This article is published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education in 2021
It should come as no surprise that the number of dyslexic students entering Higher Education (HE) has increased in line with the widening participation agenda that has accompanied academic praxis. The 2015 UK Census showed 6.3 million claiming to experience dyslexia, almost 10% of the population, and there are many subtypes.
For the purposes of this post, dyslexia is understood in accordance with the British Dyslexia Association’s (BDA) definition. It is ‘a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of literacy and language related skills… characterized by difficulties with phonological processing, rapid naming, working memory, [and] processing speed” (BDA, 2016). The dominance of this definition perhaps explains in part why responses to dyslexic people’s needs have often favoured technological provision – without an equally emphatic approach to challenging the issue of ‘conventional teaching methods' like the lecture. In the case of teaching dyslexic students, how we present lectures may be very wrong – and simultaneously present a remarkable opportunity to transform dyslexic students’ experiences of being taught in large groups. A wealth of research, to be found in the peer-reviewed version of this piece, suggests that splitting content between text and imagery will reduce cognitive loading on working memory. Since working memory is believed to be commonly lower in dyslexic learners than neurotypical students, bifurcating the delivery of academic content across both audio-textual and visual processing channels, each mediated by the limits of working memory, is predicted to produce improvements in the experiences of dyslexic learners. This has been shown to be the case with neurotypical students already. There is no reasons to predict any other outcomes for dyslexic learners and the testing is relatively straightforward. A template for such an investigation has already been run and tested for neurotypical students, with longitudinal data published in the peer reviewed press.
RECENT PARTICIPATORY RESEARCH
Using a control group, we compared the effect on two groups of dyslexic students of the same academic content delivered through a custom made online portal. The control group saw PowerPoint slides containing text and speech, and the experiment group saw the same academic material transmitted using text, speech and imagery (still using PowerPoint). Both sessions were 10 minutes long and shared the same spoken text. They all completed an exit survey with the same questions, all addressing the impact of the slides on their perceptions of being engaged. The data appears below.
Of those exposed to standard slides, none considered them helpful in understanding and engagement, or indeed in any of the other questions. On the contrary, all the dyslexic students exposed to large high-quality found them to be valuable in engaging them and helping them understand the subject. The outcome is attributable to the broadly-held notion (above) that dyslexic students often (but not always) value images whilst being routinely overwhelmed with text in lectures – a problem they share with neurostandard students, who also experience the stress of cognitive overload (Coppin, 2009; Ellis, 2013; Mayer & Moreno, 1998).
The second set of data comes from focus group evaluation. The focus group consisted of 4 volunteers who participated in a one-hour session, at which we addressed reactions to the use of images. Forenames only are used.
I wanted to get a general sense of how the images were affecting them. Alex started by saying that ‘the idea of learning things through other people’s experiences – through images – really hit home’. Referring to an image of a decaying rope bridge over a rushing river with children in school uniform crossing on the ‘school run’ in Colombia, used to accompany a discussion of the impact of corruption on very poor people, she declared that she could ‘still see the bridge that the locals had to cross to this day’. She added that ‘this [form of teaching] is amazing, because none of my [other] revision is going in’. She added that ‘I want to be able to provide this for my students if I become a teacher’.
Lewis declared that he had ‘found the majority of lectures in [his] two years here to be incredibly difficult to follow and keep up with, as the PowerPoints are all text based with lecturers reading off of a manuscript’. Referring to a lecture I had given 8 months ago as part of a regular module, he said that ‘the slides were almost a breath of fresh air as the images allowed me to concentrate on what [the lecturer] was saying and I was able to take more in’.
The discussion had a life of its own, as I had hoped. The participants ‘fired’ off one another; but this does not mean they all agreed on all the points each made. For example, there was some disagreement on the moment of engagement with images. By this I mean that their valuing of images and text differed. One of the group said he depended on plenty of text for revision, and said that slides with just images were useful but incomplete. When I suggested that text could be stored in the ‘notes view’ of PowerPoint and thus be accessible online at any time, he considered the matter resolved for him. It was, he said, ‘the best of both worlds’. Others didn’t take the same view but agreement was neither sought nor necessary.
The group concurred with the statement that they ‘got it, straight away, from the first slide’. They could understand the rationale for the use of images; they soaked up the effect. For one, ‘this was the right way for me to learn because the images stick and I remember two weeks after what they are about’. Another concurred, adding that ‘images stick in my head much more easily and for much longer than words on a slide, or from a lecturer. They can stay for weeks and make you think more broadly about the subject. It leads to reflection as to why such an event happens, and then made me pursue other explanations’. A final remark on that matter: ‘slides with that much text feels like an attack’.
This took the focus group beyond the empirical test and back to curriculum lectures they had attended earlier in the semester, in which images are the norm. Their remarks are worthy of note because they provide some answers as to why the images work for them. One student remarked at length on this. He said image-based lectures were:
The most engaging lectures I’ve had so far [yr2]. I haven’t missed one yet. You have a connection to an image. You can almost imagine you’re there. There’s no physical connection to words on a page. We have another lecture that uses just text. That does nothing, it doesn’t engage me at all with what you’re saying. But you put up images. You can talk as much as you want; you can tell people about things and what it meant to people, but when you show them an image, a physical example of how it impacted people, it really drives the point home and make me think about it a lot more, about what we’re learning
The students were making powerful connections with the images that sparked their mental engagement and triggered their interest.
