Teaching Students with ADHD

By Ava Azari, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Often times, when I am sitting in a pharmacy school classroom listening to the professor’s lecture, I observe my classmates.  I observe them as they check their email, browse through Facebook, or surf the web.  I too am frequently guilty of not paying attention, particularly when the lecture is long and the power point slides are wordy. In the midst of my daydreaming, I often wonder what would make me more motivated and engaged in the class.  Recently, I did some research about the specific learning needs that students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have and the most effective ways to engage these students.

Students with ADHD are at higher risk for having academic achievement problems and are less likely to complete post-secondary education.
1  Students with ADHD don’t lack intellectual ability when compared to their non-ADHD counterparts; however their hyperactivity, impulsivity, and/or inattention make concentration difficult and this negatively impacts their performance.  Thus it is important for teachers to know about the specific learning needs of students with ADHD and how to more effectively engage ADHD students in the learning process.

ADHD students have diverse learning styles, similar to the rest of the population; however, it becomes vitally important to engage ADHD students because they often exhibit inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity and lack of concentration to a greater extent.  Frequently, students with ADHD are kinesthetic learners that need to engage in gross motor activity to learn most effectively.
2  Kinesthetic learners need to touch and feel things, try it themselves, and move their bodies in order to learn something new.  These learners have realizations through doing, as opposed to having thought first before initiating action.  Typically, these learners struggle to learn by simply reading or listening to a lecture. Some ways that teachers can engage kinesthetic learners is to encourage these students to take notes in the form of diagrams and models and require activities that require physically practice. A great example of incorporating kinesthetic friendly activities would be when teaching students CPR training. Kinesthetic learners learn best when they have practice dolls to practice their techniques.

Other learning styles associated with ADHD students are visual and auditory styles. Visual learners learn by seeing and responding to pictures, illustrations, written lessons, outlines, diagrams, charts, maps, and educational videos.
3  Teachers can include a lot of these visual activities in their lesson plan which would make it easier for the ADHD students to learn. Auditory learners retain information best when they have an opportunity to hear it. These learners cue in to voice tone, speed, volume, inflection, as well as body language and learn best by hearing class lectures and participating and listening to class discussions.  It may be helpful to allow these students to tape lectures so they can go back and listen to it again, as it would help them retain the material. It would also be a good idea for teachers to initiate class discussions frequently throughout a lecture to help the auditory learners.

Because college students with ADHD are at a higher risk of failing, it becomes especially important to identify factors that can predict their success.
4 One study regarding learning styles and college students with ADHD found that using a positive explanatory style when teaching predicted better college grades. Optimistic people often possess positive explanatory styles and feel that positive events happened because of their own effort. They believe negative events will soon end and do not allow negative events to affect other aspects of their lives.  Positive explanatory styles may aid learning in individuals with ADHD because their optimistic self talk during tasks guides them and helps them stay on track when a challenge arises.4  These students become more motivated and may think, “I can do this; this problem will be fixed if I keep trying.”4

In pharmacy school, there are numerous learning strategies that educators can utilize to help ADHD students. When introducing a new topic in class, educators can tell a story that relates to the subject matter. This would enhance imagination and visualization and allow them to draw their own connections to the subject. Using demonstrations in the classroom in the form of experiments and surveys would also be a great way for pharmacy educators to increase interest in a topic while promoting class participation. Frequently, pharmacy professors give lectures using PowerPoint presentations. It would be helpful if the instructor prepared slides that are concise by minimizing the number of words on each. In addition, professors can assign groups within the class and have groups give mini-presentations on important topics.  Further, educators should continually offer extra assistance in order to reach the ADHD students.

Although it may be challenging to motivate students with ADHD; it makes it especially important for educators to employ strategies that keep these students engaged, motivated, and optimistic.  ADHD students have diverse learning styles and it is beneficial to use a variety of teaching methods.  It’s important to ask for feedback during the school semester.  This would ensure that ADHD students have adequate opportunities to meet the course objectives and reaching out to them will help them succeed.

1.  Prevatt F, Reaser A, Proctor B, Petscher Y. The Learning/Study Strategies of College Students with ADHD. The Guilford Press. 2007. 
2.  Linksman, R. The Fine Line Between ADHD and Kinesthetic Learners. Association for Comprehensive NeuroTherapy. 2007; 1: 6. 
3.  Low, K. Understanding Your ADHD Child’s Learning Style. About.com. The New York Times Company. 2011 July 10.