5 Top Tips for Getting the Best from Students with Dyslexia or Autism Spectrum Conditions

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Most lecturers know little about accommodating special educational needs (SEN). Some are surprised to learn that increasing numbers of students identified as having SEN are in further and higher education—especially when the first learning contract or academic support plan lands in their e-mail inbox.

At most institutions, learners who approach disabled student support can get a great deal of help. This includes Disabled Students Allowance, which can pay for specialist equipment, learning mentors, note-takers and so on. But how can you make your classes more accessible for learners with two of the most common forms of SEN: dyslexia and autism spectrum disorders?

1. Make yourself clear

Module handbooks need to be revised carefully. Watch out for unclear or contradictory sections.

For lectures, provide an advance copy of any PowerPoint slides or an outline of the material to be covered. Don't do this only if required by a learning contract: some students with special educational needs will not have declared these, and all students will benefit from knowing what to expect. Students can use these as a template for their own lecture notes.

Assessment expectations should be unambiguous and clearly stated. It’s helpful to make sure sample essays, outlines, and carefully set-out criteria are available to all students, either through a course site, or directly from you.

Think about how you present information in lectures and teaching materials. What non-text resources (videos, mind-maps, diagrams, hands-on projects) could also convey the same ideas?

2. Think through assessments

Essays and exams are time-tested ways to find out what students know. However, they may not capture all forms of learning. Exams in particular can be “gamed” by experienced students, and exam pressure is an issue.

Other options include:

  • Presentations accompanied by project files
  • Poster conferences where students must convey their knowledge visually, and possibly answer questions
  • Student-led taught sessions
  • Creation of resources such as posters, handbooks, worksheets or pamphlets

3. Adjust assessments

If an existing assessment format won’t work for a student with SEN, lecturers need to find ways to adapt it without sacrificing academic objectives. For example, presentations can be live, but can also be delivered via video or automated using recorded narration or text and PowerPoint.

4. Make the most of tutorial time

Some students with dyslexia or an autism spectrum condition are active tutorial participants, while others fade into the background. Structured individual or small-group situations work best.

You may want to offer tutorials focused specifically on assessment planning and project support.

5. Reconsider or reconfigure group work

Group work is a particular concern for students on the autism spectrum. Difficulties with social understanding and communication put them at a severe disadvantage. Often they do not have friends on the programme, so are last chosen, and struggle to be understood. That is unfortunate, because frequently they bring a unique perspective to projects.

These students perform best when groups are set up by staff, and roles within them are clearly defined. Support staff may be needed to facilitate group discussions. If things are going wrong, this is an area where your institution’s student support office should help.

Make sure group work has a clear academic goal, and have an individual project model available as a back-up.

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