Students with ADHD and College Success: 10 Study Tips
ADHD can cause students to wander off task, overlook details, or forget important information.
If you have or believe you might have ADHD, then you know what a struggle it can be to study, submit assignments on time, and pay attention to lectures.
ADHD is a cognitive disorder that affects one's ability to focus, listen, or sit still — essentially, it interferes with executive function. This can be especially challenging for students, particularly in an online environment. Fortunately, ADHD students can take steps to help themselves succeed in their studies by accessing school resources and mitigating potential barriers to learning.
Executive Functioning Skills Needed for College
Executive functioning skills are essential to navigating the classroom and the social arena in college. To do well in your courses, you must be able to draw upon functional memory, focus, and observation to process and synthesize information from lectures and readings. To complete assignments and keep on schedule, you need time management, organizational, and goal-defining skills. All of these skills fall under executive function.
Executive functioning carries over into social settings, too. To effectively network and form valuable relationships, you need emotion control, observation skills, and self-awareness.
The following is intended as an information resource only; we are not a medical organization and we cannot give medical advice. If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, seek medical help or dial 911. If you believe you may have ADHD, seek a professional diagnosis, as a diagnosis is often required to access student accommodations on campus.
How Can I Study Online With ADHD?
A study from 2021 suggests that proper accommodations and well-developed study skills helped ADHD students attain higher GPAs in college. With access to the proper support services and careful attention to developing good study habits, students with ADHD can succeed in higher education — including online education.
If you struggle with ADHD, the following tips may be able to help you sharpen your study skills and access the support you need to succeed in college.
Tips for Better Time Management
One fundamental skill every student needs is time management. Good time management skills will allow you to prepare adequately for tests, turn work in on time, and get a proper night's sleep every day.
Here are some steps you can take to manage your time effectively.
1. Build and Keep a Routine
Lay a foundation for time management skills by building and keeping a routine. Start by setting basic guidelines, such as:
- When to wake up on a typical school day
- When to exercise on a typical school day
- How much work to accomplish before calling it a day
- How late to socialize on a school night
However, it's good to be flexible when building routines. Too much rigidness can dissuade you from maintaining your routine or leave you feeling defeated after missing a deadline. The goal is to create a structure that helps you live — not one that runs your life.
2. Sleep and Study on Your Ideal Schedule
Another important aspect of time management is managing your sleep schedule. Sleep deprivation negatively affects concentration, memory, and mood. Common symptoms of sleep deprivation include:
- Excessive sleepiness
If you're showing symptoms of sleep deprivation, you may need to adjust your sleep schedule. You can do this by taking steps like these:
- Choose a consistent bedtime
- Skip naps
- Eat earlier in the day
While you may feel tempted to pull all-nighters, specially when you're on a study deadline, the truth is that getting better sleep on a regular schedule improves your executive function and, in turn, your ability to study effectively.
3. Build in Breaks
People with ADHD often struggle with sustaining mental effort for long periods of time, so you may find it useful to build breaks into your study sessions. There are several popular productivity techniques that incorporate frequent break intervals, including:
- Pomodoro Technique
- Action Method
The Pomodoro Technique, for example, includes identifying a task, working on it for 25 minutes, and then taking a 5-minute break to recharge before returning to focused work. Every four cycles, you take a longer break — about 15-30 minutes.
Remember that there is no one right way to use breaks when getting work done! So long as the strategy is helping you work effectively, that is enough.
4. Request Extensions for Quizzes, Exams, and Assignments
Problems with executive functioning can make it harder for a student with ADHD to complete assignments within the time allotted. Thus, students with ADHD may need an extra day to complete an open book online quiz, or an extra half hour for that pop quiz.
ADHD is a learning disability, so you have the right to request reasonable extensions for quizzes, exams, and assignments. Most professors will honor your request as long as you explain your needs in advance and be specific. Alert your professor at the start of the semester about any accommodation requests, well before assignments are due.
Being proactive with your requests ensures that you and your professor are on the same page and demonstrates that you take coursework seriously.
Tips for Reducing Distractions
While you may find wearing earbuds or playing with a fidget spinner helpful while studying or listening to a lecture, you might also benefit by minimizing distractions. The following tips can help you reduce distractions that don't help you focus.
