How to Learn Best with ADD/ ADHD
I want to talk about learning with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I have been working with patients with ADD/ ADHD for over 30 years. In that time, I have helped people pass exams of all sorts: the bar, CPA exam, medical boards, police entrance exam, lieutenant exam, marine captain exam, ACT, SAT, MCAT’s, LSAT’s, marine captain’s license, firefighter exams, pilot exams, GED’s, on and on. It’s a unique situation, because people with ADD/ ADHD have specific study methods that work, but may not be the conventional way. They have a distinct problem with concentrating while sitting. They cannot just sit there and read and incorporate the information they read, it just won’t work. They also do not do well sitting and listening, so sitting in a lecture will do little to no good. Large groups are virtually impossible. Sitting in a group of 500 people listening to a professor during a freshman English lecture is useless for someone with ADD/ ADHD, it’s a waste of time. Studying and learning may be more challenging for those with ADD/ ADHD, but it’s definitely doable, so if you have either of these diagnoses, don’t use it as an excuse! Based on my experience listening to literally thousands of patients with ADD/ ADHD, I’ve come up with 15 guidelines on study methods and the do’s and the don’t’s that will help to process, incorporate and recall information in preparation for any test.
Before I get to those, a quick note. Your diagnosis is your business, but if you do choose to inform your teacher(s) or prof(s), you may find they’re willing to help you by possibly giving you more exam time, giving you extra materials (like questions or even practice tests) or by giving you one-on-one time to guide you as to what topics or ideas are most important. This may not be possible in professional exams or standardized exams, but if it’s a grade 1 to 12 school or even a college situation, it’s very likely they’ll assist you. Often they have policies in place already, so if you do have the diagnosis, don’t be afraid to tell them and ask for help. You certainly can’t be penalized in any way for doing so. If you do feel comfortable disclosing the diagnosis, a guidance counsellor is a great place to start. Now for my guidelines.
1. Do not just sit and read, do not just sit for lectures unless they’re required, and do not just sit (get my drift?) and watch something being done and expect to learn from it the way others might. It won’t necessarily hurt you, but your time might be better spent learning in a different way. If you do go to lectures, maybe use that time to create questions on the material as the teacher or prof drones on about it….insert Charlie Brown teacher soundbite here….wahn wahn waaahhhn waahnn wahhnnn wahn…. More on questions later.
2. With ADD/ ADHD, you will learn best by using interactive methods. Tutorswork very well whether you have ADD/ ADHD or not. Group interaction works well too, so start a study group. Better yet, combine the two- start a study group and have everyone pitch in to pay a tutor to help study for exams. Working with an interactive computer program would be great, a program where it asks you a question and you choose an answer and enter your choice. Some textbooks have those types of study aids online, so check out whatever resources exist at the end of chapters in your textbook, whether it’s online or printed.
3. Never cram for a test! Study over a prolonged period- this will allow you to “sleep on it,” which will help you retain more of the material. During sleep, the brain rehashes the information you’ve learned. Reviewing it over several days will increase the odds that you will better understand the material and remember more of it. And always do a before bed blitz… Studies show that you remember more when you take 10 to 15 minutes to review material you’ve studied or learned just before you go to sleep. Obvi, don’t do all of your studying at bedtime, just do a quick review so the brain processes the information as you sleep. And be sure to catch enough shut eye. Experts say that most people need to sleep eight to nine hours a night to remember what they’ve learned, and teens need even more than that.
4. Study the material, not the clock. When you sit down to study, note the time you start, but do not study by the length of time spent studying. Instead, study by the amount of material you cover; ie decide to cover x number of chapters, and do not stop until you know that material. And while your goal is to cover x amount of material, do try to make your study sessions last as long as the time allotted for the exam. This will start habituating your mind to be active for (and be able to sit for) a 2- or 4-hour exam or whatever the case may be.
5. When you sit down and study, treat it like it is an exam, don’t get lazy and knock off early. When you sit down and study, you sit down and you rock and roll, you pretend like you are in an exam situation. If you’re not willing to sit down and put your mind in an exam situation, then studying is a waste of time. Train your mind to be in the exam. Pretend you are in the exam so that when you do get in the actual exam, you are well practiced, your body is habituated for that situation, and everything comes more easily.
5. Learn to study anywhere, anytime. You don’t know the exam situation: if the person next to you will be coughing, if the clock on the wall will be ticking, ifthere will be noise outside, if you can hear the sound of the street, if the overhead lights are buzzing, if the fan is clicking rhythmically, etc. Break up your study locations or study in different situations so that you learn to adapt. Plus, you can get superstitious if you always study in the same place…I’ve had patients tell me they can only learn in one particular place- their room, kitchen, or the library. Also, you may find that you increase your focus and motivation for studying by seeking out locations outside of your house or room, like a Starbucks.
