Characteristics of specific learning difficulties for students in Higher Education

Some students may have had support at school, others may not have had their dyslexia and specific learning difficulties assessed until starting university when they came across problems as a result of the greater demands of Higher Education.

Identification involves assessment by an educational psychologist or qualified professional. Characteristics of specific learning difficulties and their effects on studies at university differ widely and some students may experience greater difficulties than others. Many students who arrive at HE would have developed compensating strategies to some extent to enable them to cope. Students may not realise that the problems they encounter are related to their dyslexia/specific learning difficulties.

In order that teaching staff can give due consideration to factors attributed to dyslexia/specific learning difficulties when communicating with students, lecturing, assessing assignments or marking exams, it is useful to be aware of the characteristics of dyslexia/specific learning difficulties in students in HE. Manifestations may include:

  • Difficulties with producing structured written assignments; for some students, there may be a marked discrepancy between fluent verbal ability and written work which do not reflect their true ability
  • Lack of confidence from years of underachievement especially apparent in mature students
  • Difficulties in becoming fluent in a new skill to the point where it becomes automatic, for example, reading and writing
  • Difficulties in the mechanics of handwriting which may be slow, lack fluency, and legibility, thus affecting lecture note taking and writing exams
  • Taking longer to complete tasks than other students and maintaining the concentration and energy required to complete long tasks
  • Extreme stress associated with deadlines or exams particularly if they are close together
  • A poor sense of time management and passage of time, mixing up dates, times of lectures, seminars and appointments
  • Difficulties in organising notes, work and other aspects of their lives, and/or “forgetfulness”
  • Noticeable inconsistency between what can be achieved on a “good” and “bad” day
  • A poor short-term auditory memory for carrying out verbal instructions, and taking lecture notes at speed
  • A poor short-term visual memory for copying from the board and retaining the visual images of words, signs, symbols and formulae
  • Directional confusion, getting easily lost and having problems using maps or finding their way on campus
  • Difficulties in skimming and scanning text to extract information
  • Difficulties in comprehension of text and the necessity to reread work several times in order to fully understand
  • Difficulties in sequencing numbers, signs and notations in maths and letters
  • May find it easy to visualise and manipulate sophisticated scientific concepts, but struggle with basic arithmetic and writing
  • Difficulties using materials arranged by index, for example directories, or difficulties with using shelf marks to locate books on library shelves
  • Difficulties retrieving words when speaking and writing, and mispronunciations; some students may have difficulties discriminating sounds and have weak verbal abilities
  • Some students with SpLD may experience visual difficulties when reading
  • Students may have noticeable strengths which are incongruous with the weaknesses which manifest

Problems encountered in written work

Problems in written assignments include spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation errors which students themselves may not be able to detect and correct. Incorrect words may be used, e.g. “reserve” instead of “reverse”, or “their” instead of “there.” Difficulties can become exacerbated under stress, for example, under exam conditions.

A poor short-term memory may impact on essay writing, as it may be difficult to think about all the aspects of the assignment at once, and there is a limit on the number of topics and subject matter that can be held in memory simultaneously. There may be repetition of ideas or dispersion of unrelated topics throughout the essay. The essay may lack organisation and coherence. Some students may write sentences that ramble, and which may be off on a tangent, when different ideas are written down one after the other quickly, as they come to mind and before they are forgotten.

Students may submit work that appears disorganised and lack care, but which has been read and redrafted to the best of their ability. If their ability to process visual symbols (letters and numbers) is slower than their speed of thought, and words are misread, they may not be able to detect errors when they edit their work.

Difficulties with sequencing could mean that some students may find citing references in alphabetical and chronological order in the bibliography a difficult task. Procedural maths fluency (multiplication, working with multi digits and fractions) can be a challenge, particularly in time-bound situations.