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ADHD Module

Learning Challenges at the Postsecondary Level

According to Brown (2008), individuals with AD/HD “often report chronic difficulty in focusing their attention, in sustaining their focused attention, and shifting their focus of attention as needed to meet the demands of learning, work, social interactions, and the countless tasks of daily life” (p. 14). From an observer’s perspective, it appears that individuals with AD/HD “cannot stay alert unless they are engaged in a behavior that provides steady motoric, social, or cognitive feedback” (Brown, 2008, p. 14). These issues with attention are at the core of the academic problems faced by students with AD/HD.

Results of a recent meta-analysis of the research suggest that there is a moderate to large discrepancy in academic achievement between individuals with AD/HD and their non-disabled peers (Frazier, Youngstrom, Glutting, & Watkins, 2007). Students with AD/HD generally have significantly lower mean GPAs, are more likely to be on academic probation, and experience more academic problems (Heiligenstein, Guenther, Levy, Savino, & Fulwiler, 1999; Lee, Osborne, Hayes, & Simoes, 2008) in comparison to students without AD/HD. Studies show that college students with AD/HD reported lower scores in concentration, selecting main ideas, test strategies, and time management (Reaser, Prevatt, Petscher, & Proctor, 2007), all of which reflect problems with attention. These studies also indicate that students with AD/HD at the postsecondary level may experience difficulties with reading, writing, following lectures and note-taking, completing assignments on time, and finishing exams within allotted times.

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Additional research conducted on students with AD/HD has found that challenges these students have with attention directly affects working memory (Brown, 2008), also referred to as short-term memory (Lerner, 2003). Working memory is a temporary storage facility for limited amounts of incoming information for a limited amount of time (usually less than 15 seconds)(Bender, 1998). There are several aspects of academic work that depend on the effective functioning of working memory including understanding text, even if a student is competent in decoding each word. Brown has explained that understanding what is read is more than simply decoding words. “Reading comprehension is built on the effective functioning of working memory in conjunction with an active, sustained attention to text” (Brown, 2008, p. 16). Students with AD/HD state that it takes them a long time to read and write, a reflection in part of difficulties with sustaining attention and working memory. Other academic activities such as class discussions and working in groups may also present challenges for students with AD/HD as “impairments of working memory can interfere with both receptive and expressive aspects of communication between individuals and within groups” (Brown, p. 16). In other words, deficits in executive function and working memory can make understanding and timely responses difficult for students with AD/HD.

In addition to working memory issues, other executive function impairments are also related to deficits in academic performance. Results of studies of college students suggest that students without disabilities adjust their study strategies so they align with the cognitive processing demands of tests. Additional findings indicate that performance is mediated by the study strategies that are used (Green, Salisbury-Glennon, Tollefson, & Ross, 2006). Students with AD/HD are not able to make these strategic adjustments. Individuals with AD/HD may also demonstrate deficits in planning and set-shifting (Marzocchi et al., 2008) making it more difficult to compensate for these deficits through study strategies alone. It is the impact of these functional impairments of AD/HD that are the rationale for accommodations at the postsecondary level.



Bender, W. N. (1998). Learning disabilities: Characteristics, identification, and teaching strategies (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Brown, T. E. (2006, February). AD/HD and challenges of early adulthood. Attention, 13, 32, 34, 36. Retrieved from https://www.ahead.org/uploads/conference/2010/Concurrent%20Session%209/9...

Brown, T. E. (2008, February). Executive functions: Describing six aspects of a complex syndrome. Attention, 15(1), 12-17. Retrieved from http://www.chadd.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Especially_For_Adults&Templ....

Frazier, T., Youngstrom, E., Glutting, J., & Watkins, M. (2007). ADHD and achievement: Meta-analysis of the child, adolescent, and adult literatures and a concomitant study with college students. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(1), 49-65.

Green, S., Salisbury-Glennon, J., Tollefson, N., & Ross, M. (2006). College students' study strategies as a function of testing: An investigation into metacognitive self-regulation. Innovative Higher Education, 30(5), 361-375.

Heiligenstein, E., Guenther, G., Levy, A., Savino, F., & Fulwiler, J. (1999). Psychological and academic functioning in college students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of American College Health, 47(4), 181.

Lee, K., Osborne, R., Hayes, K., & Simoes, R. (2008). The effects of pacing on the academic testing performance of college students with ADHD: A mixed methods study. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 39(2), 123-141. doi:10.2190/EC.39.2.b.

Lerner, J. (2003). Learning disabilities: Theories, diagnosis, and teaching strategies (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Marzocchi, G. M., Oosterlaan, J., Zuddas, A., Cavolina, P., Geurts, H., Redigolo, D.,…Sergeant, J. A. (2008). Contrasting deficits on executive functions between ADHD and reading disabled children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(5), 543-552.

Reaser, A., Prevatt, F., Petscher, Y., & Proctor, B. (2007). The learning and study strategies of college students with ADHD. Psychology in the Schools, 44(6), 627-638. doi:10.1002/pits.20252.