these beliefs and actual performance, arguing that the degree of this congruency can be considered as its calibration. Klassen draws on an earlier study by Butler (1998) who suggests that such assessments of self-efficacy are constructed from an individual's sense of 'self' and that such assessments are a function of metacognitive knowledge. This is an important idea because it implies that academic confidence, as a constituent success-forecast component of the processes that students progress through in travelling from facing a specific academic task demand to the academic output that is the endpoint, may also be partly a function of metacognitive knowledge although also partly a function of intrinsic capabilities. In other words, the starting point when facing a fresh academic demand will be gaining a clear understanding of the task demands - the process of 'sizing up' the task (Borkowski, 1992 in Klassen 2002, p89) - upon which confidence in being able to tackle the task successfully will be constructed, based on prior experience which, drawing on Bandura's SCT will likely include both mastery and vicarious experiences, and also on inherent ability. The over-estimation of academic skills capability has been shown to be higher amongst dyslexic students than for others and this has been attributed not so much through over-confidence, which is an appropriate interpretation of 'the over-estimation of academic skills capability', but more so through a lower level of awareness of the true level of academic challenge that tasks present (Stone & May, 2002, Meltzer et al, 1998).

An overview of the underpinning ideas on self-efficacy beliefs is presented but we are particularly reminded that according to Bandura (1995), these are context specific evaluations of capability and comprise 4 core experiential components: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, communicative persuasion (specifically in social and verbal contexts) and interpretations of affective states which I have also reviewed in some detail in the literature review section of this thesis. In terms of this enquiry, the 'context' is academic output and although I mean this to include the element of 'achievement' it is not equivalent to it because a range of academic activities and functions are contributory factors to output.  In particular, these might be more formative assessments that seek to appraise and advise on learning processes rather than assess learning outcomes, but which might also include other more general functions in academic contexts such as expedience in the research and sourcing of knowledge support resources, or embracing more diverse or individualized ways of communicating knowledge and expressing ideas, for example that we might expect to come across in study courses that are less literacy-focused, arts-related perhaps, or in computing and information sciences, or in engineering, all of which are known to be attractive to learners with dyslexic learning differences for exactly the reason that a) the focus on extensive reading and writing is reduced, and b) the assessment criteria are frequently more varied and less focused on written assessments and examinations. So in considering the journey from an academic task being set to the academic output that a student later presents, there are important sub-factors of the 'academic processes' that are required to successful complete the journey (in whatever ways this success may be measured) and that these are all functions of academic confidence. These academic processes are likely to be interdependent and typically would include:

  • task appraisal: understanding what is required in an academic task
  • researching and information sourcing
  • organisation, planning and time management
  • independent thinking and the development of ideas
  • competencies in expressing ideas and communicating knowledge
  • exchanging or sharing intermediate learning outcomes
  • generating the academic output demanded of the task

Deconstructing these processes suggests that they require 'qualities' or 'process components' all of which are key contributors that collectively lead to a high standard of academic output. 11 process components are suggested (in no particular order) and all of these could be argued to be contributors to a student's sense of academic confidence because they are all functions of self-belief and determiners of self-efficacy. If we are to consider it reasonable to accept these as the underpinning components of competency in academic skills then they are all likely to be impacted by an individual's academic confidence:

  • persistence = responding positively to academic challenges and resisting defeat in the face of difficult or lengthy tasks
  • knowledge acquisition efficiency = developing expediency in gaining understanding of new knowledge
  • resourcefulness = having a variety of innovative and imaginative approaches available for tackling an academic task
  • systematicity = the ability to organize learning processes into a sequence of smaller tasks that have realistic, short-term achievement targets
  • quality of reasoning = demonstrating ability to think clearly and coherently, evidenced by structuring an argument or point of view into a logical progression
  • task comprehension = understanding task demands and scoping out response strategies
  • communication processing skills = gauging the best medium(s) for presenting academic output to others
  • resilience = demonstrating ability to 'stand one's ground' and defend an academic argument or point of view in the face of academic criticism
  • external learning development = support from experts and knowledge-holders (tutors, supervisors, academic peers)
  • peer group support = gaining confidence from interactions with academic peers and equals
  • peer group competition = facing competitiveness or derogation from academic peers and equals

