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Tips for Students with ADHD

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

If you're a student right now, it may feel like you are being personally tortured by boring classes on Zoom. I'll admit, as a senior at UCI with ADHD, I know that the struggle is real. But virtual learning doesn't have to be an academic death sentence.

Even with ADHD, I am doing better (academically) now in college than I ever did in high school. It's all about having a growth mindset and the right approach.


Tip 1: Exercise before class

Especially during this pandemic, I have found that exercising before class is a mandatory requirement if I want to pay attention to Zoom. Now, I'm not talking about going all hardcore here, just some light-to-moderate stuff. Take a brisk walk, do a dance on TikTok, or just shake out that extra energy and get your blood up and pumping before class.

Why does this help? Similar to how ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall work, exercise naturally increases neurotransmitters like dopamine (and a protein crucial for learning called abrineurin), which ADHD'ers typically lack normal levels of.

Tip 2: Set up multiple "Study Zones".

Being in the same place all the time makes me go stir-crazy. By the end of the first day of school, I was irritated, itchy, and felt like I had cabin fever. Instead of having one space where you do all of your studying, create pockets inside your home or a quiet outdoor area so you can rotate where you learn.

Why does this help? Having a variety of environments that you are learning in can help break up the monotony of learning - and improve retention. According to a 1978 study, students could recall significantly more information if they had studied in more than one location. Apparently, memory is highly dependant on having rich environmental cues to pull from (which helps to explain why memory champions prize using a mnemonic device called "the Method of Loci").

Tip 3: Keep your camera on during Zoom lectures (which means attending your classes live)

In efforts to combat what was termed "Zoom-fatigue," many well-intentioned professionals advocated for people to turn off their cameras during Zoom sessions to decrease anxiety levels. However, I found that this was perhaps the worst advice

possible for ADHD students for one reason alone: accountability.

Not having my camera turned on meant that I now had complete and total freedom to do wanted guilt-free. So while I started the class with the honest intention to actively participate, I ended up multitasking weird (and oftentimes ironic) chores. For example, my gender inequality class became "time to do the dishes while listening to the historical oppression of a patriarchal society".

Why does this help? Similar to the ADHD technique known lovingly as "the buddy system", knowing that someone else is there keeping you accountable helps you accomplish the task at hand. By having your camera on, you know that theoretically someone is watching, so you at least have to try and look attentive.

Tip 4: Eliminate all distractions (including your own face) during class

Instead of turning off your camera, what really helps is actually hiding your Zoom tile from yourself. It's easy! The next time you're in class on Zoom, just right-click on your face to see the "Hide view" option and click. Voila! Zoom now feels a bit more natural.

Why does this help? ADHD'ers are known for getting distracted easily especially when it comes to social situations. That's why so many 504 plans and IEP's for ADHD highly recommend quieter learning environments for students with ADHD.

Some More Recommendations:

  1. Set your computer to "Do Not Disturb" or mute all notification during class.

  2. Students who struggle with surfing the web during class time, download a website blocker extension like WasteNoTime for Safari, or StayFocused or Limit on Chrome.

  3. If you're concerned about how you look on Zoom, try tweaking the "Touch Up Appearance" setting under the Video Section in your Zoom desktop application.

Tip 5: Doodle Your Notes

Did you know that doodling can help you retain 29% more information? (Wall Street Journal)

Despite what some people think, incorporating visual elements like different fonts, lines, and stick figures can help increase learning and stay awake. The key to doodling, which is also called "Sketchnoting" or "Visual Notetaking," is making sure that your scribbles are actually relevant to the topic at hand.

Why does this help? This works for two reasons: It's similar to how fidget toys work (or fidgeting in general), which take advantage of the body's natural response to moderating attention. Doodling increases comprehension, retention, and recall by creating additional touchpoints in your brain where content is being stored.

Tip 6: Use tiny flash cards with holes in them

Before COVID, I used to always cram for tests the day before, which I know is bad, but my test scores were always ok. However, this changed when classes went fully online. What helped me increase my test scores instrumentally was taking notes on tiny flash cards. And what helps even more is creating those flashcards the day that you learn the content, and then sticking them on those little metal rings for safekeeping.

Why does this work? One of the hidden implications of ADHD is having impaired executive functioning, which helps you sift through the minutia of superfluous content, and helps you keep things separated. By having tiny notecards with a distraction-free look (no lines), you are forcing yourself to keep things simple while also keeping one topic to one card. This actually mimics a note taking strategy known as Zettelkasten, which has been used by researchers and other academics to retain large swathes of information.

Tip 7: Find time to fill your bucket & cultivate a growth mindset

At the end of the day, I'm mentally exhausted. And so, in efforts to defeat the inevitable "brain-drain" that I feel, I always make sure to take time in my day to decompress by doing something that makes me feel fulfilled. Especially times like these, connecting yourself to something that gives you a sense of purpose and that you actively enjoy doing, can help you recharge and is a critical part of self-care.

Why this works: Before COVID, we had decompression time automatically built into our schedule. Think about all of the times that you spent shuffling between classes, school, and activities. These were all "decompression" times, where your brain could go offline and chill for a bit. However, with virtual learning, what we see is students switching from task to task without many transitions between. By intentionally creating spaces for you to decompress, you can get a bit of that space back and build up your resources to help you face the challenges of tomorrow.


So take a deep breath, be kind to yourself, and know that you are not your grades, nor does this moment define your moral worth or who you are. You do. So in the words of Beyonce, "go get there" and cultivate a growth mindset.


Shawnie Leaf


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