14 Best Study Strategies for ADHD

(That Actually Work)

Published on
December 4, 2023

How do adults with ADHD study?

Ready for those final exams?


Well, you can be, with the right study strategies.

Many college and university students with adult ADHD really struggle when it comes to studying. Time blindness, procrastination, overwhelm…these symptoms make studying challenging enough. On top of that, many people are never actually taught how to study - I know I wasn’t. If study skills were covered in school, I guess I missed that class.

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to learn - in grad school, I mentored online university students on study skills, so I learned a TON - and now I’m here to share them with you! Whether you’re struggling with ADHD management, or just never had an opportunity to learn, the following study skills will help you prep for your next exam.

Use The Serial Position Effect

Why It Helps: You’re much more likely to remember the first and last things you learned than anything in the middle.You can use the serial position effect to your advantage. By starting and ending your study session with the information you struggle to remember, you give yourself a better chance to recall that information. Save the stuff you already know/understand for the middle of your study session.

For example, if you are using flash cards, arrange them such that the terms or facts you struggle with the most are split between the top and bottom of the pile. The ones you remember easily are the ‘filling’ in your flash card sandwich!

Make a Cheat Sheet

Why It Helps: Distilling the most important information improves recall.Even if you're not allowed to use a "cheat sheet," go ahead and make one. When you force yourself to fit a great deal of information into a smaller space, you're forced to summarize and distill information. This improves recall because you are writing in your own words. Plus, evaluating what information is most important to include, and what can be left out, can lead to deeper understanding.

Create Your Own Quizzes

Why It Helps: Active recall is more helpful than passive review.Active recall is the process of trying to find information we've already been presented with - like reading one side of a flashcard and trying to remember what's on the back. Studies show students who use active recall in study sessions are 50% more likely to remember the information they studied. That's powerful!

Apps like Quizlet are great for this.

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words

Why It Helps: People remember pictures better than words.Many people with ADHD are visual learners, because we remember new things based on their connection to things we already know. So, find a way to visualize the information. Either find related pictures or graphics, or create them - even if only in your head. This is easier for some subjects than others, but it IS possible to visualize most obscure information. Be creative!

Be Skeptical

Why It Helps: Critical thinking improves recall.This may not apply to every subject; for example, thinking critically about the Pythagorean Theorem will only get you so far. But when you're presented with a new fact or concept, don't just accept it as fact and move on. Studies show that by intentionally looking for error, and evaluating information critically, you'll not only remember it better - but you'll gain a deeper, more well-rounded understanding of the information by looking at it from different angles.

Get Some Sleep. Seriously.

Why It Helps: Most ‘successful’ all-nighters are coincidence; not evidence that the all-nighter was effective.When you're worried about a test, it can be really tempting to stay up all night cramming the day before. Don't fall into this trap!

Lack of sleep hinders working memory - which is something we neurospicy folks already struggle with. So the more exhausted you are, the less effective any studying you do is going to be. On the flip side, sleep improves both long and short-term memory. Even if you know you haven't studied as much as you should, don't put off sleep and risk forgetting the things you DO know.

Self-Reference Effect

Why It Helps: People better remember things that relate to them.This is especially true for people with ADHD, who are much more likely to feel motivated by things that are of personal interest. To use the self-reference effect to your advantage, think about how the information relates to your life. How would you use this information in the future? It can be tough if you're, say, majoring in math, but you have to take an English course. In this example, you might consider writing your English paper about mathematical concepts, about why you enjoy math, or what you want to do with that degree. Whatever it is, find a way to make it personal!

Spaced Repetition

Why It Helps: It's important to study each concept several times. The longer you wait to use information, the more likely you are to forget it.

Basically the opposite of cramming, spaced repetition is a systematic method of reviewing material at longer and longer intervals. After studying information the first time, you might remember it for 24 hours. By studying that information again the next day, you might remember it for a few days. By studying it again a few days later, you might remember it for a couple weeks.

Ready to give it a try? These apps all use spaced repetition to help you study. Or, you can use the box method, like in the image below.

Conquer Anxiety

Why It Helps: Anxiety hinders working memoryIf you think about working memory like computer RAM, anxiety takes up a TON of RAM in your brain - like having so many browser windows open on your computer that it runs slower and slower. Free up working memory by closing some of those 'tabs' that are open in your head. This is true for both while you study, and during the test.

There are tons of tips out there for easing test anxiety. Start here, and reach out to an online ADHD coach at Shimmer if you need more!

