We asked Chris Collier, DSA Assessor, about when a visual mapping solution is recommended in a DSA assessment, the barriers to learning that visual mapping can address and how it helps users overcome them.
Why might an assessor recommend a visual mapping solution?
Often in the assessment, you talk to the student about previous strategies that have worked for them and quite often they talk about mind mapping at school. This opens a conversation about a mind mapping tool, because typically at school this will have been on paper. The conversation tends to be about how they plan and often difficulties around planning are identified. So, that may be not knowing where to start and procrastinating because they have a blank page in front of them and they just want something they can return to easily. And occasionally, for research purposes, students might want to put their notes into a mind map rather than a text document because they've found that's an effective way to revise in the past.
Why would a visual mapping tool be more appropriate than other solutions that might be out there?
You see mind mapping tools recommended across a range of disabilities. Specific learning difficulties is common because you are getting more information on the page than just the text. You're getting the structure and links between things and images or symbols if you want those. Someone said to me that rather than reading text about how to do something, being shown how to do it was more effective. The example was how to use something in a software programme: if they read a sentence about where the button was and what it did, that was meaningless compared to having a video or doing it themselves – seeing the size and shape of the button and pressing it.
That is a basis for some e-learning theory. So similarly with mind mapping, if the student can plan something using fewer words and using arrows and symbols, then they're more likely to start it. It's more likely to make sense to them and it's an easier point, or scaffold, to going on to the writing process.
So that's students with specific learning difficulties, but really the issue for many students is knowing where to start with planning and writing coursework. That is where you see overlap with students with anxiety and other mental health conditions because they may have the same confidence difficulties, not because of a difficulty with text like a student with dyslexia, but because of a mental health condition.
They might have self-doubt about starting. I've seen students with anxiety that start planning or writing something down and then they think it's wrong, so they just get rid of it. If it's on paper, they just throw the paper away. But when they've got a structure that they can follow (and that they can change without having to start over), it just gives them that step towards the writing process. It’s easier for them to access and it breaks down a barrier to writing.
Is there any other reason you think you might recommend a visual mapping solution?
It could be appropriate for a student with any disability for differing reasons. We hear students use the term ‘brain fog’ for various reasons – one of them is medication. For example, anti-anxiety medication can cause students to be drowsy at points during the medication cycle and that can be an academic barrier for them, but obviously they may not want to come off the medication if it’s helpful. For other students with anxiety, they may spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about other things and those things are clouding in as intrusive thoughts whenever they try and focus on their academic work.
What other things would you look for in a visual mapping solution that could help students with differing needs?
The user interface is very important, you need four or five key features that are easy to reach that a student can remember and easily go back to. And in assessments, demonstrating features such as exporting to Word or a presentation can be the lightbulb moment that shows a student how it will benefit their academic writing and coursework. That kind of integration with other software is important, particularly if the software will work with other assistive programs, such as dictation tools or text-to-speech, that are being recommended in the assessment. That makes a nice package for the student and they will go away feeling that they have been provided with strategies that work together rather than four or five pieces of software on a computer.
Post-recommendation, what support structure should be in place to introduce software in a way in which students are more likely to use it?
I think there’s three things to consider here. The first is the assistive technology training, because students might have never opened the program before the first training session. The trainer should have a list of what software the student has and will agree with the student what order to look at the software. The trainer can then show the student how the programs can work together. I always encourage students to accept in-person training sessions - meaning with a person, whether that's online or face to face, and there are benefits to each delivery method depending on the student and their needs. But I think that at least a couple of training sessions are important if you want to see student take-up of the software.
E-learning can be a valuable form of support for students, where they have a portal they can refer back to throughout their course with training on the different software they have been recommended. Again, the student must be shown how to use that, otherwise, it can be another tool that just sits there and doesn't get used. So, I see it very much as a follow-up strategy to in-person training.
Thirdly, the other non-medical help is important. So most commonly in DSA, students may be provided with a study skills tutor or specialist mentor, and in colleges and universities there are usually learning support departments or even dedicated assistive technology roles. I think it is important that these specialists all have an understanding of the assistive technology software, as they often meet with students on a regular basis and can be the ones encouraging them to use it to support their academic work. When students provide their non-medical helpers with a copy of their needs assessment report, this can be a good starting point to seeing what has been recommended and how it can all work together to best support the student.
Helping users overcome barriers to study and work
Inspiration is DSA approved and regularly recommended for Access to Work
Inspiration 10 is designed to be used by everyone, but is particularly beneficial for users who:
Have difficulty with short term memory, retaining and processing information.
Get distracted when there is too much text to deal with.
Find it challenging to express ideas in writing.
Struggle with the structure and layout of essays.
Often have to take extended recovery breaks from working to alleviate symptoms (e.g. mental health difficulties).
Have difficulties organizing ideas and remaining focused long enough to get ideas written down (e.g. Autistic Spectrum Disorder or mental health difficulties).
Find it hard to develop and deliver presentations.
Needs Recommendation Guide: this guide outlines how Inspiration addresses different user needs.