"Mental health is more than the state of our mind; it is about emotional resilience, self-esteem and confidence. It affects our ability to communicate, to build and sustain relationships, to learn and work, and to achieve our potential and aspirations."(NIACE Mental Health Matters for FE Teachers Toolkit, 2010).
There is often no clear sign that a person is experiencing difficulties and in some instances, it may not be apparent to the learner. Symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways including anxiety, panic, disorientation, and increased elation or sadness. Some of these may be due to the side effects of medication; other symptoms may be severe enough to affect course attendance.
- One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year
- Nine out of ten prisoners have a mental disorder
- About ten per cent of children have a mental health problem at any one time
- Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health disorder in Britain.
Mental health problems will often divert learners’ attention away from their work. Emotional or personal problems will also very frequently lead to a lack of concentration on work. These issues may be short term, and appropriate and timely personal advice or counselling may be appropriate.
Learners who have difficulty concentrating need small achievable tasks - see our guidance on supporting learners with dyslexia. Persistent failure to achieve understanding will compound the difficulty.
As well as being short, learning objects should be tailored to suit the everyday experience of the learner rather than being couched in abstract terms. Using the full sensory range to deliver information helps learners to understand; sounds, podcasts, recordings, videos and interactive opportunities will enhance the chance of success.
Multimedia resources can offer real benefits in attracting attention, but care should be taken to avoid overloading the learner’s senses which can lead to confusion.
Using one option at a time, without distraction, will help focus attention. Small successes should be celebrated; they build the learner's confidence and their belief that they can succeed.
One of the difficulties in requesting the creation of alternative assessments is that ‘difficulty concentrating’ is not necessarily classed as a disability under the UK legislation definition. There is also no single strategy for creating assessments for learners who have difficulty concentrating as this may be the result of a number of conditions, each of which requires a different approach.
The vast majority of adjustments that can be made do not need to be tailored to specific individuals’ needs and, if implemented, can benefit all learners whether they carry a ‘statement of need’ or not.
Other than where permission must be sought from awarding bodies (such as an application for extra time), adjustments for learners who have difficulty concentrating are simply good practice and there should be no need to obtain proof of the reasons for their difficulty.
The most important principle is to ensure as much clarity as possible. In practice this means giving learners the option of removing any unnecessary ‘clutter’ from the screen such as:
- Background patterns, superfluous text or decorative images
- Using plain English and concise sentences
- Breaking up text, audio, video, and even the assessment itself into chunks
- Giving learners the ability to adjust the font face, font size, font colour and background colour of any text
These are very simple to achieve in HTML and now built in to many e-assessments provided by awarding bodies. Software providers that do not build in user-control capabilities should be strongly encouraged to do so by those involved in the assessment process.
It may be necessary to replicate these adjustments by allowing learners to receive hard copy assessments in a font face and size of their choice with each question on a separate page.
Example one - using plain English
A learner who has difficulty concentrating may find themselves reading onwards to questions two and three rather than deliberating on the response to question one. To help avoid this scenario, it may be helpful to insert a space or visual separation between questions. In e-assessment, however, try to avoid using rows of hyphens or spaces to demarcate question boundaries, as this will unnecessarily hinder users of screen reading technology.
The use of plain English reduces the cognitive load associated with interpreting lengthy and complex sentences, and allows the learner to focus on answering the questions.
This is not to say that assessments should be free from the appropriate technical jargon, but should be presented in a way that is commensurate with the academic level being tested. The more straightforward the language used, the less need there will be for learners to apply for or use allocations of extra time.
Example two - concise instructions
The instructions for an assessment may read as follows:
“It is important that you shall read the notes, advice and information detailed opposite then complete the form overleaf (all sections) prior to commencing the assessment in its entirety at an approved and invigilated assessment centre.”
It may however be of more use to the majority of candidates to say the following instead:
“Please read the notes opposite before you fill in the form on the back. Then you will be ready to start the assessment as instructed by the staff member in charge.”
The issue of spelling, grammar and coherency of response is related but not exclusive to learners have difficulty concentrating. When creating assessments you must determine whether accurate spelling is required and if marks will be deducted for inaccuracy. You must also determine whether allowance will be made for incoherent responses – for example, if the responses to questions one and two have been quite obviously transposed.
In most assessments spelling is not being tested, but different markers may exhibit different tolerances if these are not pre-prescribed by the assessment designer (for example, most assessors would pass a spelling of Leicester as Lecester or Liecester but how many would accept Lexta?). If spelling is not being tested then allowance needs to be made as appropriate, guidance needs to be provided for assessors, and automated marking needs to be closely observed to ensure that learners are not disadvantaged for a reason relating to their disability.