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Column originally published Sep 27, 2022

ADHD Can Affect Learning And Motivation In University Students

Question: I am starting my second year in university. I struggled last year because the courses were online. I had difficulty sitting in front of the computer to watch recorded lectures. I didn’t do any assignments until the last minute. I blamed this on Covid-19 pandemic, and online learning. I barely passed, and was put on academic probation. I know that I can do better, but I lacked motivation. I am attending classes now in person, but I still have difficulty paying attention. I am distracted by everyone and everything around me.
When I was young, the teachers said that I had difficulty paying attention in class. I saw a paediatrician, and was told that I had ADHD, and given a pill. I lost appetite and started losing weight. My parents stopped the medicine; I couldn’t tell whether it was helpful or not. Over the years, I did ok although I didn’t do much homework until the last minute, and crammed just before exams. I used to play a lot of sports, but I stopped last year, thinking that I would spend more time on my studies. However, I couldn’t get motivated to do the assignments, and ended up playing videogames and on social media. Some of my friends said that I may have ADHD. I don’t want to take medicine, is there anything else that can help me?


You are not alone in having difficulties with online learning. Unless you are very motivated, and the professor is dynamic, it is hard to stay interested and focused on recorded lectures. It is so much easier to get distracted by social media and things around you.

Moreover, you have a history of difficulty paying attention even when you were young, and this is still happening now when you attend lectures in person. It is quite possible that you do have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) since childhood, and it is impacting you more now in university than before. In order to succeed in university, one needs motivation and discipline, good time management and organization to work on assignments and studies. It is harder, although not impossible, for those with ADHD.

It would be useful if you can get proper assessment and diagnosis by a psychologist or physician knowledgeable about adults with ADHD. Most universities will provide accommodation for those with this diagnosis. Accessibility service at the university can provide counselling and assistance with time management and organization. Procrastination can increase anxiety and make you feel overwhelmed.

Exercise can improve your physical and mental health. You did play sports when you were in school; this likely helped you to be successful then. You should schedule time every day for exercise, whether it is going to gym, or just go for a run or swim. You will feel better both physically and mentally after exercise, and more ready to study and do homework.

It is also important to have good quality sleep every night, so that when you wake up, you are awake and alert, ready to attend class and learn. Try to plan to go to bed at reasonable time every night, so that you can get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep, and wake up around the same time everyday, whether it is weekday or weekend. It has been shown that turning off all screens, including cellphone, about an hour before bed, makes it easier to fall asleep. Reading a physical book in bed, and using nature sound or soft music, can be helpful also.

Whether you want to use medicine or not is up to you. There has been much improvement in medications for ADHD since you were young. Most long-acting ADHD medications have little side effect, and can help you to focus better in lectures and in doing homework for 12 hours or longer, when they are adjusted properly. They can also improve motivation as well as organization. You may want to explore this with a physician who is knowledgeable about ADHD medications in adults.

I hope these suggestions are helpful for you to be successful in university and in your future career.