We developed this further. There was little equivocation. Text-based slides were much harder to ‘stay with’, especially when the text mirrored, or duplicated, the lecturers’ speech. One student declared that:
In any two-hour lecture, at certain points different people are going to drop off attention span at what is being said or read. Having continuous slides of writing isn’t going to re-engage you with the lecture, whereas if you use good images then you are going to be drawn back into the words. This is why I haven’t missed any of the [visual] lectures so far. If I know I’m going to go to a lecture I’ll be bored in, then it just gets worse and worse. In a lot of the other [two-hour] lectures, I see people leave at half time. I haven’t seen that in one of [these] lectures so far. Your lectures get a round of applause. In others, people clap, but that’s more because it’s finished
Deepening the discussion, the focus group was asked to interrogate the internal process involved. The images are normally made of components that, when taken together, issue a subjective message. This is especially the case with paradox images, which seem to force engagement through the presentation of oppositional positions. For example, when teaching about capitalism, it is impossible to escape the connection between this social process and another, like war. The arms trade is an obvious example, but other more nuanced relational dynamics are at work. I use an image of a diamond with blood dripping off it. The diamond is normally seen alone as an object of beauty, but the blood added to it raises questions about that beauty – why and how is a diamond connected to blood loss?
A student claimed that these kind of images ‘make me curious as to what the photographer or artist was thinking when they made it’. She added that she couldn’t ‘help but be connected to and engaged with the image, and as [the lecturer] discusses its meaning and relevance to the academic material, a connection is forged that makes thinking about this stuff a happier experience’. All the participants agreed. We discussed one image that provoked much debate days after the lecture in which it was shown. It was street art found on a wall in Lebanon and photographed and uploaded to the web. It depicted the attack on the Twin Towers as a function of western neoimperialism, articulated in the ‘M’ of the McDonald’s fast food chain. It’s reproduced here.
Two things emerged from this discussion. The first was that in one image it had conveyed such a complex and multidimensional debate simply and clearly and held value just for this. The second was that it had outraged some students who said it should not have been used (it was used to contrast with orthodox explanations for 9-11 that make the attack about ‘bad Muslims’). The second thing that emerged was that debate about its meaning and use had continued outside the lecture for days. One member of the focus group declared that ‘even if someone despises an image, without even realizing it, they validate its use by discussing it afterwards. They’re doing exactly what the lecturer wants – discussing the lecture content’.
There had been some discussion of the reduction of text use in these slides. To be clear, the slides with images are not necessarily, or even often, devoid of text. The method involves reducing the visible text, especially since covering an image with text would defeat the purpose of the exercise. The text that might normally appear on the projected slide can be deposited in 'notes view', making it accessible to students that want it. But it became clear that even when there were no images (not every slide has to have an image), it was preferred when text was reduced.
This method uses normally no more than one line of text, normally less. The number of slides is increased to accommodate necessary text, but what is being said does not increase; it is instead dissipated over more slides. It seems there is an important process going on in line with MML theory regarding cognate overload. One student declared, when confronted with text-heavy slides:
I give up. I don’t bother reading it. I miss it. It’s a waste of my time. Why am I here? I do exactly the same thing. I have to make a choice. Am I going to listen to the lecturer, or am I going to read the text he’s providing? Half of a lecture is wasted if I have to choose. I can’t read the text and listen as well. It’s like visual indigestion. Eat slowly and you absorb it better; any nutritionist will tell you that. Same with lecture slides. Break them down and we can digest them better instead of swamping us with material we have to break down ourselves before we can start processing it
The students claimed that minimal text meant they ‘didn’t have to choose between writing text down or listening to the lecturer’.
One member of the group ended the discussion with this comprehensive remark. I’m including it because it says a lot on one space. He said that:
The pictures add an extra dimension that we can absorb without overloading our listening, reading and writing. I rephrase the image textually, instead. When I’m listening to a voice and watching a picture, I’m not scribbling down the slides’ text. I’m engaged in interpreting an image whilst hearing the lecturer discussing it, without being distracted from a visual image by reading text that duplicates the spoken words. Pictures and spoken words go mutually, complementarily. Text and spoken words are divisive and force a choice. Looking at the images, instead of text, makes me ask, what should I write down, as opposed to accepting the text on a slide and/or copying it down uncritically. That’d be like A levels. Images up the ante and give me autonomy instead of text that spoon-feeds me
About half the human brain is given over to visual processing. Dyslexic students often have a greater capacity to absorb and comprehend visually and balance the load on working memory. Imagery for these multi-disciplinary students was key to their engagement, learning and presence.
The short version is this: lecture slides filled with words overload neurotypical and dyslexic learners; it's worse for the latter because of diminished working memory and therefore less resistance to being overwhelmed with words. Using images redistributes and alleviates pressure across limited and/or compromised working memory in dyslexic learners and makes processing more cognitively efficient to the point that engagement is not hammered by textual overload and redundant matching speech.
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