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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


Concluding commentary and reflections

Summarizing the purpose of the research


This Level 8 primary research project has been focused on trying to understand more about how the academic confidence of university students with dyslexia may be affected by their dyslexia. The research interest stems from a desire to apply scientific process to anecdotally observed evidence about how students tackle their university studies. At two different university settings in my professional capacity as an academic guide my experience in working with students to develop their learning (and metalearning) has indicated that considerable differences exist in attitudes and behaviours in relation to academic study. Whilst it is acknowledged that these can arise through a very wide diversity of circumstances and learning situations, both immediate and of historical or other origin, the learning difference of dyslexia sets aside a substantial minority of students from their mainstream peers in a way that may impact on academic studies quite differently to other minority characteristics such as ethnicity, social class or cultural differences. This is because dyslexia is considered to present unique challenges in literacy-based education systems through the assumption that dyslexia is fundamentally an issue associated with literacy capabilities. The evidence for this is substantial and not a point of argument in this thesis. However there is also considerable evidence that in highly-functioning adult learners, typically seen at university, many of the earlier literacy challenges inherent to a dyslexic individual’s learning processes have been strategically ameliorated and other dimensions of dyslexia may emerge to have a greater impact on actions and behaviours in academic study. Many learners face real issues that appear to be directly related to their approaches to their academic challenges (Klassen, 2006). I have cited examples in my literature review above but Klassen’s view, also one which resonates with the themes in this project, is that (academic) confidence is the bridge that connects an individual learner's self-efficacy beliefs to their absolute performance in an academic task. This is an important idea because it implies that academic confidence is 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, being partly a function of metacognitive knowledge and partly a function of intrinsic capabilities. Some significant studies have explored these in dyslexic students. For example Butler (1998, 1999) 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. Tunmer & Chapman (1996) claimed that dyslexic students can be less metacognitively aware than their non-dyslexic peers. 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 even that their disability status has littered their learning experiences with teachers who consistently misjudge their academic potential (Hurwitz et al, 2007). However an additional 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 deciphering what to do especially challenging for individuals characterized as particularly neurodiverse thinkers. That is, for students with dyslexia, gaining this appreciation for 'sizing up the task', 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 metacognitive awareness (Borkowski et al, 1989). This may be widespread across student communities and not necessarily more prevalent amongst those with dyslexic learning differences. But what does appear to be widespread in dyslexic learners is the enduring legacy of being ‘othered’ as a result of ‘differences’ in learning contexts, especially where this extends to stigmatization which consequently has a detrimental impact on learning. This thesis has attempted to demonstrate that it may be the negative effects that are associated with being identified as dyslexic that may have an abiding effect on academic confidence.

Summarizing the research outcomes


This research used a self-report questionnaire completed online by university students predominantly at one UK institution to gauge academic confidence and dyslexia-ness. Academic confidence was assessed using the existing Academic Behavioural Confidence Scale developed by Sander and colleagues in the early 2000s. Dyslexia-ness was assessed using an especially-developed Dyslexia Index Profiler which framed dyslexia using a multi-factorial approach. By also collecting background data about the more general demographical distribution of the student in the sample, it was established that the sample could reasonably be considered as a typical cross-section of a student community at a UK higher education institution.

The data collected from the sample permitted two research groups to be established, being one group of self-declared dyslexic students and the other being students who declared no known dyslexic learning differences. From these research groups, three subgroups were derived using the criteria of dyslexia-ness established from the output of the Dyslexia Index Profiler. These were: a subgroup of students with known dyslexia, validated by high levels of dyslexia-ness, established as a Control group; a subgroup of students with no known dyslexia validated by presenting low levels of dyslexia-ness, established as the Base subgroup; and a subgroup of students with no known dyslexia but who presented high levels of dyslexia-ness, established as the Test subgroup.

Two principal research questions asked firstly whether or not university students who know about their dyslexia present a significantly lower academic confidence than their non-dyslexic peers; and secondly whether or not university students who indicated no formally identified dyslexia but who showed strong evidence of dyslexia-like learning and study profiles, that is quasi-dyslexia, present higher levels of academic confidence than their dyslexia-identified peers. From these, a further research question emerged which asked whether or not the means by which students with dyslexia learned of their dyslexia impacted on their levels of academic confidence.

By comparing mean-average data for Academic Behavioural Confidence (ABC) between the research subgroups using simple statistical processes, it was first established that in this datapool of students, there was a large effect size of Hedges’ g=1.04 and a very highly significant difference between means (t=5.037, p<0.0001) of strongly dyslexic students in the Control subgroup and strongly non-dyslexic students in the Base subgroup. Hence the research (null) hypothesis that there is no difference in academic confidence between dyslexic and non-dyslexic students was rejected in favour of the alternative hypothesis that non-dyslexic students present a significantly higher level of academic confidence than their non-dyslexic peers.

