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Teaching dyslexic students: The power of images

INTRODUCTION

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 neoliberal hegemonic domination of academic praxis.  That number has risen dramatically over the last two decades, from approximately 2,000 in 1994 to more than 20,000 in 2007 (figures after this year can’t be distinguished from Special Learning Disabilities generally, standing at 30,000 in 2013). There is no evidence to suggest the number is declining, especially given increasing reporting of dyslexia beyond the academy. The 2015 UK Census showed 6.3 million claiming to experience dyslexia, almost 10% of the population, and there are many subtypes.

 

Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2016. Dyslexic/SpLD HE students 1994-2104. Graphic created by author from statistics provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) open access website

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).  Why is this important? It’s because dyslexic students can find the routine way academia has taught for millennia – the hegemonic pedagogical platform we know as the lecture – to be a great challenge – not to mention how hard reading can be.

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DYSLEXIA

We have probably all become aware of the increasing range of different needs there are among the student population – module coordinators often receive lists of specific circumstances affecting their enrollees at the start of each semester, with the usual requirements for adjusted or alternative assessment regimes. But much less attention is paid to how we might support such learners in our primary contact space, the lecture theatre. This blog post is concerned with just that, and it draws from and builds on earlier posts I have made on visual learning – because we are all visual learners for as long as we are sighted.

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The BDA advises that dyslexia can be ‘resistant to conventional teaching methods, but its effect can be mitigated by appropriately specific intervention, including the application of information technology and supportive counseling’ (BDA, 2016). This reflects standard assumptions about the capacity of neoliberal modernity to treat all ‘problems’ with technologies, but it also reflects the extent to which universities have chosen or been compelled to increase social resources through various disability units.

But technology per se is not a silver bullet, in any dimension of teaching, which for as long as humans shall be teaching, will be a social enterprise based on relationships and communication. Technology can facilitate this, of course, but it depends very much on how those tasked with teaching an expanding dyslexic cohort interact with and lead such technology, instead of being led by fad and mantra with the expectation that the simple application of technology can provide all the answers. There’s no technological gold at the end of the rainbow.

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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’. Higher Education Institutions (HEI) have slowly but surely responded to this change in student demographics in a variety of very supportive, valuable ways. Yet large group lectures, which dominate in many areas of study, remain steadfastly anchored to a method of delivery that has remained largely unchanged for the last hundred years (Pickles, 2016; Connell, 2013).

The idea of the lecture has come under sustained assault but also been ably defended for the last century or so at least, and the jury remains out, and the lecture prevails, for right or for wrong. In the case of teaching dyslexic students, however, 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.

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We know that dyslexic students often (but not always) exhibit a cognitive capacity for the interrogation of images that may exceed the capacity to absorb text. Some have proposed the idea that dyslexic people may experience an innate advantage or ‘special ability’ in terms of processing less precise but more expansive data, such as images. Eide and Eide refer to a ‘dyslexic advantage’ that challenges the idea that dyslexic people ‘suffer from’ dyslexia. Instead, they argue, ‘the brains of individuals with dyslexia aren’t defective, they’re simply different’ (2011, pp. xvi-xvii). This difference enables dyslexic people, among many other things, such that ‘their conceptual knowledge is often stored in… images…rather than in abstract principles or definitions’ (2011, p. 128).

Eide and Eide went on to note that some dyslexic people ‘are typically very good at remembering things they’ve done or experienced’ (2011, p. 127). This ‘experience’ may be direct or indirect: it may be that they better remember something presented in the form of a visual metaphor, wherein the metaphor renders familiar something that is otherwise unfamiliar. This led Eide and Eide to claim that some dyslexic people ‘will typically learn much better if general or abstract definitions are supported by scene-based examples or depictions’ (2011, p. 127). This suggests that ‘whilst [some] dyslexic [people] may be poorer at tasks involving precision and accuracy, they [may be] better at tasks involving seeing the ‘big picture’ or identifying new connections’ (Cryer, 2013, p. 8; West, 1997).

