In a world bursting at the seams with kaleidoscopic stimuli, even the most focused and “inner peace” savvy among us have trouble paying attention and controlling our impulses every once in a while. (Did I just get an Instagram notification? I wonder what's on my secret crush's Story today.)
Indeed, today's academic environment forces us to sit still and focus our minds on information that is almost never as stimulating as all the colors, punchy stories, flashing images, and pleasing sounds that are a short phone tap away.
Now, throw into the mix a chronic affliction characterized by pervasive and persistent difficulty in concentrating. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting about 10% of school-age children, three-quarters of which will take the symptoms with them into college and beyond.
The question is — whether you've been officially diagnosed with ADHD or not — how can you overcome your challenges and develop a disciplined study routine?
When you can’t even concentrate on your breakfast cereal, how can you study with ADHD?
Well today is your lucky day. Brainscape, the maker of the world's best flashcard learning app, has put together a complete guide to answer these questions.
- Before you start: absolve yourself of any shame
- Tips on how to study with ADHD
- ADHD tips for exam day
- Excelling at life with ADHD
Before you start: absolve yourself of any shame
People with ADHD can be misunderstood because they don’t tend to “fit in” well with society’s rigidly disciplined structures. Their lack of discipline and focus can make living life within the expectations of the academic environment and professional workplace . . . difficult.
But it doesn’t make ADHD a curse or something to be ashamed of. Some of the world's most successful people—including Walt Disney, Will Smith, John F. Kennedy, Simone Biles, Emma Watson, Zooey Deschanel, Richard Branson, and Albert Einstein—used their ADHD as an asset on the way to the top.
ADHD also may have served a critical function to our primitive ancestors. The caveman who was most easily distracted from making the fire when a saber-toothed tiger rustled in the bushes was also the most likely to evade the predator and pass his genes onto future generations. The cavewoman who was driven by an insatiable curiosity to pursue multiple hobbies was most likely to raise more capable and well-rounded children, who would go on to sire richer societies.
So don't think of ADHD as a handicap. Think of it as your evolutionary advantage. Sure, it can be a little annoying in a rigid, modern academic environment but it’s nothing a few ADHD hacks for school and exams can’t solve.
No biggie, you've got this!
Here are Brainscape’s tips on how you can remain organized, calm, and on task while studying with ADHD.
Tips on how to study with ADHD
1. Know what you’re up against
If you have ADHD, your attention span is a precious resource. It, therefore, needs to be allocated mindfully, with not a single drop wasted on reviewing material that isn’t going to be assessed. So the more you know about the test or exam you’re going to write, the better.
The best approach to this is to (1) create an outline of what you think will be on the test using your textbook and class intel, and (2) ask your teacher for guidance.
Show your teacher your outline and ask if you’ve missed anything important, if you’ve correctly captured the focus of the exam in your study plan, and if there’s anything redundant you might be wasting your time on. You might also ask about the exam format: is it multiple choice? Will there be essay questions? Or a mix of short-answer questions and essays?
Learn as much as you can about your challenge so you can tailor and focus your studying to rise about it!
2. Start studying early
You’re already hyper-sensitive to anxiety and distraction. So, the worst thing you can do is put off your studying for the last minute, causing pre-exam anxiety. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for tests and exams.
Optimally, you should consolidate your learning throughout the semester by pre-reading the material before lectures, simplifying your notes, or making flashcards, and reviewing the information afterward, within 24-48 hours of each lecture.
It sounds like a lot of work but this consistent dedication to learning ensures that you approach exam time having already mastered most of the material. This leaves you in a much better position than your peers, who probably have to re-learn (and cram) the entire course from scratch because they’ve forgotten most of it.
Having said this, you should also give yourself several weeks before the date of your exam to study. You simply don't want to stress about whether you’re going to get everything done in time.
3. Develop good study habits
As we touched on in the point above, make study a habit a daily devotion.
Study regularly and in a similar, consistent way several times a week, even if it’s just for 5 or 20 minutes. Brainscape's adaptive flashcard app is a great way to study in such short, yet potent sessions. You can make your own flashcards or tap into our extensive library of expert- and user-curated flashcard collections for a huge array of subjects.
With practice, your daily study will become “just another thing you do”, like getting up in the morning or brushing your teeth at night. And since you can get distracted and/or hyper-focused on other things, use your phone to set study reminders and alarms.
4. Remove distractions
This point is especially important for students with ADHD. Everyone is different so identify what you find to be particularly distracting and what environment you find to be optimal for concentration. (See also: How to improve your focus when you can't concentrate.)
For example, some people tend to get more distracted in quiet environments with the occasional noise, such as the shuffling of pages or a person walking by (i.e. library) than in busy environments with constant noise and action (i.e. coffee shop).
Figure out which environment works best for you and schedule regular study sessions there.
Then, prepare your distraction-free space:
- Set out all the study materials, stationery, coffee, water … whatever you need to learn. You shouldn’t have to get up for anything once you’ve started.
- If you’re at home, politely ask your family, housemates and/or “bae” to leave you alone and make minimal noise for the duration of your study session.
- Turn your phone to silent and disable notifications on all your devices. Consider even keeping it in another room.
- If you tend to procrastinate when studying, take care of all those niggly little tasks and responsibilities that can distract you (emails, bills, etc.) before you sit down to study.
- If you do think of important tasks and emails that require action while studying, write them down on a to-do list to do afterward. They can wait.
5. Break your studying down into manageable bite-sizes
Having ADHD isn’t exactly conducive to studying for several hours in a row (unless you absolutely love the subject and have a tendency to hyper-focus). You know how long/short your attention span is so tailor your study sessions according to your attention span—even if it is only 10-20 minutes. Then, break the material down into manageable bite sizes and create a daily schedule for study.
