I used to struggle in school. I couldn't remember what I read in textbooks. I had a hard time paying attention in class, thanks to undiagnosed ADHD. I didn't take good notes, and I didn't have a clue as to how to study for tests.
I had problems learning things — learning in a conventional school setting, anyway. As I've discovered over the years, most students don't know how to learn. This problem is not always just about having ADHD. It's about not having strategies.
Most students find typical school tasks boring and laborious, and few adults will argue with them. It's tough to change a student's interest in a given topic, but using innovative strategies will help him learn more about things. As a result, the subject becomes less boring.
Why Are Students Stuck in Low Gear?
Something called the "learning pyramid" is taught in most education and psychology classes. It's called "Bloom's Taxonomy" of thinking. The pyramid illustrates the different levels of human thinking. The most basic level — recalling information — is at the bottom, and the most complex — assessing and comparing knowledge — is at the top. The more we can engage our brains in higher levels of thinking, the more we can learn in a shorter amount of time.
Imagine two cars trying to get to the same destination, 20 miles away. One takes side streets. The other takes a freeway. Which car will reach its destination faster? The car on the freeway. The car on the freeway will be able to drive in a higher gear, brake less, work more efficiently, and burn less fuel than the car that is trudging along on a side street. Our brains work the same way.
Unfortunately, students are rarely taught how to access high levels of thinking and engage in a higher gear. They spend all of their time on schoolwork, stuck on side streets.
This is especially relevant for students with ADHD because "high-gear" learning takes place in the back of the brain, which is the strongest part of the ADHD brain. "Low-gear learning" focuses brain activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which gives those with ADHD so many challenges in school.
Shift into High Gear
There is a simple way to shift into high-gear learning — ask questions. Asking questions prompts your brain to transfer information from the pre-frontal cortex to the back of the brain. Here are some simple ways to make questions work in school:
1. Listening in class — play Jeopardy. Translate lecture material into questions. Think of potential test questions based on the content of the lecture. This is a great way for those of us prone to "hyperactive boredom" to stay engaged for class lectures.
2. Studying notes — play Jeopardy again. Reread your notes within 24 hours to maximize retention. But, instead of rereading multiple times — as most students do to study for a test — imagine potential test questions, based on the information in your notes. Write them in the margin. Don't write too many questions. No more than five questions per page, or else this exercise will take too long. Keep the questions broad and high-level. For instance, describe three or four events in the Revolutionary War.
3. Reading textbooks — "read the visuals." Look at every picture, chart, and graph in the chapter. Read the caption. Ask yourself, "Why is this visual here?" This may be the most powerful reading strategy you ever use. Don't underestimate the benefits you'll reap from this one.
4. Reading textbooks — turn headings and sub-headings into questions. After you've examined the visuals, you'll be ready to read the black-and-white text. As you read, turn each heading into a question. For instance, "Civil War Causes" could be turned into "What caused the Civil War?" As you read on, try to answer the question. Do that with each heading and sub-heading.
5. Writing papers or preparing presentations — always start with a list of questions. Before you begin doing your research, writing a first draft, or creating note cards (for a presentation), make a list of all of the questions your paper/presentation should answer. (Hint: These are usually listed as "topics to be covered" on the assignment description. Turn those topics into questions.) Put your questions in a logical order, answer each question, and…voila! Your essay, paper, or presentation will begin to write itself.
6. Above all, make connections. Your brain learns new information by connecting it to things it already understands. Take a moment to let that sink in. You cannot understand the physics of gravity unless you understand that, when you let go of something, it falls to the ground. The same is true for anything we learn; it must be connected to something we know or have experienced before we can learn it. During lectures, try to connect the lecture with pictures in the textbook or, better yet, to life experiences you have had.