Neurodivergence and online learning through the pandemic: Studying in the home environment and adapting to assessment adjustments (Post 2 of 3)
Authors: Neil Dixon (Learning Technologist, Anglia Ruskin University), Jennie Dettmer (Acting Senior PAD Tutor, University of Bedfordshire), Rob Howe (Head of Learning Technology, University of Northampton), Ben Turpin (Disability and Dyslexia Adviser, Anglia Ruskin University), Uwe Matthias Richter (Associate Professor, Anglia Ruskin University)
This is the second in a series of three blog posts that places the spotlight on the experiences of neurodivergent students from moving University teaching online in 2020 and 2021. In this post we describe how students at the event experienced both assessment adjustments and working in the home environment.
Blog post series
All content originated from an event organised by Association for Learning Technology (ALT) East England (see part 1 for further details).
The Student Experiences
Increased control over time and environment
When moving to the online learning environment, neurodivergent students reported that they had more flexibility over their routine. This was especially true for students with ADHD and anxiety, who found that studying at home lowered the necessity for mentally preparing every step from getting up, planning the journey to campus, and moving between locations on campus.
The benefit of choice and flexibility also carried over where courses changed from traditional to online (open book) exams. One student with Asperger’s and ADHD noted that moving to online assessments meant that it was much easier to work in a place of their choice over a longer period of time. Another student with ADHD reflected on the fact that they were able to select when to start their time-based assessment (within a given window), which lowered their stress levels, allowed for better planning of time and breaks, and helped them concentrate more fully on the assessment.
The ability to work in their own location also reduced the stress of trying to find the exam hall and become familiar with a new environment. One of the students with Asperger’s and Dyspraxia pointed out that they were able to see improvements in their grades post-pandemic as the open book nature of some of the assessments was more suited to their way of working (Office for Students, 2020; Wilson et al, 2020, p11).
Ability to focus when studying online
The challenge of maintaining focus is a major characteristic of conditions such as dyslexia, ADHD, and dyspraxia. A student with Asperger’s and dyspraxia, for instance, found it easier to concentrate if they were also sketching. Working alone online meant they felt less inhibited especially if their webcam was turned off. However, studying in a physical environment normally associated with relaxation was a difficult transition for a student with ADHD, especially when there were personal distractions in the room such as Netflix. Likewise, focusing on online conversations was also difficult due to the lack of social cues. Social cues are a way to know whether the other students online were listening or not, and for a student with ADHD and depression, social cues are an important part of conversing with others (Disabled Students’ Commission, 2020, p10-13; Disabled Students’ Commission, 2021, p18-22).
Lack of physical presence
The lack of physical presence made one student with depression and panic disorder uncertain and uncomfortable about gaining the opportunity to speak to lecturers. In addition, students who studied practical subjects felt they were disadvantaged because the digital adjustments were inadequate. One student said they chose the specific course because they preferred a hands-on learning style, and felt that they had a lesser experience learning in the digital realm due to the lack of kinesthetics (QAA, 2021).
Changes to practical assessment adjustments
The suitability of practical adjustments was most stark with assessment. The change to certain types of assessment (i.e., timed essays) were not always seen as supporting those with neurodivergence. One of the students with ADHD noted that institutions seem to be measuring how fast a student can write down facts when, for them, managing time and structuring essays in a rigid timeframe was problematic. One student with panic disorder and anxiety interestingly noted that institutional policies for adding extensions to every assessment gave them more time to be stressed and aggravated their panic disorder (Coughlan and Lister, 2018). These students would have preferred adaptations like the no-detriment policy and just have the option for an extension if they chose it. Two students with ADHD noted issues in dealing with their institution. On some occasions, for example, institutional replies regarding accommodating specific needs on an assessment were being sent out after the actual deadline. On other occasions, broken personal laptops and isolation issues were not considered as reasons to grant extensions as the students were seen as having accommodations for their learning disabilities already.
This post reflects on students’ experience of studying in their home environment and assessment practices. It can be concluded that there may be conflicting demands for institutions that need to be addressed depending on individual needs. Students generally value control over their time and environment. For some, focus in online environments is enhanced through the camera being on, and the camera being off for others. The practical nature of some courses also determines how students coped with the changes from physical to online presence. Assessments remain an ongoing point of discussion for institutions. The rapid nature of the onset of the pandemic impacted the student experience but it remains to be seen how institutions change because of the lessons learnt.
The blog post series finishes by exploring the role of learning support staff in supporting neurodivergent students during the move to online learning in 2020/21.
Coughlan, T. and Lister, K., (2018) The accessibility of administrative processes: Assessing the impacts on students in higher education. In: Proceedings of the 15th International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility (Web4All 2018). ACM Press, New York. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1145/3192714.3192820 [Accessed: 07 February 2022].
Disabled Students’ Commission (2020) Three Months to Make a Difference. Available at: www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/three-months-make-difference [Accessed: 07 February 2022].
Disabled Students’ Commission (2021) Annual Report 2020-2021: Enhancing the disabled student experience. Available at: https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets.creode.advancehe-document-manager/documents/advance-he/AdvHE_DSC_State%20of%20the%20Nation_1611157499.pdf [Accessed: 07 February 2022].
Office for Students (2020) Disabled students. OfS Coronavirus briefing Note 8, 25 June. Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/8f61cef7-4cf7-480a-8f73-3e6c51b05e54/coronavirus-briefing-note-disabled-students.pdf [Accessed: 07 February 2022].
QAA (2021) How Good Practice in Digital Delivery and Assessment has Affected Student Engagement and Success – an Early Exploration. COVID-19 supporting resources. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Available at: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/docs/qaa/guidance/how-good-practice-in-digital-delivery-and-assessment-has-affected-student-engagement-and-success.pdf?sfvrsn=a6b1d381_8) [Accessed: 07 February 2022].
Wilson, L., Conway, J., Martin, N. and Turner, P., (2020) Covid-19: disabled students in higher education: student concerns and institutional challenges. Report by the National Association of Disability Practitioners (NAPD). Available at: https://nadp-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/NADP-Report-Covid-19-Disabled-Students-in-Higher-Education-Student-Concerns-and-Institutional-Challenges.docx [Accessed: 07 February 2022].