Again, Brainscape is especially useful for doing just this. With flashcard rounds of only 10 cards, you can literally squeeze in 5 minutes of studying wherever you are and whenever the motivation hits (seriously: exploit those bursts of motivation)! And if you find yourself “in the zone” and want to continue with another 10 cards (and then another, and so on), keep going!
6. Talk out loud
Talking through the information out loud by teaching it to someone else (whether real, imaginary, your pet cat, or pot plant) is a really powerful way to consolidate what you’ve learned. So, don’t be shy and use every opportunity you get to lecture a friend, classmate, parent, partner, or inanimate object on all the exciting new things you’ve been learning, even if it is corporate law.
7. Leverage the power of Brainscape
We’ve mentioned Brainscape a few times throughout this “how to study with ADHD” guide for good reason. The very nature of our flashcard study platform aligns perfectly with people who struggle to concentrate and focus, offering a quick, convenient, and effective way to tap in and out of your studies.
Based on decades of cognitive science research, Brainscape works with your brain’s hardwiring to help you learn more effectively and in a way that’s so easy, it’s almost seductive. No matter where you are or how much time or attention bandwidth you have to spare, you can flip open the app on your device and spend 5, 10, 20 minutes, or longer immersed in the world of your subject.
So, if you have ADHD, check out Brainscape because it could help you finally get those test scores you deserve!
ADHD tips for exam day
We’ve given you plenty of advice on how to study with ADHD. Now, it’s the day of the exam and your nerves are shot. Everyone is nervous and on edge. The key difference with you, however, is that you have ADHD and anxiety threatens to obliterate your ability to concentrate.
Here is how you can keep a level head, overcome pre-exam anxiety, and minimize distraction during your exam ...
8. Exercise in the morning
Kick your day off with whatever exercise you enjoy best, whether it’s an hour in the gym, a yoga session, or a 40-minute hike in the mountains. Exercise has a wonderful, therapeutic effect on the mind and body, reducing stress, releasing “happy hormones”, and improving your reserves of concentration for the rest of the day.
Check out Brainscape’s article on how to improve your brain health through positive lifestyle habits.
9. Eliminate hunger and thirst as distractors
Have a light snack shortly before the exam so you won’t be distracted by a grumbling stomach. High-protein foods like nuts, seeds, and beef jerky are good choices and maybe some low-sugar fruit like an apple.
10. Avoid dietary (and mental) stimulants
Avoid anything remotely stimulating, whether it’s social media and television or sugary, caffeinated beverages and foods!
ADHD symptoms can be exacerbated by such stimuli so avoid falling into a dopamine loop that can fire out of control and hijack your attention during the exam.
11. Understand test anxiety
Know that what you feel is perfectly normal. Everyone in the exam hall is nervous and anxious. You are not alone.
Acknowledge your anxiety, feel it, and then try to let it go. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and relax your shoulders. It’s go time.
You’ve got this.
12. Arrive a little early
Arriving with enough time to get your bearings, use the bathroom, and center yourself can help tremendously with the pre-exam anxiety.
13. Scan the test first
Open your test and review it from beginning to end before answering questions. Carefully review the instructions and reread them if necessary. Having perspective on what's to come can help you plot your timing better and avoid getting sucked into any one section.
It may even be a good idea to knock out the hardest part of the exam first before your attention span starts to get too depleted. Or, start with the easy questions to help you settle in.
Find what works best for you, but start with a quick scan to understand what's on the test.
14. Say “hi” and “bye” to distractions
If a distracting thought pops into your mind, don't despair. Relax and acknowledge the distraction. Write it down on a piece of paper, even describe it, how it’s making you feel, and what you can do about it after the exam.
By channeling that distraction onto paper you can eliminate it from your mind and return your attention to what’s important: acing your exam.
[See our complete guide for the best test-taking strategies]
Excelling at life with ADHD
Consider Simone Biles, who, with 19 World Champion and Olympic gold medals under her belt, is the most decorated American gymnast ever. Or political analyst, commentator, and educator James Carville, who flunked out of college but rebounded like a boss in politics, even helping former President Bill Clinton win the 1992 election.
Then there’s British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, Grammy-winning singer, songwriter Justin Timberlake, legal clerk and activist Erin Brockovich-Ellis (immortalized by Julia Roberts in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film), American Astronaut Scott Kelly, and so many more. All of these ambitious and vastly successful human beings have been clinically diagnosed with ADHD.
SEE? The problem isn’t you. It simply requires a bit of adaptation for a modern schooling environment.
Through a blend of daily study habits, time, and test anxiety management (and Brainscape!), ADHD students can kick butt during exam time. Remember, your ADHD does not define you. You can turn it into an advantage in life, just like tens of thousands of incredibly successful business people, entrepreneurs, professionals, athletes, and entertainers have.
Own it and rise to your challenge!
Danielson, M. L., Bitsko, R. H., Ghandour, R. M., Holbrook, J. R., Kogan, M. D., & Blumberg, S. J. (2018). Prevalence of parent-reported ADHD diagnosis and associated treatment among US children and adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 47(2), 199-212. https://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2017.1417860
Eisenberg, D., & Campbell, B. (2011, October). The evolution of ADHD. San Francisco Medicine, 21-22. http://evolution.binghamton.edu/evos/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/eisenberg-and-campbell-2011-the-evolution-of-ADHD-artice-in-SF-Medicine.pdf
Turk, T. N., & Campbell, D. A. (2002). The academic struggles of a gifted student with ADHD from preschool to college. Gifted Child Today, 25(4), 48-65. https://doi.org/10.4219%2Fgct-2002-83