In short, images combined with limited text (so as not to swamp learners) may ease the passing of knowledge and the development of understanding. Eide and Eide, and Cryer, are not far from the truism and aphorism that ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. It is a matter of balancing text and image delivery, of using both text and images to convey academic content and meaning.

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Such characteristics of dyslexic interpretation have been characterised as ‘centre-periphery’. Von Karolyi and Winner point to visual periphery capacities in dyslexic people that might favour reception of images (2004). Whilst that work stressed the spatial aspect of visual-spatial interpretation, it suggested in addition that there may be a preference for processing material at the outer limits of the visual plane as opposed to the centre of the visual field. This means that large images would theoretically occupy a field of visual engagement that text does not. The authors claimed to find little that definitively proved a visual advantage enjoyed by dyslexic people, or that visual processing was an inherent skill enjoyed by dyslexic people.

Schneps, Rose and Fischer extend the idea of centre and periphery, noting ‘a converging body of evidence suggesting that at least some people with dyslexia exhibit a visual bias favouring the periphery’, whilst correspondingly, research indicates that non-dyslexic people experience a bias favouring the centre of the visual plane (2007, p. 133).  Schneps at al predict that this ‘centre-periphery’ framework ‘has potential implications for instructional support in visually intensive domains such as science and mathematics’ (2007, p. 128). The ‘centre-periphery’ framework identified above is key to understanding a relatively binary division between visual processing capacities.

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Oversimplified so as not to become lost in biological detail, people favouring periphery capacity are better able to see wider ‘scenes’ whereas those favouring the centre are better able to see detail in a limited area, such as reading text in a book or on a screen (Schneps, et al., 2007; Levy, et al., 2004). Schneps et al argue that the centre-periphery structure can be considered for many intents and purposes as separate yet complementary visual systems. The idea of the complementary dualism of ‘centre-periphery’ as marking a difference between what many dyslexic and non-dyslexic people can effectively visually interpret is further developed by Coppin (2009). Coppin builds on Schneps et al to suggest that:

peripheral visual perception is like a wide-angle panoramic lens that enables the visual comparison of features in a scene. Centre perception is like a narrow-angle microscopic lens that shows each detail in that scene at extremely high resolution but at the expense of showing few surrounding details (2009, p. 2)

He then proposes that images could be used to support dyslexic people’s learning needs because images occupy the periphery that is underexploited by text-centric teaching (although not all dyslexic people will experience dyslexia similarly), but no testing of such a proposal was advanced. Furthermore, there was no discussion of what kind of image might be helpful. Indeed, according to a review of the literature in 2013, ‘no published research evidence has been found relating to the use of images in the education of dyslexic learners’ (Cryer, 2013, p. 9).

RECENT RESEARCH

Readers of earlier blogs will perhaps see a connection with the research I have been conducting at Loughborough University on the effect of using images in large group lectures. A three-year experiment across nine disciplines revealed that images could not only supplement text but could be as legitimate a medium for communicating complex arguments, theories and concepts as text is. Those blogs made an argument for balance in academic delivery, transforming lectures from their orthodox, logocentric propensity to spaces in which pictures were used to paint thousands of words and tell stories that increased engagement and generated spaces of active (as opposed to passive) learning. This was argued to be all the more important, relevant and innovative given the visual era human evolution has entered and embraced.

It was further argued that students coming to university experienced logocentric hegemony bracketed by their before and after experiences which are increasingly visual. This rendered university teaching and learning in lectures out of sync with both the environments from which are students arrive and to which they depart; and with another key element discussed in some detail concerning cognitive loading and Multimedia Learning (MML). Without repeating earlier content too much, MML posits that people have ‘dual processing’ mental capacity that means they learn better from words and images, than words alone; and that using excessive text alone overloads limited short-term memory (Lewis, 2016; Mayer, 2014; Ayres, 2015).

Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2015/Depositphotos.com

So, there appears to be overlap between benefits accruing to neurostandard and neurodiverse students to be derived from the balancing of images and text delivery in lectures This convergence of points in the two literatures (dyslexia and MML) frames the nature of the empirical research discussed here. There is ample argument to justify empirical testing of various forms of image use in HE settings as a means to support dyslexic learners; and the findings of the MML literature concerning text overload of short-term memory also seems to suggest relevance for dyslexic students. But the research presented here drew from neither initially.

FIRST CONTACT

I was giving a TEDx talk here at LU on visual communication for students. After the 18-minute presentation, a member of the audience intercepted me as I left. She was a student here, and she told me she was dyslexic, and that she had never seen anything like the presentation.

(Tedx Loughborough video with Dr David Roberts, 2016 video screenshot)

She elaborated on how the images had impacted her ability to stay tuned to the slides and then recall what I had said around each image. She told me she could remember my spoken words, and the meaning of the images, with clarity and ease. She also said that some of the images had moved her emotionally, saying that an emotional connection was partly responsible for her attention, engagement, interest and recall. Mainly, though, she said text was disengaging, hard to read and impossible to keep up with. Her anecdotal remarks led me to extend the experiments I had been working on with neurostandard students to their neurodiverse peers.

After the project was announced in regular lecture slots, self-identifying dyslexic students volunteered to be involved in the research design after the project was announced in lectures. The plan was to reach out to all the dyslexic students on campus by email, by means of the Disabilities Office disabled students database. The researchers would have no sight of student identities since the email would be sent by the Disabilities Office. Formal ethical approval was granted and a conventional email was composed and run by volunteers. The volunteer dyslexic students liked the invitation, but thought it too wordy and proposed instead that the message be composed with a combination of text and inline images.

It was a compelling notion, and the email was designed around these parameters. The new email was considered much more appealing and likely to generate interest and engagement. The invitation to participate in research was also distributed through the Disabled Students’ Facebook page, and some 30 responses quickly accrued. The students had been invited to come to a lecture room for a 10-minute presentation, and were to be divided into control and experiment groups. Expecting a statistically significant cohort, it was disappointing to see only 7 students turn up, and this led to a new discussion with the dyslexic volunteers, who helped conceptualize and design a web tool that allowed students to participate remotely online. This tool is also now in use with neurostandard students and has proved helpful in increasing cohort size.

THE EXPERIMENT

Briefly (since it’s outlined in greater depth elsewhere), quantitative control group testing was complemented by qualitative focus group inquiry. In the first instance, two groups were exposed to the same 10-minute lecture content on global warming (an area students are probably conscious of and can relate to). One lecture was delivered using slides with text, the other using slides with imagery and limited text. Students completed an online questionnaire that asked for their verdicts on the slides (not on the text, not on the images) in the next room. The questions concerned student engagement with academic content in lectures.

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The data was clear: 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 cognate overload, but likely to a lesser extent (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.

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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’.

Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2017

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.

Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2017

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?

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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 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.

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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 the 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’.

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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.”

Copyright Dr. David Roberts 2017/123RF

CONCLUSION

The number of dyslexic students we teach is increasing, and the primary pedagogy to which we expose them is the large group lecture, traditionally a text-centric exercise. Dyslexic students’ anecdotal remarks concerning a visual method I have developed for lecturing prompted a control group experiment and focus group investigation of the effect of images on dyslexic students’ engagement and interaction in the lecture theatre.

Probably because neurostandard and neurodiverse students share dual processing capacity when interrogating lecture slide content, the positive impact on engagement and active learning processes experienced by the former group was mirrored in the latter. The outcome was unequivocal but the sample group was small. It seems reasonable to hope that more research can be undertaken across a larger body of neurodiverse students.

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This Blog post was written by Dr David Roberts, Senior Lecturer of International Relations and a member of the IBSI discipline group. David can be reached on D.Roberts@lboro.ac.uk