Exam Preparation

In the academic world, the single most important result that determines success or failure is the grade achieved on exams. It is an unfortunate fact that often a single grade does not reflect how hard a person has worked or the amount one knows. This fact applies more to dyslexics than others. The time restrictions of exams, the language deficiencies, memory problems, and the importance of the occasion create nervousness and stress. All these factors can dramatically affect one’s performance. Therefore, to minimise stress and increase confidence, the student must use techniques to prepare for the exam.

Prior to an exam, however, there is one aspect an individual cannot always prepare for and that is, how the questions and content are structured. For a dyslexic the outcome of the exam can be heavily influenced by the way in which the questions are presented. Multiple choice questions, for example, can be very difficult for dyslexics to understand. If there is little or no understanding of the question in the first place then the individual cannot express how much they know. This can also be the case for questions which require written answers; are most marks awarded for the final answer, or for the solution (i.e. the procedure used for obtaining the answer)? Another factor that can affect performance is the nature of the questions. Are they familiar and predictable or unfamiliar and unpredictable, do they test memory and recalling facts or one’s ability to think and create answers? A dyslexic’s performance can be significantly influenced by these aspects.

Exam preparation and techniques:

Before the exam

  • Aim for the highest realistic grade. In other words an individual should not expect to get 10 out of 10 if such a grade is too difficult. Understanding one’s own ability is important here; i.e., concentrate on the areas where one can learn and not where one has difficulties.
  • When preparing for exams, dyslexics may require more intense, concentrated study closer to the exam, compared to others.
  • Time management is crucial. Too much time should not be spent on trying to understand something that is frustratingly difficult; this time is better spent on learning and reinforcing other areas.
  • If past exam papers are available, it is important that an individual has access to these to provide realistic practice. This provides the opportunity for the individual to become familiar with the style and nature of the questions.

During the exam

  • If there is a very tight time requirement for its completion, then it is better for a dyslexic to answer fewer questions effectively rather than more questions ineffectively.
  • Again time management is crucial. All questions that can be answered without a struggle should be answered first before any others. Too much time should never be spent on questions that are to difficult to answer.
  • Where appropriate, particularly in mathematics and science papers, when answering questions develop checking techniques after each critical stage of the solution.

After the exam

  • An exam, particularly a major one, is an important statement of hard work and sacrifice over a long period of time. Therefore, any learner should have the right to view their paper after marking to see for themselves where they did well and not so well, and have an opportunity to analyse their mistakes. This is part of the learning process. Denying them of this right is denying them the right to learn.

Extra Examination Time

It is common practice for many education authorities and examiners to provide extra time in examinations for those who are diagnosed with a disability. Just because a person with a disability is entitled to extra exam time does not mean they should be given it. There is no certainty they will benefit from this special consideration. In fact, I believe many who are diagnosed with a disability should not be given extra time. The reasons are:

  • There is no guarantee they will achieve a higher grade. Personal experience with some of my own students have shown this to be true. There may be many reasons for this, but the crucial question is: Do they know how to use the extra time productively? Instead of condensing the work in a shorter time, the trap is to expand it into the extra time available, therefore not taking advantage of the extended time. Furthermore, there are the temptations to waste time on questions that are too difficult and to redo a correct answer incorrectly, particularly if indecision and confusion set in. So realise that more time can also mean more time to make mistakes. Even if one does perform better, then this may provide false hope and be misleading for the individual and others. Furthermore, the fairness and objective of the exam come into question. These issues are connected with the next reason.
  • An extended examination gives an inaccurate comparison of one’s ability compared to others. This defeats one main purpose of exams, which is to give an accurate comparison between all competitors. How can an accurate comparison of abilities be made when some students get more time than others?
  • Giving special considerations may encourage an unrealistic reliance on the disability. If this happens, then the disability is being allowed to rule the individual rather than the reverse. If dyslexics receive extra time on a regular basis, there is the danger of expecting and relying on the disability to help them succeed later in life. One must learn to compete with others on an equal level, because when they enter tertiary education and working life, they may not be allowed the same special treatment.
  • There are many who a have a learning disability but do not receive extra time. In most institutions, it is only those who are officially diagnosed by a professional who receive extra exam time.
  • Extra time has the potential of suppressing and permanently impacting negatively on one’s confidence and motivation. Giving equal time provides the opportunity for dyslexics to succeed and achieve on equal terms with all others and so boost their confidence and motivation. Giving extra time in an exam deprives them of this opportunity, which goes totally against the objective of providing them help and support. As an example, I was not given extra time in all the multitude of exams from primary school to tertiary education. I believe that being able to achieve on equal terms with others in such a competitive environment provided the encouragement and confidence I needed to achieve the goals I desired. Furthermore, when a dyslexic still performs poorly, despite being given the advantage of extra time, it only serves to confirm their inabilities, causing further damage to their confidence and motivation.

However, a strong counter argument is that a dyslexic may have the skills in a particular area and the potential to succeed in a profession despite the disability. With extra time in examinations, one can show these skills and open up an opportunity that under normal circumstances would not be available.

In light of the above arguments, generalisations should not be made, and each student should be treated as an individual. I do expect there are cases in particular subject areas where extra time will benefit a dyslexic. It is important for counsellors and professionals to recognise these cases and give the necessary guidance and support.