Online learning with ADHD isn’t for me

A student shares her story of how having ADHD has impacted her online learning experience.

Some things about on campus learning are irreplaceable. 

During a normal semester, I would wake up at 8 a.m., walk to the train station by 9:30 a.m. and respond to emails during my commute. I’d grab a cup of tea at Saige Cafe and sit outside my classroom to watch other students spill out of class and anxiously wait for the elevator, fully aware they would be late for their next class if it didn’t come soon enough. 

I would sit in the first row directly in front of the board as my classmates filled in the seats around me. I’d take my medication and pull out my notebook to review my notes from the previous class. As the lecture progressed, I would take copious notes.

During my lunch break, I would print out my reading assignments at the TECH Center to complete on the train ride home. When I got home, I wouldn’t think about school. 

But this isn’t a normal semester. 

I can’t speak for everyone with ADHD, but I’ve had a particularly frustrating semester so far. I’ve spent my whole life adapting and experimenting to figure out how to best manage my ADHD in a classroom, but none of those strategies work in an online environment.

In a typical semester, I’d sit in the front row because I know if I can see other students, I’ll be distracted by what they’re doing on their computers. If I’m not seated right in front of the professor, I’ll start drawing in my notebook. I write my notes with pen and paper because my computer poses too many distractions and I print out all my course readings for the same reason. On top of that, my eyes get tired and I tend to zone out if I stare at my computer screen for too long.

Zoom classes aren’t my ideal learning environment. It takes me a few hours every week to print my reading assignments because my printer is much slower and single-sided, unlike the printers on campus. When I’m doing my schoolwork at home, I’m faced with obligations that I wouldn’t normally have to confront while on campus. My cat sits in my arms while I type, which, while very cute, is nevertheless distracting. I want to be involved in clubs and get professional experience, but with all communication occurring online, the ever-growing influx of unread emails is becoming unapproachable. 

In class, I’m distracted by the faces of 30 other students, and speaker view doesn’t make things any easier, as the constantly changing screen is worse than just seeing everyone. On top of that, I can barely focus on my professor’s lecture when their dog is barking in the background. 

Taking exams is more difficult too. Not only do I have to stare at a screen the whole time, but normally I write all over my tests when taking them on paper. In an online setting, it’s harder for me to remember which sections I need to double-check and what each question asked. When everything is on paper, I don’t have those problems. 

Thankfully none of my professors have used Proctorio so far, which can make things harder for someone who isn’t neurotypical. Proctorio is intended to prevent cheating, but one of the ways it does this is by tracking the movement of your facial features. With ADHD, it’s hard enough to sit still during an exam without worrying if Proctorio will mark you for cheating. 

I can’t go to Disability Resource Services in person for Distraction Reduced Testing for online classes. It’s also harder to get an appointment in general. Thankfully, my current DRS accommodation still covers extended test time, but many of my professors aren’t sure how to set it up using Canvas. I wind up feeling bad that they have to go out of their way to learn new ways to accommodate my ADHD. 

I feel pressure to be constantly connected in this online environment. I can’t maintain the same type of work-life balance I was able to cultivate during an in-person semester. 

I’m expected to be able to explain my needs and questions via email and coordinate with my professors, who are also being bombarded with emails. Some professors do understand that this is a difficult time. However, during the pandemic I’ve repeatedly heard them ask their students,“What are you going to do with all your free time?” 

I have less time than before the pandemic started. It’s harder to focus, pay attention in class, motivate myself to do my work, manage my time and actually learn. 

I understand why we have to be online this semester. In fact, I openly advocated for it. We need to take care of each other and keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safe. However, it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to produce the same quantity and quality of work as usual when our circumstances are so different.

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