6. When you read questions, read very carefully! This is key. If you have study questions, read carefully to prepare yourself to do so in the actual exam, because obvi, that’s where it matters. Remember to pay very close attention to words like yes and no and phrases like the most, the least, which one is, which one is not. Also pay close attention to absolutes in questions, words like never and always. Take it from a physician who is dual board certified: critical reading of the question is the most important thing in exams. Focus! Do notread the question quickly and always read it twice to make sure you understand exactly what is being asked. If some key words in the test question are familiar from studying, you might be inclined to just skim the question when you see the words, assuming it uses those words in the same context as they were in the book or study materials. Don’t make that assumption- pay attention and read the question again, even if you’re sure you got it the first time. Maybe the question only has a minor difference, like ‘is’ instead of ‘is not.’ Sometimes your brain can trick you….and sometimes the test maker can too!
7. Work out every day. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day improves focus and executive functioning skills, especially in students with ADD/ ADHD. It doesn’t matter what you do: sit ups, pushups, squats, planks, running…do it for half an hour every day.
8. Be mindful with socialization. You can study in a work group, but as for going to parties the day before a test, that’s a negatory! Your brain will not have time to regroup before the exam. Actually, it’s better to rsvp no to all parties during the entire study period- not only do you lose that study time, but you won’t be able to redirect your thought processes back into the study mode the next day. Save the party for after the exam, when you hopefully have something to celebrate…knowing you did well!
9. Drugs. Caffeine helps bigtime, so have coffee and tea on hand when studying and learn to love it. Caffiene and studying are like an AmEx card- you shouldn’t study without it. Other amphetamine stimulants like Adderall are very helpful. Patients I’ve placed on stimulants see a dramatic difference in their ability to study and retain information. It’s a tool for them, just like a number 2 pencil, which btw, don’t forget to have at least three sharpened number 2 pencils and a good eraser so you can fully erase mistakes. This is especially important in scantron tests! If you’re struggling in exams and school and you haven’t tried a stimulant like Adderall, maybe you should ask your physician about trying it. And on the topic of drugs, Captain Obvious says don’t drink or smoke pot because it makes your brain discombobulated for a looooong time! If you do drink and smoke pot, don’t bother wasting time studying. It would be pointless.
10. Set goals. Tell yourself ‘I will get through x amount of material today,’ ‘I will do so many questions today,’ ‘I will be able to recite so much material today.’ Set goals that challenge you, but are attainable. If you have a tutor or are in a study group, it’s much easier to stay on track and stick to goals like these, so if that’s difficult for you, consider going that route.
11. Never ‘kind of’ know something. If, after you have studied and done questions and practice tests, you can close the book and recite what you have just learned, you should be golden. If you can teach the material to a total stranger, you should be golden. Be careful testing that theory though- it would suck to miss the exam because you’re in jail.
12. Always study with a computer or an iPad next to you so that you can look things up if you don’t know the definition of a word or understand a concept. A question may hinge on the definition of a key word, and it would suck to get it wrong because you thought you knew the definition when you studied so you didn’t bother to look it up. That would be the definition of dumb.
13. Questions, questions, questions! Here it is. I’m all up in your grill with questions because they’re the best way to learn if you have ADD/ ADHD. The best way to create questions is to make a practice test. Try to predict what your teacher may ask on the exam. If they give a review in class, you definitely want to be there, because they’re not giving a review just to hear themselves talk. If they give out a study guide, know it, because they didn’t take the time to make it just for funsies. Study old quizzes, making sure you’re using the right answers, and ask classmates what they think is importantenough to be on the test. And then create a practice test. Obvi, that doesn’t mean you should only know the material you put in your practice test. If you study in a group, which you should, have each person create a practice test, and then make copies and distribute to everyone in the group for a better variety of topics. Then go over every test as a group and study those questions. The very best way to prepare for a test is to get a tutor, join a study group, and do questions. That would be the winning trifecta for exam preparation.
14. Keep a positive attitude. If you have ADD/ ADHD, chances are you beat yourself up throughout your whole life, and people may have even put you down, saying you’re not that smart blah, blah, blah. Well, screw them. You are smart. Study and get excellent grades as a big F.U. to anyone who ever put you down. Know your stuff and stay positive.
15. You must be determined. Have a can do attitude. You must say ‘I will do this at all cost.’ Make success the only option. Yoda said it best: “No try. Do.”Learn More