5. Read Tests (and Assignments) Aloud — or Have Them Read to You
Some students benefit from reading course materials aloud. This helps them stay focused on the material and offers practical benefits, including:
- Greater comprehension
- Improved listening and reading skills
- Sharpened focus
For some students, having the content read aloud by someone else is even more helpful. Getting another person involved can motivate you to pay closer attention, making it easier to concentrate and absorb the information. Consider using a machine reader or asking a friend or roommate to read tests or assignments aloud to you. Many textbooks are available as an e-book and have a "read aloud" option or built-in note-taking strategies.
6. Determine if You Learn Best Alone or With Others — And Choose Classes Accordingly
If you are an online student, you can reduce distractions by choosing your classroom format carefully.
Synchronous classes, which require you to sign in at specific times and attend live video lectures, may create a sense of focus for you — or they may offer opportunities for distraction. Figure out whether working with and attending lectures alongside other people distracts you from the content of a lecture or lesson, and choose your class format accordingly.
Students who are easily distracted by others and prefer to work alone should register for classes in an asynchronous format, which allows students to work at their own pace and on their own schedules.
7. Use Closed Captions
Students with ADHD can often benefit from captioning services, whether lectures are online or in person. Closed captions can reduce distractions and make the content of a lecture easier to process: Hearing and reading content simultaneously helps the information sink in better. Captioning resources students can use include:
- Zoom closed captions for Zoom rooms in synchronous online classes
- Closed captioning services for asynchronous video resources in online classes
- Live captioning services for in-person classes
You will likely need to request captioning resources from your school, and they often come through third-party captioning services. In some cases, your professor can simply turn on Zoom captions or closed captions on recorded videos upon request.
8. Find a Quiet Space to Work
Another important step in removing distractions is finding a quiet space to work. A quiet environment allows you to focus on work, without clutter or activities that might cause your mind to wander. For online students, this means taking your laptop to a favored spot where you can expect people to be working, studying, or quietly relaxing. This could include:
- A quiet coffee shop
- A park with quiet areas
For in-person students, this could also include your university's disability services office. If you're studying from home, find a room away from other people, and try to keep the space clean to minimize distractions.
Tips for Building and Leveraging Your Network to Help You Study
Student success stories are often built on the support networks that surround them. If you want to do well in your classes and beyond, you should take advantage of the resources provided by your school, and you should build and leverage a study network support system.
9. Connect With Disability Services and Communicate Your Needs
Working with ADHD becomes easier when you build a relationship with disability services and your instructors. If you create a transparent relationship with professors, they will want to help you. For instance, telling your professor about your ADHD diagnosis might lead to them integrating a third-party captioning service in their lectures.
Similarly, disability services can help you find quiet spots for studying, access tutors, and attend social events where you can meet new people.
10. Take Advantage of Your School's Resources
Your school likely offers a bevy of resources to help students with ADHD and executive function disorders. These resources can include:
- Disability services
- Tutoring centers
- Writing centers
- Counseling centers
Keep in mind that support from your school is not limited to class meetings and exams. For instance, your school's counseling center can help you work through personal issues that are straining your executive function or help you get a referral to medical providers, who can ensure you receive the appropriate attention, treatment, and support.
Most of all, remember that your school administrators and professors are there to help you succeed, but they can only help you if they know what you need.
Frequently Asked Questions
Because it impacts cognitive function, ADHD is considered a learning disability. As a result, you can expect reasonable accommodation for it at colleges and universities.
College and ADHD can be a challenging mix. However, if you utilize disability services, ask for reasonable accommodations, and build up your study skills, you can thrive.
Online school can play to your strengths if you have ADHD. Online courses allow students to re-watch lectures, utilize closed captions, and self-select (or supplement) teaching materials that better serve their learning needs. Moreover, online students can use their preferred methods for note- and test-taking, and the reduced stress of a flexible schedule can help with executive function.
Matthew Sweeney received his Bachelor of Arts in English with a specialization in English literature from Portland State. His writings on music and culture have appeared in the publications Eleven PDX Magazine and Secret Decoder. In his free time he enjoys reading, cinema, hiking, and cooking.
Rayelle Davis is a nationally board certified counselor and a licensed clinical professional counselor. As a nontraditional student, she earned her associate degree in psychology at Allegany College of Maryland. She went on to earn her bachelor's degree in psychology online at the University of Maryland Global Campus. Davis earned her master's degree in counseling education with a concentration in marriage, couples, and family therapy from Duquesne University. Davis has taught several undergraduate psychology courses. She is currently a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Duquesne University and practices psychotherapy in Maryland.
Header Image Credit: PeopleImages | Getty Images
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