Failing exams and diagnosed with dyslexia… at 28 and during my second degree!

Aged 3, I had speech therapy because my words came out as gobbledegook. When I began to write, I would transcribe entire words backwards, and write my ticks back to front. I might’ve even convinced you that my name was ‘nismaT’. When I would speak, I would mix up what I thought I’d heard. I would call my elbow my ‘armbow’; the clothes horse the ‘clothes exhaust’ and hamburgers ‘handburgers’.

And yet, I did well in school. I studied constantly. As a hardworking perfectionist, I would hate poor marks and the dreaded red pen corrections. I would beat myself up about my errors, and I was embarrassed by them. So I did everything I could to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake twice. I’m also incredibly stubborn. When my French teacher demeaned me just before my GCSEs and told me I couldn’t get higher than a C, I ignored her and put myself in for the higher paper. I got a B. When my Maths teacher predicted me a D at the end of year 10, I spent my final year working flat out and attending extra maths classes. I got an A.

For my A Levels, I ran in the opposite direction to the subjects I found most difficult (Science, Maths and Languages!) and stuck to what I knew and loved: Art and English. I even chose a college with a fantastic art room and one that enabled me to do separate A Levels in English Language and English Literature. Of course, I studied tirelessly again. Instead of using my free periods to catch the bus into the city and hang out like everyone else, I’d go up to the art room, put my iPod on and paint. I ended up finishing my final piece early, so I made two. I got an A and my pieces featured in an exhibition. I got Bs in my other A Levels, which meant I secured a place at my first choice Russel Group Uni.

At university, I studied a subject I was fascinated in and passionate about – Social Policy. I didn’t realise at the time, but the nature of the course and the fact that it was almost entirely coursework based meant that I came out with a 2:1. And yet…I felt like I could have done better.

And then I went travelling. My gap year turned into 5 years abroad… and then I got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 25 and from that point on I couldn’t shake the thought of returning to education and becoming a dietitian. I was terrified at the thought of giving up my life in New Zealand on a gamble of studying Science when I hadn’t studied it in over a decade and was never that good at it. But the thoughts wouldn’t escape me and after a year, I knew it was something I had to do. So 2 years on from my diagnosis, I returned to England to do a Foundation Year that would enable me to apply for a place on a Dietetics Course. It was a gamble because I wasn’t guaranteed a place. First, I had to get the grades and second; I had to pass an interview. I thought the grades would be fine – I thought that determination plus effort would equal success. But I now know that that’s not true. At all.

I’d never studied as hard as I did during my Foundation Year. I socialised rarely, I worked three part-time jobs to fund it (until I ended up in hospital just before Christmas and then quit one) because it was £9,000 and Student Finance wasn’t available: I ran, worked out and studied during every other available hour in the day. Near exams and deadlines, I dropped the exercise to study even more. I’d be in empty study rooms for hours at a time. I worked through all the material there was to work though. I attempted every past paper, again and again. My friend and I would spend hours into the double digits in a group study room until we physically couldn’t. Yet my grades weren’t equaling my efforts. I finished the Foundation Year with a fail in maths and scraping a pass in my final Chemistry exam (despite this being the subject I put the most into). By some miracle, my overall average and averages in Biology and Chemistry were high enough to meet the requirements set by another Russel Group Uni – King’s College London – and I’d passed the interview stage, which meant I was in.

I thought Foundation Year would be the toughest year: The year getting back into the swing of things; the year of adapting to studying science again; the year of recognising my learning style. I was wrong. It didn’t adequately prepare me for my first year at King’s at all, which was more like a Foundation Year than the Foundation Year was.

It wasn’t until I failed a module in the January mocks and only just passed the other 2 (one of which counts towards my degree) that my Personal Tutor suggested that I might have dyslexia. I thought it seemed unlikely given my age and previous education, but I was more than willing to explore the possibility given my performance since returning to education. I’d even given up work from December, falling deeper into my overdrafts, just to make it through the Spring term. And that’s when I was recognised as being dyslexic, just 6 weeks prior to the Summer exams.

But what does having dyslexia mean? It means having a specific learning disability that affects about 10% of the population, and is a result of a difference in brain wiring. It does not affect intelligence but it does lead to weaknesses in learning, literacy, phonological processing, verbal processing speed and verbal memory. Considering that it’s these skills that are heavily relied upon for exams, it’s no wonder that I’m terrible at them.

So.. the Summer exams? I just got my results: Another fail in one exam; another scrape of a pass in a second; and low grades in the final three. But you know what else I did? I got a solid First in my Professional Practice module: the one module without exams; the one module that aims to equip us with the attitudes, skills and behaviour required of dietitians in relation to patients, the public and fellow professionals and; it’s the one module that served as a constant reminder about why I’m doing what I’m doing. I got 89% on a portfolio I produced for that module. 89%! Every time I felt overwhelmed during the exam season, or doubted myself, or felt like my brain was completely scattered and I didn’t know how to pull it all back together, I would sit back, open up that portfolio and tell myself;

‘Look at what you did. You are far from stupid. You are far from inadequate. You deserve your place at King’s. You can achieve grades reflective of the time you put in, you just haven’t quite figured out how yet. Just keep going.

To be perfectly honest, I find that really difficult to write. I know that we all have self-doubts, but the last two academic years have been the most difficult academic years of my life. Not seeing effort translate into grades is demoralising. Failure is crushing. Exams fill me with stress and anxiety. And it’s completely and utterly draining. After my final exam, I slept for 12 hours straight.

Exams for dyslexics are difficult. We’re wired to make big picture connections – we see the forest, but miss the trees. We can imagine how processes will play out over time and to be creative and think outside the box to be good problem solvers, but we tend to struggle with reading comprehension, decoding new words and the ability to sequence operations. We might also struggle with short-term memory, struggle to sustain attention, concentration and have a slow handwriting speed. This makes processing complex information more time consuming and draining.

So…whilst I may not be able to show you what I know in an exam setting, I can link and translate ideas in a way that others can’t – and that’s exactly what I did in my portfolio. In dietetic practice, I need to be able to translate nutrition science into understandable, practical information – and that’s what matters more than any exam result. Shortly after the acknowledgement of my dyslexia, I had a timed essay test. Before, I’m certain I’d have failed it. But when the coin dropped and I realised that the learning methods I’d been utilising weren’t working (and never would), I reverted back to doing things I’d done in my school years: I drew. Instead of failing the timed essay, I got 82%. How?! I drew out my essay plan in picture format, which I was able to recall in the test:

It may look like a load of silly cartoons to you, but to me every one tells me something about the function of the exocrine pancreas – even the title!

Whilst I’m confident that I can create new (or revert back to old) learning strategies and increase my grades over the next 3 years, I know that regardless of what my degree certificate will say at the end of it, I’ll have tried my damned hardest and I will be proud of whatever that may be.

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