Different Does Not Mean Worse

Students with ADHD tend to experience academics and testing quite differently than students without ADHD since the symptoms of ADHD often negatively impact learning and performance in traditional classroom settings. The existing body of research does not suggest, however, that a student with ADHD is less intelligent or less competent merely in virtue of their ADHD. What research does suggest is that students with ADHD tend to learn differently than students who do not have ADHD.

When students with ADHD begin their preparation for the ACT or SAT, they may find themselves frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the methods they are using. The vast ocean of test prep companies that publish books, offer online courses, or in-person classes do not create their curricula with any special attention to students who have learning differences. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: it isn’t that these types of resources are useless for a student with ADHD. What I am saying is that a student without ADHD probably does not need any sort of special instruction to use those kinds of products, while a student with ADHD plausibly does.

There are two large test prep obstacles that a student with ADHD typically faces: compounding knowledge, such as in Math sections, and nuanced strategy, such as in the Reading section. The first issue is common to all students, ADHD or not, but becomes a much bigger problem the more a student struggles in school. Subjects like Math build on previous knowledge, meaning that a gap in understanding is inevitably exacerbated over time. If this kind of weakness is only fully exposed when the student begins to prepare for the ACT or SAT, it can be especially destructive.


Obstacle 1: Content Gaps

Imagine a student who is not comfortable using fractions. In school, they may be able to get by because they have a calculator, or because fractions only come up in certain chapters of their textbook, or because they’ve memorized how to work with the common fractions such as 1/2, 1/3, and 1/4. But what happens when that student takes the no-calculator Math section on the SAT and they run into a slew of fractions like 27/11? They then run the risk of missing any question, regardless of what topic it’s testing, if the question just so happens to involve calculations with fractions. In isolation, this example may not seem too bad. However, students with ADHD who struggle in school often have several of these content gaps and they are not always Math-related, meaning their performance in every section could be impacted.

A student who does not understand the grammar rules governing comma usage might be able to stay afloat in school because their papers are graded for content and not grammar, or perhaps because they use a word processing program like Word to correct their errors. But what will happen when the ACT English section comes along and the student must not only answer questions about comma placement but additionally be able to discern between different kinds of commas?

Content gaps are not uncommon – in fact, I’ve never met a student with no content gaps. The issues for students with ADHD are that they are likelier to have content gaps and the chances of a content gap emerging in foundational material, such as fractions or mental math or reading comprehension, is higher.


Obstacle 2: Exercising Calculated Restraint

The second blockade in a student with ADHD’s path to test-taking success is that the most important strategies in the language-based sections, especially the Reading section, can be exceptionally nuanced. On the SAT, for instance, a common question-type is the Inference question. Inference questions appear on the ACT too, though less frequently. These questions require the student to understand the complexities of the author’s argument so that they can make a deduction from the author’s perspective – often in the context of multiple people’s ideas about the same topic. Consequently, the student must have strong literal comprehension skills in order to understand each person’s position, be able to identify the similarities and differences between people’s ideas, and then be able to consider the situation from the proper point of view. Examining an Inference question can help us understand these points.

Looking at this question, you may be able to see what I’m talking about. This question comes from a passage that includes the opinions of multiple scientists in addition to Malhotra’s opinion. It also mentions a few studies other than the study Malhotra’s team conducted. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the situation we are presented with is a hypothetical one. The student must juggle a lot of information, switching back and forth between their own perspective and others’, in order to make the judgments necessary in answering a question like this one.

Perhaps the best example of why a student with ADHD may struggle in a language-based section is that the answers can often be decided by the use or omission of a single word. Detail questions are the best examples of this point. In a Detail question, the student is asked to pick the answer choice that accurately reflects the information stated in the passage. One might think that Detail questions should be easy if a student understands the passage on a literal level. We can examine this Detail question to see why things may not be so easy.

The most common wrong answer to this question is answer choice C. This answer appeals to many students because the passage states that salt nanowires were indeed observed in both the nanoworld and macroworld. However, the two words “initially” and “later” are crucial to the answer choice. Those two words imply a specific chronological relationship between the incidence of observing salt nanowires: first scientists saw them in the nanoworld and then they saw them in the macroworld. However, while the passage states that both of these observations were made, it never addresses an order of events and in the absence of this information the student must reserve judgment, making answer choice C too demanding.

A student with ADHD who reads this passage on salt nanowires may have no problems understanding the scientific concepts discussed in the passage and they might find the hypotheses quite digestible. What they are likely to struggle with, however, is consistently applying the discipline required to scrutinize answer choices this closely. Like the first obstacle, this too is a challenge that every student has difficulty with, but the symptoms of ADHD only serve to inflate this challenge. I have seen numerous answer choices that look great at first glance but which, upon further inspection, are ultimately incorrect simply because they use a word like “most”, which specifically implies a majority, when they should say “some”, which does not. At the higher levels, the Reading sections of both the ACT and the SAT test these kinds of seemingly nit-picky distinctions.


What You Can Do About ADHD

I don’t have the space here to review every single respect in which the ACT and SAT can prove challenging to students with ADHD. I hope that I have made some of the most impactful ideas clear, though. The natural question is then “What can a student with ADHD do to mitigate these obstacles to their success?”

Though there are countless strategies for helping students manage ADHD that have been espoused online and elsewhere, the strategies whose effectiveness is supported empirically all center on minimizing the unpredictability of the learning environment and the material. Since most of the research into how students with ADHD learn is conducted in the classroom setting, the majority of the strategies involve some kind of teacher-student relationship. However, there are also strategies that have been developed based on investigations into how college students with ADHD study outside of the classroom. Although these kinds of strategies are more easily implemented when the student has someone else to help keep them accountable, any student with discipline can implement these strategies by themselves. Here are some of the strategies which have been found to be effective for students with ADHD who are studying by themselves:

  • Organizing what they will study in advance by setting discrete beginning/ending points (“I’m going to review the entire first chapter.”)
  • Asking questions as they learn to ensure understanding rather than rote memorization (it’s important to be comfortable admitting “I don’t know.”)
  • Using active reading techniques (reading headings, annotating, underlining, etc.)
  • Using active learning techniques (e.g. flash cards, diagrams, etc.) to ensure they are engaged
  • Reviewing material soon after learning it and before learning new material that builds on old material
  • Studying in a quiet space with scheduled breaks

The first step in overcoming the obstacles I have discussed in this post is to acknowledge them. By understanding the challenges they will face, a student with ADHD can prepare themselves to overcome them.

At Mindspire, our tutors truly understand that students with ADHD have learning styles that are distinct from those of other students. Our tutors are acutely aware of the concepts I have discussed up to this point and have combined decades of experience working alongside students with a wide variety of different learning styles. This deep, conceptual understanding and real, practical know-how culminate to produce an educational experience tailored to each student, engaging them and teaching them skills that will remain important as they transition into the independence that comes with being a college student.