Klassen frames his review of the research on self-efficacy beliefs of dyslexic students by firstly trying to find evidence about how accurately calibrated the self-efficacy judgments of students with dyslexia are; secondly, asking why these learners tend to over-estimate their beliefs and what is the potential (academic) impact of mis-calibration of efficacy beliefs; and lastly, attempts to critique the self-efficacy measurement processes themselves that are employed in the studies reviewed.

Several studies are cited (ibid, p89) that suggested that dyslexic students display reduced competencies in making accurate judgements of their academic skills and the (likely) quality of their academic output and that this may be due to a less well-developed awareness of their cognitivie processes, not the least these being their sense of their strengths and weaknesses. But this may be more of a manifestation of dyslexic students' knowledge, or perhaps just perception, that both their own and maybe more significantly, external expectations of the quality of their academic output is reduced, feelings that may be driven by the stigma associated with the disability label (Ho, 2004) or with experiences in earlier learning where they perceived that less was being demanded of them academically or worse, that educational opportunities were being denied to them because of their dyslexia (Shifrer, 2013, Shifrer et al, 2013, Hornstra et al, 2014) or that their disability status has littered their learning experiences with teachers who consistently misjudge their academic potential (Hurwitz et al, 2007).

Many learners face real issues that appear to be directly related to their approaches to their academic challenges and Klassen reports studies by Butler (1998, 1999) who found that dyslexic students struggle with analysing task requirements and that they often focus on lower-skill competencies such as spelling and grammar while not recognizing the need for organizational capabilities or writing in a particular register. Some evidence claims that dyslexic students can be less metacognitively aware than their non-dyslexic peers (Tunmer & Chapman, 1996). However an alternative explanation for why dyslexic students poorly judge academic challenge complexity may be that the tasks that they are faced with are presented in such a way that inherently make decyphering what to do particularly challenging for a particularly neurodiverse thinker. That is, for students with dyslexia, gaining this appreciation for 'sizing up the task', as Borkowski describes it, may be more a function of the manner in which the task's academic context is framed as much as any research-reported deficit in megacognitive awareness. Research by Baum and Owen (1988) was interested in 'Why [do] bright, learning disabled children have such a poor sense of self-efficacy when they possess greater intellectual and creative potential?' (p325; p14 in Klassen (2002)) suggesting that this may be related to their actual academic achievements persistently falling short of their own, high internal standards. A corollary to their explanation may be that this is an indication of how the stigmatization of 'difference' may impact on learners so that their academic output is at a standard below the level one might expect in relation to their intellectual capability and that it is the negative feelings associated with being identified as different that have a lasting effect on their academic confidence which is a significant contributing factor that goes some way to explain discrepancies between expected and actual academic achievement in students with learning differences.

A further study conducted by Saracoglu et al (1989) with university students suggested that there is no difference in general self-efficacy (measured using the General Self-Efficacy Scale (Sherer et al, 1982) between the group with learning differences (disabilities) and the non-LD group. Additionally, and to confound matters further, a much later study by Slemon and Shafir (1997) exploring the calibration of efficacy and (academic) performance between LD and 'normally-achieving' students found that there were not so much overall differences between the two groups but different patterns of mis-calibration, the most interesting feature of which was the  accuracy in estimating achievement potentials for the LD group although these students also showed lower levels of academic optimism than their normally-achieving peers.

