How much do you know about the reality and the experiences of having dyslexia while navigating higher education? In this post, Rebecca shares her experience, from diagnosis to finding the positives and using it as an advantage. It is Dyslexia Awareness Week, and we would like to share Rebecca’s reflection and tips with you, in the hopes we can bring awareness and make the university experience more accessible.
Journey to a Diagnosis
I was diagnosed with dyslexia in my second year at University. Despite having many of the characteristic features of dyslexia – difficulties with spelling and grammar, poor reading ability and concentration, and trouble remembering shopping lists, PIN codes, and passwords, neither I nor my school had connected the dots. We assumed that I could not have dyslexia because I did reasonably well in exams, and loved learning.
However, throughout my first year at University the symptoms of dyslexia became more obvious to those around me and I struggled to cope. Despite having spent hours on a substantive and formative assessment, I received feedback that commented on the “poor structure and vocabulary” and “lazy and unprofessional spelling, grammar and layout,” leading to a reduction in my grades.
In lectures I would struggle to take notes and keep pace with the lecturer. I dreaded seminars where I would be asked to read aloud, often stumbling over and mispronouncing words. I felt overwhelmed, and questioned my academic ability to complete a Law degree.
Desperate for some support, I reached out to my personal tutor who was the first person to mention ‘dyslexia’. Within months I had had a dyslexia test at the University and received a diagnosis of moderate to severe dyslexia.
Reflecting on the Diagnosis
On one hand the diagnosis was a huge relief. It answered a lot of questions and explained why I had struggled throughout my education. However, I was also concerned that this diagnosis would mean an end to my ambition to become an academic. How can I work in academia if I struggle to read and write, give presentations, organise myself, and have poor short-term memory?
Sharing this concern with the dyslexia support worker, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the journey with dyslexia does not stop with a diagnosis. Rather, there is a package of tailored support to help you in the areas that are most challenging.
In addition to this support, I have found, often by coincidence and experimentation, strategies to aid my learning. This blog post will share my five top tips that have benefited me as a student and now working in academia.
TIP 1: Rethinking Preparation for a Presentation and Lecture
I have always struggled with delivering presentations. The combination of not being able to read my script or presentation slides, mispronouncing words and key terms, and struggling to remember what I had planned to say next led me to panic and lose my way.
The first time this didn’t happen was at a conference. I had attended as a member of the audience; however, a speaker had dropped out at the last minute and a place suddenly became available. The conference organiser approached me to ask if I would be interested in delivering a 30-minute presentation on my PhD work. They had seen my poster and were keen to hear more. Uncharacteristically, I said yes! Presenting my research to industry experts was an opportunity I could not miss. The presentation went smoothly. I had no slides and relied completely on my passion for the subject.
I had found a technique that worked for me. Counter intuitively, overpreparing and writing a script did not work for me. When I had a script, I struggled to remember it, I could not quickly read the script to find my place and when I did, I could not read aloud fluently. For me, the script hindered my ability to present.
I now prepare for a presentation by writing a summary for each slide. Whilst practising I minimise these summaries to a few bullet points and/or pictures. In the presentation slide I only use pictures and very few words, acting as my prompt (Figure 1). I rarely refer to the bullet points now, but I still have them on a card as a safety net. Feedback from my presentations and lectures has been surprisingly positive. Audience members feel that the presentation is natural, I am ‘not reading from a script’, and easy to follow because of the visual aids and minimalist approach.
This approach may not work for you. However, it is important to experiment with your presenting style. Don’t stick with a style that is not working for you.
The University of Warwick holds fantastic workshops on preparing presentations which touch on preparation techniques, breathing exercises and answering audiences’ questions. Follow the links for workshops for Undergraduates and Postgraduates. The Library also offers a Moodle course Present WISe guiding you through creating visually effective presentations.
TIP 2: Effective Notetaking
Whether you are a student or member of staff, effective notetaking is an essential skill in academia. As a result of my dyslexia, I have poor concentration and can get easily distracted. When I am reading an article, I rarely get past the first page without new ideas popping into my head. I also struggle to organise my notes. I write in a disorganised manner and am unable to understand my notes at a later date. To focus on the article, provide an outlet for my ideas whilst reading and organise my notes so I can refer to them, I use the following technique.
I split my A4 page into three columns (1) notes on the article or lecture, (2) my thoughts on the piece, and (3) the full reference and page number. At the end of each page, I write a brief summary. I use different coloured pens to distinguish between the notes on the piece, my opinions, and the references.
Notetaking is an essential skill and it is worth taking some time to experiment with techniques to find one that works for you. For support on notetaking visit the Undergraduate and Master’s Skills pages and sign up to workshops. Additionally, you can view a bank of notetaking apps and software, along with other productivity tools on the Library website.
TIP 3: Creating SMART Lists
A major challenge for me is my poor short-term memory and organisational skills. These symptoms are heightened during particularly busy times of year, for example, as I approach a deadline. I find it incredibly embarrassing when I have forgotten to do something and worry this impacts my colleagues and student’s perception of my ability and professionalism. To overcome this, I carry with me a notebook and jot down anything that I have to do in that day. From washing up to replying to an email, I note everything down.
When making lists it is important to keep these SMART. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. For example, rather than stating ‘complete an essay’, I state, ‘read article A’, ‘make notes on article A’ and ‘write the introduction’. Break the large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones.
There are a lot of technologies available to improve your organisational skills, such as notetaking apps, calendars, mind-mapping resources and virtual to-do lists, recommended on the Library Productivity Tools page.
TIP 4: Taking regular breaks
The Pomodoro Technique is an effective time management device where you work for 25 minutes, take a 10-minute break, and repeat this pattern. I find this technique focuses my attention onto a task because I know I only have 25 minutes to work on it. After the break I come back to my work fresh and often with new ideas. Reading and writing can be tiring for anyone, especially those with Dyslexia. This technique ensures you have regular breaks and are ready to work. Just because it worked for me, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Have a look and try other techniques too.
For technology that reminds you to take breaks try the filters on the Library Productivity Tools page.
TIP 5: My final tip is don’t compare yourself to others
It is very easy to compare ourselves to others. At first, I was very judgmental and hard on myself. I compared myself to my friends and was convinced that law was not for me. Once I stopped putting pressure on myself to fit a mould and accepted that I do and can approach tasks differently, yet still effectively, I began to enjoy my degree and reinvigorated the passion that led me to apply to Warwick.
With Dyslexia come many positives. I am more creative, often developing novel ideas. I can see my way around a problem quickly and identify pitfalls in arguments that others don’t see. It has benefited my research in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I was first diagnosed.
With these techniques I graduated with a first-class law degree in 2016 and went onto completing a PhD, graduating in 2019/20. I have since been an Early Career Teaching Fellow in IATL and now a Teaching Fellow in Law, pursuing the research I am passionate about.
Whilst Dyslexia can present many challenges, it can be managed and with the diagnosis comes an array of positive skills. If you are struggling, reach out. There is much support and advice both at Warwick and through organisations such as the British Dyslexia Association.
The Libraries new Productivity Tools page has a filters for your study need and for which device you are using, helping you narrow down your choices. Study needs filters cover a broad range of areas, such as reading, writing and note-taking, to time management and organisation. There are even tools to promote wellbeing and taking breaks. Using a software or app can help reinforce and support new and established study skills, improving your productivity.
The Library also offer a range of services and support for students with Dyslexia and other learning differences. Visit the Library Accessibility pages to find out more.
What did you know about dyslexia? How did reading this piece open your eyes to the realities of having dyslexia in higher education? Tweet us at @warwicklibrary, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
by Rebecca Limb