Research into Dyslexic students and examination questions yields ‘unexpected findings’

08 April 2008

A study carried out by Cambridge Assessment has revealed some surprising results relating to the common perception that dyslexic students are disadvantaged by certain features of conventional exam papers, such as font use and text spacing.

Results showed that dyslexic students benefited from some techniques that make text clearer, although the benefit was not significantly greater than for the control group of students that did not have dyslexia.

The research, carried out by Cambridge Assessment - Europe's largest assessment agency - which will be presented to the international conference of the Association of Language Testers in Europe this week, used a group of students identified as dyslexic, and a matched control group. Questions used in the study were taken from a GCSE science paper.

The science paper used a variety of material in the forms of writing, diagrams and tables and different versions of the paper were developed to explore the effects of features of exam questions such as font and layout. Students' test performance was measured and a group of students were interviewed afterwards.

The results showed that while dyslexic students benefited from some techniques that make text clearer, the benefit was not significantly greater than for the control group of students that did not have dyslexia. However, there were some surprising results including:

Fonts: While some dyslexic candidates performed better with Arial fonts rather than Times, other dyslexic students and the control group performed slightly better in a version using Times.

Bullet points versus prose: while students in both groups said they preferred longer texts to be broken up into bullet points, exam performance was inconclusive - one analysis showed that dyslexic students performed better without bullet points.

Tick boxes: Dyslexic students benefited from answering in a tick box format rather than having to write the answer, but so did the control group, although to a lesser extent.

The report concluded that the results: 'emphasised the already accepted importance of ensuring that information provided is clear, well spaced and clearly labelled', but noted that with regard to dyslexic students, 'some anecdotal views on good practice were not confirmed by the empirical data (e.g. the effect of Arial font, the effect of presenting materials on an insert sheet rather than the back page).' The report also concluded that students preferred some elements of good practice even though they did not affect scores and that these elements might have 'benefits in terms of reducing student anxiety.'

The Effects of Features of Examination Questions on the Performance of Students with Dyslexia by Victoria Crisp, Martin Johnson and Nadežda Novakovic will be presented at The Association of Language Teachers in Europe Conference 2008.