Motivation is Key

Why It Helps: We remember the things we want to remember.This makes sense, right? We tend to do better in those courses that really capture our curiosity and interest. So, examine your motivation for remembering the information. This goes back to the self-reference effect - the more you feel the information is actually relevant to you, the more likely you are to be motivated to remember. This is hard in classes we're "forced" to take. But if you think creatively, you can probably find a way to make it relevant.

Take a Break

Why It Helps: People better remember when they study in small chunks.Studies show that most people's attention begins to drift at the 20-minute mark. For those of us with ADHD, this might be even shorter. Divide study sessions up into small chunks. Take breaks to walk around, watch a funny video, get a snack or a power nap. Hey, there’s a reason the Pomodoro Method is popular in the ADHD crowd!

This is a good strategy to combine with the Serial Position Effect above.

Take Written Notes

Why It Helps: Research shows that students who write notes by hand retained information better than those who typed - even if they wrote fewer words overall.Strategy is key - find what works for you - but whatever method you use, write it down, don’t type! Many people are never actually taught how to take notes. So, it may come as a surprise that there are a TON of different not-taking strategies out there, and they all get at different areas of learning. If your current note-taking strategy isn't working for you - or if you don't even have one yet - check out some of these note-taking strategies, and pick one that makes sense for you and for the topic (different styles may be more suited to different topics, so it’s good to learn a few different note-taking styles).

Read Backwards

Why It Helps: It’s easier to focus when you use active reading (reading with a pre-determined question or goal in mind).Reading a textbook is the one time it actually makes sense to read backwards. Many textbooks have questions and/or a chapter summary at the end - start by reading the summary and identifying gaps in knowledge - write out any questions you have, things you’re curious about, new terms, etc. Go through and change chapter titles, subtitles, sections, and paragraph headings into questions. For example, a chapter titled, “The Laws of Physics” might become “What are the laws of physics?” Write these down in your notebook, leaving space between them to write the answers as you discover them. Keep reading here for more detailed steps and tips for reading your text strategically.

Two Heads Are Better Than One

Why It Helps: Getting different perspectives can be helpful, and it may help save time - divide and conquer!When there is a LOT to study, it can feel overwhelming. Working with other students to create a group study guide can cut down some of the time involved. Or, taking turns "teaching" concepts to each other gives you a chance to use some of the strategies discussed above, like active recall, critical thinking, and summarizing information.

Supercharge Your Study Sessions With an Online ADHD Coach

Need even more help? Check out the links below, or even better - try working with a virtual ADHD coach for adults!

An ADHD coach can provide valuable support and strategies to help adult learners struggling with managing ADHD improve their study habits and academic performance. For example, they can help you with:

  • Understanding ADHD: Educating the learner about ADHD and helping them understand how it may impact their learning style, attention, and organizational skills.
  • Creating a Structured Study Plan: Collaborating to create a realistic and structured study plan that takes into account the individual's strengths, weaknesses, and preferred learning style.
  • Breaking Down Tasks: Teaching effective techniques for breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable components, making it easier for individuals with ADHD to focus and make progress.
  • Time Management: Assisting in developing time management skills, including setting priorities, creating schedules, and using tools such as timers or reminders to stay on track.
  • Goal Setting: Helping the learner set realistic and achievable short-term and long-term goals, and providing guidance on how to break these goals into actionable steps.
  • Organization Strategies: Teaching organizational strategies to keep study materials, notes, and assignments in order. This might include using color-coded systems, checklists, or digital tools.
  • Mindfulness and Focus Techniques: Introducing mindfulness and focus techniques to help manage distractions and improve concentration during study sessions.
  • Learning Styles Assessment: Identifying the learner's preferred learning style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and incorporating this into study techniques to enhance comprehension and retention.
  • Accountability and Progress Monitoring: Providing ongoing support and accountability to ensure the learner stays on track with their study plan. Regular check-ins can help monitor progress and make necessary adjustments.
  • Study Environment: Collaborating on creating an optimal study environment that minimizes distractions and promotes focus, possibly incorporating elements like noise-canceling headphones or specific lighting.
  • Stress Management: Teaching stress management techniques to cope with the challenges of studying and managing ADHD symptoms. This could include relaxation exercises, deep breathing, or other stress-reducing activities.
  • Communication Skills: Working on communication skills, including advocating for accommodations if necessary, and helping the learner effectively communicate with teachers, peers, and others about their needs.

Other Resources:

Ace Your Next Exam: 10 Revision and Test-Taking Tips

How To Get Better Grades With 17 Scientific Strategies

Top 10 Memory Strategies

Live better, with ADHD
Shimmer is the #1 coaching platform for adults with ADHD. Build a life you love through personalized 1:1 video coaching, handcrafted productivity tools, and science-backed learning modules.