GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

A difficult transition

Lack of support prevents students with learning differences from positively transitioning to tertiary education.

The process of transition within school is well-documented, however, the transition from school into tertiary education appears to be significantly under-researched, especially when students have learning differences such as dyslexia and autism.

In light of this, GTC Scotland commissioned an enquiry focused on how well prepared women with autism and/or dyslexia feel when moving into tertiary education and how this impacts their study.

From the literature

Many students can thrive at high school but lack the independent study skills that are required to be able to flourish in the tertiary setting (Bolt & Graber, 2010). Support networks are essential to the development of resilience, especially when taking into account learning differences. This is discussed by many researchers, however, there are debates as to which types of support networks are most effective.

In tertiary education, some negative attitudes towards learning differences may be due to misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, resulting in a culture of  “institutionalised disablism” (Gibson & Kendall, 2010), whereby students with additional needs become disadvantaged simply because tertiary institutions are “unprepared to accommodate them in a mainstream setting” (Barnes, 1991).

Our findings

Twenty-four self-selected participants completed an online survey tool, with Likert scale questions and some open response questions to provide opportunities for the respondents to offer a narrative of their “lived experiences”. In the interests of anonymity, no demographic data was collected. The enquiry followed the code of conduct from the British Educational Research Association.

Overall, the students lacked confidence in all areas that were surveyed. In particular, “study skills” and “instructions are given in a format that is easily understood” proved the most difficult.

From the comments made by students, the need for support to be available for their mental health was particularly important. This reflects the literature, which claims that students need to develop their resilience to help them handle and overcome difficulties for themselves, in order to succeed in many tertiary education settings (Neilson, 2011; Bolt, 2010).

It also reaffirms theories that emotional factors are inseparable from learning strategies, since without the correct support, self-esteem can drop, resulting in a perception that aspects of academic work become more difficult (Kirwan & Leather, 2011; Nalavany et al, 2011).

Four key takeaways

  1. Schools should teach more strategies to encourage practical skills such as independent working, essay structure and planning during the senior years; however, tertiary education institutions should also support students in using and applying this knowledge.
  2. Current students recommended that new students with dyslexia and autism take extra time to familiarise themselves with the layout of the university and with how to use the library.
  3. Students should become familiar with the many study and organisational apps that are available for phones and tablets in addition to computer software.
  4. Tertiary institutions may need additional training/awareness raising in order to be more familiar with the additional needs of neurodiverse students.

About the authors

Jasmine Miller is Managing Director of Jasmine Miller Coaching and Sarah Strachan is a specialist dyslexia tutor.


  • Barnes, C. (1991) Institutional Discrimination against Disabled People – a case for legislation. Available at: [Accessed 22 February 2019].
  • Gibson, K. Kendall, L., 2010. Stories from School: Dyslexia and Learners’ Voices on Factors Impacting on Achievement. Support for Learning, NASEN, Volume 25. Kirwan, L., Leather, C., 2011. Students’ Voices: a Report of the Student View of Dyslexia   Study Skills Tuition. Support for Learning , NASEN Volume 26.
  • Nalavany, L., Carawan, L., Brown, L., 2011. The Educational, Social and Emotional Experiences of Students with Dyslexia: The Perspective of Postsecondary Education Students. British Journal of Special Eduction, NASEN Volume 38, pp. 192–200.
  • Neilson, C., 2011. The Most Important Thing: Students with Reading and Writing Difficulties Talk about their Experiences of Teachers’ Treatment and Guidance. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, Volume 55, Number 5, pp. 551–565.