Using the same analysis process it was also established that there was a medium effect size g=0.48 and a significant difference between ABC means (t=1.743, p=0.043) of strongly dyslexic students in the Control subgroup and strongly quasi-dyslexic students in the Test subgroup. Hence the second research (null) hypothesis that there is no difference in academic confidence between dyslexic and quasi-dyslexic students was also rejected in favour of the alternative hypothesis that quasi-dyslexic students present a significantly higher level of academic confidence than their dyslexic peers.




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Concluding remarks


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?

The aim of this project has been to establish that attributing the label of dyslexia to a particular set of learning and study profiles can inhibit academic confidence. This is significant because it may contribute to a reduced likelihood of gaining strong academic outcomes due to academic confidence, through being a sub-construct of academic self-efficacy, is widely reported as a potential marker for academic performance (Honicke & Broadbent, 2016). In short, when it comes to guiding learners towards getting a good degree at university, this project has tested the notion of whether is it better to label an apparently dyslexic person as ‘dyslexic’ or not. If not, then it follows that dyslexic students may be better left in blissful ignorance of their ‘learning difference’ because by doing so, this may lead to better prospects of gaining a higher academic outcome to their studies that will be comparable to their non-dyslexic peers. This may mean that these individuals should be encouraged to battle on as best they can within the literacy-based system of curriculum delivery that they are studying in, despite it not being suited to their learning profiles, strengths and preferences. Hence there would be no recourse to ‘reasonable adjustments’ that identify them as ‘different’ because the identification itself might be more damaging to their academic prospects than the challenges they face that are considered attributable to their dyslexia. 

But it has been shown that dyslexia remains difficult to define because it can comprise a variety of arguably identifiable characteristics and dimensions which can occur together in multiple combinations. Some of these dimensions are observable in many non-dyslexic students too. 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 intrinsic approaches to learning either consciously or unconsciously, or through use of the external support resources in the form of digital and assistive technologies such as spell-checkers or text-to-speech applications. The outcome is that many of the earlier issues that a dyslexic individual might have experienced in their learning experience history may be less significant than they were. This can be demonstrated when dyslexia is considered as a multifactorial learning difference, whereby individuals can present significant levels of dyslexia-ness in some factors but not necessarily in others. Dyslexia might also be considered as an information processing difference at university rather than predominantly a literacy-skills disability, although the literacy demands of academic study as it stands at the moment, continue to present disadvantageous study conditions for many students with information processing differences because their curricula are still broadly delivered and assessed in literacy-based formats. As universities open their doors to a much broader spectrum of students through widening participation and alternative access schemes which have also seen a substantial rise in the numbers of students with learning differences choosing to tackle the challenges of higher education, it is reasonable to suppose that many of these new faces, in addition to the more traditionally-seen ones, would benefit academically were there a better institutional-level understanding of the impact that individual differences have on educational engagement, ownership of learning (Conley & French, 2014). Adopting the principles of Universal Design for Learning would meet many of these objectives by ensuring a more accessible, flexible and adaptable  learning provision at university that would enable not only students with dyslexia, but all students to engage more equitably with university learning using the academic and functional capabilities that they bring to their institutions. Would this not be the epitome of student-centred learning widely aspired to?

To aid this process, a more appropriate way to repackage dimensions of dyslexia in a contemporary university-learning context may be to consider these as academic learning management dimensions, not least because many of these are widely observable across university student communities. By characterizing any student’s blend of academic learning management dimensions through a profile approach, a better understanding can be gained of strengths and weaknesses. As a result, this could be the driver for learning development strategies to be designed and individually-tailored that would capitalize on strengths and ameliorate weaknesses and hence enhance the effectiveness of learning and gain a working understanding of metalearning. This research project has demonstrated that when this profile approach is also related to a similar process of gauging an individual’s academic confidence, the outcome is a useful appraisal of a student’s blend of learning characteristics, attitudes, actions and behaviours in relation to their academic studies at university. It is suggested that this could be a basis upon which detailed, personalized learning plans could be developed not just for students with dyslexia but for anyone studying at university. Since academic confidence 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), gaining a greater understanding of how academic confidence impacts on academic outcomes would be a conduit for enhancing these outcomes and creating a more fulfilling and less stressful learning experience at university. Granted, this may challenge the scope of strategic planning for the future of tertiary-level, high-quality learning, not least because it is may be considered so radical, difficult and expensive to implement, that attempts to create such socially inclusive learning environments and opportunities may be inhibited by organizational and systemic factors that are resistant to change (Simons et al, 2007). Striking a good balance between new, flexible, adaptable and inclusive teaching and learning activities and the essential job of universities to foster climates of research innovation and academic excellence is becoming ever more challenging not least because funding is uncertain and other initiatives aimed at providing alternatives to full-time university study are on the increase, for example, multi-stakeholder degree apprenticeship schemes (Mulkeen et al, 2017) or first degrees being offered by non-university providers in ways that financially undercut and hence undermine the viability of the more traditional providers. It is difficult to see how this constitutes a joined-up, national strategy for tertiary-level learning.

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Directions for future research


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