Klassen's review tells us that many of the studies he considered report mis-calibration of efficacy beliefs in students with dyslexia but particularly that it is more common for these students to over-estimate their [academic] confidence than accurately, or under-estimate it. It is suggested that one factor that may explain this is the lack of 'task demand awareness' at the outset, reminding us of the social cognitive theory that being optimistic about self-efficacy beliefs inclines learners to greater effort, determination and perseverance but that for students with learning problems, positive efficacy beliefs, especially in the face of academic weaknesses, might not operate in the same way as for normally-achieving students.  Klassen summarizes this part of his discussion by suggesting therefore that if we are to consider self-evaluation as an internal reflective judgment about metacognition and/or self-knowledge then by severely mis-judging efficacy this is certainly generating a substantially less-than-accurate self-knowledge which may be academically harmful (2002, p24).  This idea may account for why students with identified dyslexia in this study (research group DI) have produced higher than expected scores on the ABC Scale which might be directly attributable to mis-calibration.

A final factor of note is Klassen pointing us to Pajares' extensive work on self-efficacy to recount that generalized self-efficacy measurements used to assess confidence in tackling tasks or dealing with situations are by their very definition not specific to the nature of these tasks and situations.  We are reminded that this can lead (and has led) to the de-contextualized use of self-efficacy measures by assuming them to be markers of fixed personality traits rather than more accurately considering the domains of functioning to which the self-efficacy is attributed. Klassen also draws focus to weaknesses in understanding about the self-efficacy beliefs people possess when operating in domains that are comprised of numerous sub-domains. In the context of this research project this is an important idea to understand as it is well-researched feature of dyslexia that it can be a disparate blend of strengths and weaknesses, especially amongst learners with the intellectual capacity to function in university learning environments to one degree or another - excuse the pun.

[I may delete all of this section as it is a bit of a ramble and I'm not sure how much it 'adds' to my final conclusions - decide soon]

Limitations

 

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Conclusions

 

What are the outcomes of this research saying about the academic confidence of students at university, what is being suggested about the nature of dyslexia in students at university and what has this research revealed about the inter-relationship of these two variables?

  • Dyslexia remains difficult to define because it can comprise a variety of arguably identifiable characteristics which can occur together in multiple combinations. In academically capable individuals the more conventionally considered characteristics of dyslexia associated with weak literacy skills can have been significantly ameliorated, either through strategically modifying approaches to learning either conciously or unconciously, or through use of digital and assisitve technologies such as spell-checkers or text-to-speech applications, to the extent that many of the earlier issues that a dyslexic individual may have experienced in their learning experience history are no longer significant.
  • When dyslexia is considered as a multifactoral learning difference, individuals can present significant levels of dyslexia-ness in some factors but not necessarily in others.
  • A more appropriate way to repackage dimensions of dyslexia in a more contemporary university-learning context may be to consider these as academic learning management dimensions, which are widely applicable across university student communities rather than restricted to gauging how students with identified dyslexia interact and engage with their learning at university.
  • By considering any individual's blend of academic learning management dimensions through a profile approach, a better understanding can be gained of any student's strengths and weaknesses, which can be connected to learning development strategies designed and individually-tailored to capitalize on strengths and ameliorate weaknesses to enhance the effectiveness of learning generally.
  • Dyslexia, such that it may be defined, is an information processing difference at university, not a literacy-skills disability although the literacy demands of academic study as it stands at the moment do present disadvantageous study conditions for many students with information processing differences because information is still broadly and mostly available in literacy-based formats. [Witness the explosion in student-use of YouTube, TedEx, Khan Academy etc for information sourcing - refs]
  • 'Dyslexia is not a socially-neutral label: its meaning is bound to political, educational and social contexts, and to individual experiences' (Cameron & Billington, 2015, p3).
  • 'Academic confdience is a mediating variable that acts between individuals' inherent abilities, their learning styles and opportunities afforded by the academic environment of higher education' (Sander & Sanders, 2003, p4).

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Directions for future research

 

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Appendices

 

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THESIS | INTRODUCTION > < THESIS | THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES > < THESIS | RESEARCH DESIGN > < THESIS | ANALYSIS & DISCUSSION > < THESIS | CLOSING REFLECTIONS
     
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