June 18, 2007, by Teaching at Nottingham

Dyslexic students and exams: giving effective feedback on performance

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Kate: “What are the common problems that you hear about in relation to the formal written examinations as faced by a dyslexic student?”

Barbara Taylor: “A number of my students sit with me and actually go through past papers as part of their preparation for exams. They are really anxious about answering the question that was asked and not missing out one of those little words like ‘not’ which can get you completely wrong.

“Or else they read the first sentence of a question and they forget the little one underneath, and they are very aware that this is something that they can do, and so their exam questions are then not an answer to the questions asked and they’ve thrown away their marks and I had a wonderful experience a couple of years ago where an academic staff member came and brought the student’s papers with her, and the student sat on one side of her and I sat on the other, and she went through the papers with her, and we saw how literally the student had done that – she had answered the first line of the question and not done the second half of the question.

“I think the one that was most surprising was the first question, it was a genetics paper, so they’d asked about a set of sequencing, and the student had answered it in very general terms… she got the gist of the idea, but the thing that she was really lacking was the detail, and when you think about the problems a dyslexic student has memorising a set of sequential information, you can see why answering that question had been particularly difficult, but she hadn’t realised it was the level of detail that was really required, and so she was able to go away after that and apply that set of knowledge to the next set of exam papers and do rather better, which was good.”

Christine Carter: “And that connects with trying to identify where the difficulties are lying so that a student might imagine it’s something to do with the way they’re writing, so they know that they are perhaps re-jigging words and to avoid words they can’t spell, and they feel as though they’re not writing terribly clearly

but the actual feedback, as Barbara was saying, might be that there isn’t enough detail, so that’s then saying to us, well, is there something about the revision or the processes of recall that is the issue, rather than the actual writing.

“So we then might discuss with them ‘Well, what happens? You’ve learnt it, you try and get it to go in, but then you’ve got to be able to find it again and get it out again when you need it, so are you practising that?’ and we might then focus on what kind of triggers they might need when they get into the exam to actually trigger the right information and the right level of detail of information.

“So although it might look like a writing problem, it might be somewhere else in the process.”

Barbara: “I think it’s very easy for a dyslexic student to assume it’s going to be a writing problem. They will assume they haven’t got the words in the right order, the spelling’s been counted against them, their handwriting’s been scruffy, and they know all those things are part and parcel of their profile and then they think, ‘well that’s why I haven’t done well in an exam’.

“So when a staff member will sit down and actually go through the paper and say, ‘Look, you haven’t got the detail here’, or ‘Look, you’ve got all the good ideas but what happened was you went off on a tangent’, and then the student can start to say, ‘Well that’s where I’m going wrong’ and stop worrying about all the extraneous things like ‘My handwriting wasn’t perfect and I can’t spell’, and that’s a distraction from the real meat of the material which was the material that they had to get down.”

Christine Carter
Academic Support

Barbara Taylor
Academic Support

Extracts from interviews with staff and students about teaching inclusively. This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Thinking about Dyslexia collection. Produced June 2007.

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