Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

What is ADHD?

ADHD is the official diagnostic term for a cluster of behavioral characteristics and their accompanying effects on relationships, productivity, and overall well-being.  The condition entails impairment of executive functions of the brain, impacting an individual’s ability to manage and organize her/his thought processes.  “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD) is a common alternative name for this condition. 

Individuals diagnosed with ADHD typically exhibit long-term and pervasive

1) distractibility (low degree of sustained focus) and

2) impulsivity (poor control over impulses and low tolerance for delayed gratification). 

Two-thirds of those diagnosed with ADHD also demonstrate

3) hyperactivity (high degree of restlessness or continuous activity).

Professors who have students with ADHD may recognize some of the following common behaviors:

  • blurting out answers rather than raising their hands or waiting their turn;
  • excessive fidgeting and restlessness;
  • constantly losing things;
  • frequent lateness and/or missed appointments;
  • careless mistakes; incomplete or sloppy work; inconsistent quality of work;
  • failing to follow directions;
  • inability to stay on task;
  • not listening even when spoken to directly.

Although the origins of ADHD are not entirely clear, research points to a neurological explanation: It appears that areas of the brain normally active when a person is paying attention or managing impulses are less active in individuals with ADHD; and two neurotransmitters are present in lower than usual amounts in their brains. 

ADHD frequently runs in families.  Around 4-6% of the U.S. population is likely to have some form of ADHD.  Many children with ADHD will continue to manifest it throughout their lives; they may learn ways to cope with and compensate for its effects, but they do not usually grow out of ADHD.

See the AD/HD Fact Sheet from the Attention Deficit Disorder Association for additional basic information.


Potential challenges, strengths, and strategies

According to accounts by people with ADHD, to have ADHD is to experience the world in a way that happens to differ from how people without ADHD experience it.  Many people with ADHD feel that it is both a blessing and a curse -- it may in fact be an advantage to have so many ideas and be drawn in several exciting or potentially transformative directions at one time. Indeed, recently published research confirms earlier studies in demonstrating that, on average, individuals with ADHD score higher on measures of original creativity than those without ADHD; they also tend to have more creative lives. 

The table below lists some of the issues that may affect the ability of a student with ADHD to fulfill his/her academic potential.  The second column offers a variety of strategies that can help to remove barriers to learning and well-being for a student with ADHD. 

Beside many of the strategies are the letters “UDL” highlighted in yellow.  This indicates that the strategy is consistent with Universal Design for Learning.  The instructor implements the measure for the whole class, so that not only the student with a disability benefits from it.  This also assures that a student with a disability is not unnecessarily singled out or identified as needing special provisions.

Potential IssuesStrategies
In-Class AttentionStrategies for lecture-based classes

A student with ADHD will probably tune out of extended lectures at least several times, missing some of the information presented.

ADHD also often interferes with an individual’s ability to process what s/he is hearing or seeing while they write at the same time.

Avoid lecturing for the full class session.  Break the time into segments of 10-15 minutes, punctuated by activities that require students to think about, organize, practice, or use what they are learning. 

Take a break during classes longer than 50 minutes. 

Post a copy of your lecture notes (and/or PowerPoint or other presentation tool) on Blackboard so that any student, including one with ADHD, may review them and fill in gaps in her/his notes. 

Incorporate a system in which several students each day – on a voluntary or required basis – post their notes for that class on Blackboard (a wiki or discussion board works well for this). 

Capture your class sessions or record your voice on a digital recorder and post it on Blackboard as a podcast. 

Allow the student to record lectures and other important informational segments.
A student with ADHD may not be able to determine readily to what words, concepts, or parts of a lecture they should pay close attention.Before class, post a skeletal outline, graphic organizer, or other structure for students to fill in or expand on when taking notes.  This should highlight in some way the critical information. 
Assessment IssuesStrategies for Assessment

Although they may know the material very well, a student with ADHD may not express his/her thoughts most effectively on an in-class written test.

To the extent that your specific learning objectives can be assessed in an alternative format, permit students to choose among two or more options for demonstrating what they have learned. UDL

  • Students with ADHD will focus much better on something that interests them. 
  • They will benefit from the chance to work at their own pace in a distraction-free environment, instead of having to complete the assessment in the classroom. 
Offer a take-home exam as an alternative to test-taking accommodations.
Emotional ImpactEmotional Support
A student with ADHD may experience frustration, anxiety, and low self-esteem if her/his coping strategies are inadequate to the academic or social demands of college.Don’t assume that your student is not trying hard enough, or does not care about achieving the standards you have set for your course.  Offer to help sort out what is not working, and to collaborate on ways to address those issues.
Learning ActivitiesStrategies for Assignments/Activities

A student with ADHD may have difficulty following through on a complex assignment.

For complex assignments, provide supports to help students navigate and organize their time.  UDL

  1. Lay out the process in simple, clear steps.
  2. Delineate one major phase from another, using visual and textual cues (e.g., color-coding; separate pages; separate boxes in a flow chart).
Provide explicit benchmarks or deadlines for completing each phase.
A student with ADHD may fail to give an assignment sufficient attention, and may end up submitting a substandard product at the last minute.

Whenever possible, allow students to choose the topic or question they will focus on for an assignment.  If any student – including one with ADHD -- sees the assignment as interesting, meaningful, and worth doing, s/he will be more capable of concentrating on it and producing exemplary work. 

When you want to give students practice in solving problems, consider assigning them to create the problems themselves.  This may encourage more sustained concentration by a student with ADHD. 
Organizational ProblemsStrategies for organization
Time management may be a problem for a student with ADHD. Provide a calendar at the beginning of the semester, showing all dates for exams and important assignments, as well as interim dates for completing stages of a complex process (e.g., writing a paper or completing a project). 
A student with ADHD may be overwhelmed by a lengthy syllabus and may put off reading it indefinitely.

Post your syllabus in two forms on Blackboard:

  1. the full version; and
  2. a series of short documents, each containing one or several sections of the syllabus.
Students with ADHD will be able to access the section they need in a form they can read at a single sitting.  This may be more manageable and therefore more appealing. 
It may be difficult for a student with ADHD to organize course materials and notes, or to prioritize topics, in order to study effectively.Provide review sessions and/or study sheets. 



Additude: Living Well with Attention Deficit is an online magazine for people with ADHD.  Its archives include articles about adult ADHD, mental health issues that often co-occur with ADHD, and personal accounts by individuals with ADHD.

Brown, Thomas E. “Executive: Describing Six Aspects of a Complex Syndrome.” An authorized adaptation of excerpts from Thomas Brown, Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults (Yale University Press, 2005).  Published on the website of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).

DO-IT Faculty Room. Knowledge Base articles about ADHD.  The list includes several case studies.

TotallyADD:  An informative and humor-filled website from the ADHDers who created the documentary film “ADD and Loving It?”  One welcome feature is the selection of short videos on a variety of topics related to ADHD in children and adults.

Tuckman, Ari. “More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD.”  Offers free podcasts of excerpts from Tuckman’s book of the same name.

University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability: ADHD module.  Each topic section contains brief explanatory text and quality references.