Nov 11 2021

Student Perspective: 6 Tips for Supporting Online Learners with ADHD

With the right resources and support, students with attention deficit disorders can thrive during remote instruction.

Trying to make a classroom out of a dorm room is a recipe for disaster. As soon as I join the Zoom call for class, distractions begin to beckon: My rumpled bed needs to be made. Each sock on the floor begs me to pick it up. My phone implores me to take a glance.

I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 7. My parents may have been tipped off by my inclination to complete every task except for my school assignments — and the fact that my two siblings were also diagnosed with the disorder.

With some counseling, medication and my own determination, I became a very dedicated student. However, nothing could have prepared me for COVID-19, or taking online courses at Boston University during my freshman year.

No one in the education system was prepared for this emergency transition to remote learning. The faculty and staff at my university have all done their best with the resources at their disposal as we made the initial adjustment. But as we continue to learn in virtual environments for the foreseeable future, it’s worth considering the following strategies to help online learners with ADHD.

STUDENT VOICES: See what else college students had to say about their online learning experiences.

1. Make Sure All On-Campus Students Have Access to Wi-Fi

Universities should prioritize stable Wi-Fi in all academic and dorm settings. During the pandemic, students have often been able to work only in their dorm rooms. If the internet connection is unreliable, it can be difficult for students, especially those with attention deficit disorders, to accomplish tasks.

With all schoolwork online, it can be challenging to stay motivated and on task if the Wi-Fi kicks me off every 15 minutes.

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2. Use Education Technology to Make Course Materials More Engaging

Lectures that last an hour or more can be daunting and confusing if we are not given enough opportunities to pause and process the information. It is helpful when professors split up lectures or classes with interactive content such as polls, graphics, videos or quizlets.

Interactive materials help us develop a greater understanding of the lesson. They also offer a second chance to students who may have had difficulty paying attention the first time around.

It also helps connect the subject material to real applications. My natural sciences professor did a great job at this. Most of our homework was assigned from an interactive biology program called SimBio. My professor also helped us review our course materials through simulations and experiments. Many of the examples in the simulations were real scenarios, and it helped connect the course material to real life in an engaging way.

EXPLORE: 3 ways to increase student engagement in online learning.  

3. Offer Small In-Person Group Sessions and Study Groups

It is also helpful to include small breakout groups during class and to encourage students to form study groups outside of class. If students with ADHD are unable to pay attention during a lesson, small study groups outside of the classroom can help us learn the material at our own pace.

It can be difficult to concentrate on lectures when we are watching a speaker on a computer screen. In small study groups, students have an opportunity to interact and practice the course materials with each other.

During my first semester learning American Sign Language, my professor would divide students into breakout rooms at least once per class, even just for five minutes. She also encouraged small study groups outside of class to help us practice and study for our exams. Meeting once a week in these groups helped us feel a much stronger connection to the class.

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4. Prioritize 1:1 Meetings with Online Students

During my first semester of college — which was fully remote — many of my professors maintained virtual office hours every week, and they were very accommodating about meeting outside of those hours as well.

Our one-to-one Zoom calls helped me build relationships with my professors and forge greater connections in my classes.

One-to-one sessions can also help educators understand what aspects of their online classes are difficult for students. Remember that students with ADHD are not lazy or disinterested. These meetings can reveal which parts of the course interest us and which parts we struggle with.

5. Encourage Students to Seek Productive Learning Environments

For students with ADHD, focus can be dependent on the environment.

A dorm room is a space of relaxation — quite the opposite of a productive learning environment. Remote learners working back at home may feel compelled to lock themselves in their rooms, away from family members and distractions.

If possible, encourage students to go to the library or a quiet outside study space where those around them are also concentrating on work. This can help inspire students to focus and help get us into the right frame of mind.

Above all, our phones are the greatest distraction during classes and study sessions. It may be helpful to remind us to put our phones at the opposite end of the room, or to have a roommate or friend keep our phones until class is finished.

READ MORE: An AV design engineer offers advice on how to personalize hybrid learning classrooms.

6. Allow Music and Fidgets to Improve Concentration

For students with ADHD, multitasking can actually help maintain concentration.

While fidget spinners can be distracting to others, there are smaller fidgets that can greatly help students with ADHD improve concentration if we use them underneath a desk.

It may be helpful to remind students to play music or white noise when they work on assignments. I often find the silence in my dorm room deafening, especially when I’m trying to work. Turning on a relaxing playlist can help me stay on task.

In the classroom, my other focus strategies include doodling, tapping my foot or twirling my hair, all of which help reduce my restless energy and distracting thoughts.

Just remember, we are not fidgeting because we aren’t paying attention. We are fidgeting because we want to pay attention.

Explore our Remote Learning Diaries series to see what else college students had to say about their virtual classroom experiences.

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