How to study with ADHD (the neurodivergent learner)

If you have ADHD or ADD, you may find yourself struggling to learn in the same way your classmates do. As someone with ADHD, and somebody who loves learning, I know exactly what it's like to fight my own brain to meet deadlines, try to stay engaged in three-hour-long lectures and partake in seminars where most of the time I am nodding a long but cannot hear a word the person in front of me is saying. As someone who has now achieved two Master's degrees and a BA with Honors, I can tell you safely that being an effective learner with ADHD/ADD is totally possible, however, it does come with hurdles. In this blog, I have outlined some of the effective strategies that have worked for me.

If you have ADHD or ADD, you may find yourself struggling to learn in the same way your classmates do. As someone with ADHD, and somebody who loves learning, I know exactly what it’s like to fight my own brain to meet deadlines, try to stay engaged in three-hour-long lectures and partake in seminars where most of the time I am nodding a long but cannot hear a word the person in front of me is saying. As someone who has now achieved two Master’s degrees and a BA with Honors, I can tell you safely that being an effective learner with ADHD/ADD is totally possible, however, it does come with hurdles. In this blog, I have outlined some of the effective strategies that have worked for me.

1. Intrinsic motivation is EVERYTHING

If you can take anything away from this blog it’s this – INTRINSIC MOTIVATION IS EVERYTHING. Now, what do I mean by intrinsic? Intrinsic means internal, that is, it comes from YOU. Here’s an example: you’re in math class learning about algebraic equations and you find the concept of them painfully boring. You see no relevance to algebra to what you want to become (let’s say you want to be a painter) or the real world. You have ZERO interest in it, hence why you’re not learning a thing. If you were internally interested in algebra, you’re neurodivergent brain that loves anything it can get a dopamine kick from, would thrive in these lessons on algebraic equations, but because you find it boring, you ain’t learning anything. So what’s the hack?

Well, the hack is actually pretty simple, find intrinsic motivation in everything. When I had to complete my math GCSE exam as an adult in order to become a qualified teacher, I loathed the idea, but my determination to get onto my teaching course was unwavering and so I had to decide, was I going to put in the work and do it or not? I was. But the next step was to figure out how I could possibly do algebra when my brain despised it. I needed to find the fun. At the time I was really interested in space and understanding how scientists are trying to grow life on Mars. In the movie The Martian, I realized that algebra was needed in order to work out if life could be grown there, and so my brain made the connection that algebra is actually useful and interesting to something I am already hyper-fixated on. Likewise, I love games and always have, the more equations I completed, the more I realized that it was like a game. I also linked this to a previous hyper fixation I have had in the past which was coding and realized that these equations are similarly a code that needs to be cracked.

By linking what you need to learn with something you’re already interested in, you’ll make connections much quicker and retain information better.

2. Set clear, personal goals

As a neurodivergent, goals to me are crucial. We can often get easily distracted (was that a squirrel outside my window), and become hyper-fixated on strange new hobbies, and we’re pros when it comes to procrastination. We also have a tendency to forget goals that are important to us, especially if they are out of sight, they literally are out of mind. Try setting a range of goals. Start with your big goal, for example:

“I want to become a secondary English qualified teacher.”

But also explain why you want to achieve that goal.

“…so that I can inspire students to fall in love with learning, reading and writing.”

Once you have your big goal, outline the steps you will need to take to get there. For example:

  1. Get a minimum of a C in English Literature and Math
  2. Volunteer at my local youth centre as a TA to get some hands-on teaching experience
  3. Take a gap year and get some teaching experience abroad
  4. Complete the teaching skills test in Math and English
  5. Apply to study at UoM
  6. Complete PGCE
  7. Become a qualified teacher and teach in a public school!

You may also find it helpful to break down each of your steps into even smaller goals e.g. to get a C in English you may need to get private tutoring, attend extra classes at school, build a strategy for getting the most out of your lessons, set a homework schedule, join a homework group, etc.

My top tip is to make a vision board of your goals and keep it somewhere you can see it daily. Always refer back to your goals when you get off course.

3. Accept how your brain functions

When you spend so much time around neurotypical people you can often feel incompetent and ashamed of your behaviour, but it’s important to understand that you behave the way you do because of your brain. Your brain is wired differently and while there are things you can do to reduce certain symptoms of having ADHD (such as reducing processed foods, exercising, taking your vitamins and having a well-balanced diet, and working around your tendencies), you can’t change the wiring of your brain. So it’s important to fully accept who you are and not feel any shame for it. It’s also quite freeing when you become accepting of who you are because it explains a whole lot.

4. Lists and hacks

Write a list of all of the tendencies that prevent you from achieving your goals then build up life hacks that you can use to combat your brain’s go-to behaviours. Here’s a couple of examples:

  • Forgetting deadlines – Using a display board where my deadline is clearly stated for each of my assignments in colours. Checking my deadline regularly, adding reminders to my calendars, and reminding someone close to me to keep me accountable for my deadlines.
  • Procrastinating during study time – Go to homework club where I have no choice but to study. Delete social media accounts or set a time limit on my phone so I can’t go on them during certain times of the day. Arranging a meet-up with a reliable and consistent study buddy.

5. Make yourself accountable

If there’s one thing I’ve come to realize about people with ADHD it’s that we often complete tasks when we’re held accountable to them. Yes, we may cram in a 3,000-word essay 24 hours before the deadline but you bet we’re going to meet that deadline because someone expects us to. The good news is, we can use this tool to our advantage by ensuring we’re accountable for the work we do. You can sign yourself up for an extra-curricular club or weekly study group and this will give you more of a chance to get the work done because somebody else is holding you accountable. Struggling to clean your room? Get a friend to tell you they’re coming over on a particular day and I bet you’ll get it spick and span in no time.

Remember that neurodivergence is also a superpower. You have an incredible brain, one that urges you to keep learning and growing, to develop new skills in new niches so you’ll never be bored. Learn to accept who you are and how your brain works so that you can continue to achieve success in life and empower others to do the same.

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