Summary of findings from the literature reviews on each topic
We each researched the evidence base for students’ experiences of support and adjustments in higher educational settings and have provided a summary below:
Mental health conditions (written by Bryony)
Mental Health Conditions (MHC’s) refer to conditions that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples of MHC’s include depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders and schizophrenia; but there are many more. MHC’s can affect people differently, and not everyone will have received a formal diagnosis. It is really important for the University to have sufficient support in place as around 75% of MHC’s have developed by the age of 25 which overlaps with the time at which individuals are studying at university (Student Minds UK).
Many students with MHC’s will struggle academically due to poor concentration, motivation, productivity and coping skills. It is also common for students with MHC’s to avoid social aspects of university by not attending classes, and avoiding group work and social activities (Markoulakis & Kirsh, 2010). This leads to students with MHC’s being less likely than average to continue studying after their first year, achieve a 1st or a 2:1, or to secure higher level employment. The introduction of The Equality Act 2010 means that universities are required to offer ‘reasonable adjustments’ to students with a disability, which includes those with MHC’s (House of Commons). Depending on the condition, these adjustments may include flexibility in attendance, more time to complete assignments, providing equipment to record lectures or support from campus disability/counselling services (Disability Rights UK).
Although the University offers a range of reasonable adjustments, not everyone who would be entitled to the support requests it. One of the main barriers to individuals with MHC’s accessing the support on offer is the initial process of disclosing to the university that they have a MHC (Martin, 2010). There are many reasons why individuals may choose not to disclose this information to the university; including not recognising that they have a MHC, worrying about the stigma surrounding their MHC, and not knowing what support would be the most appropriate for their MHC (Salzer, Wick & Rogers, 2008).
Autism Spectrum Disorders (written by Charis)
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder which affects how individuals perceive the world around them, and how they interact with others (National Autistic Society, 2016). Because autism is a spectrum disorder, the degree to which it impacts individuals’ daily life can vary from person to person (National Autistic Society, 2016). There are approximately one in 100 autistic people living in the UK, and there are significantly more autistic males than females (3:1) (National Autistic Society, 2016).
The numbers of students with ASD entering higher education is on the increase but there are still lower enrolment and completion rates compared to typical peers, or peers with other disabilities (White, et al., 2016). Research has identified some of the challenges autistic individuals face at universities and colleges. For example, many autistic students live with mental health conditions which can make it difficult for them to fulfil academic requirements (Anderson, Carter & Stephenson, 2018; Gelbar, Smith & Reichow 2014). Furthermore, difficulties with social communication and interaction can impact academic and non-academic aspects of higher education and can lead to feelings of social isolation (Jackson, Hart, Brown & Volkmar, 2018; Madriaga, 2010). Evidence suggests that transitioning into university can also be difficult for autistic students, and some choose not to disclose their diagnosis for various reasons including wanting to try university on their own (Knott & Taylor, 2014; Anderson Carter & Stephenson, 2018). Additionally, sensory issues experienced by autistic students can make spaces and events at university inaccessible (Madriaga, 2010; Knott & Taylor, 2014; Anderson, Carter & Stephenson, 2018) and this is a difficulty which university staff may not always be aware of (Knott & Taylor, 2014).
Specific Learning Difficulties (written by Michelle)
Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) is an umbrella term used to refer to a difference in the way in which an individual absorbs and processes information (British Dyslexia Association, 2020). SpLD consists of Dyslexia, Dyspraxia/Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (British Dyslexia Association, 2020). SpLD occur on a spectrum and so while there are patterns of behaviours, the way in which it effects one individual will be different to another and for some, they many experience a combination of these difficulties (British Dyslexia Association, 2020).
Until 1995, when the first Disability Discrimination Act came about, university was relatively unattainable to students with specific learning differences. There has been a great increase in the number of SpLD students since this time. This is also due to the aid of Disabled Students Allowance, which provides financial support for students to obtain equipment and academic support for medically identified ‘deficits’ (Griffin & Pollak, 2009). This helps in navigating neurotypical teaching. However, it has been found that within Higher Education Institutes, despite SpLD being different from one another and therefore requiring different support, often they would receive the same support rather than support that specifically caters to their situation (Walker, Shaw, Price, Reed & Anderson, 2018).
Research has revealed that there was a mixture of positive and negative student experiences in higher education. A theme that repeats throughout the literature was a divide in the view that the students developed about their SpLD. Some viewed their SpLD in a positive manner and acknowledged that their ‘difference’ gave them strengths and weaknesses (Griffin & Pollak, 2009). This was for numerous reasons. Students interviewed reiterated that the teachers have a lack of training, resources and technologies that achieve an inclusive curriculum and classroom design (Claiborne, Cornforth, Gibson & Smith, 2011). These environments that do not have enough support in place mean that the students experience more anxiety in education than their peers. Coping mechanisms form through this and while some such as resilience can be greatly beneficial to the students, other methods such as avoidance are not sustainable long term (Abbott-Jones 2019). However, some students did report that they encountered staff that were supportive and accommodating in their teaching approach, making lessons more interactive and thereby more engaging (Pino & Mortari, 2014). This infers a pattern of almost potluck as to whether the students get an informed teacher who is able to adjust to their learning style or not.
Despite this, assessments which are dominantly written exams, are felt to be discriminatory as writing performance does not reflect students with SpLD level of cognitive understanding. It was also thought that the extra time given was still not enough and does not compensate for this type of examination (Pino & Mortari, 2014). Furthermore, many students with SpLDs were not receiving any support. Disclosure of a SpLD is a big barrier for the individual to receive help. Some students avoid disclosure due to the stigmatisation of SpLD (Walker, Shaw, Price, Reed, & Anderson, 2018). This is not solely an issue within HE but a misconception throughout society, inferring that education in SpLD is needed in general as well as specialist education for teachers supporting the learning of those with SpLD.
Conclusion – We have identified key themes which overlap across the three research areas including barriers to disclosure, negative experiences at university (e.g. staff having a lack of awareness, social isolation and inaccessible support), and advantages and disadvantages of various support. Our projects aim to specifically look at these themes from the perspective of University of Reading students. We feel that this will be really valuable as it can be used to inform support services and University policy.