When supervising a research student with ADD or a similar problem, I can help the student be more productive by adjusting the way I give instructions:

  • Propose one task at a time: Instead of saying "Let's do X, Y, and Z" I will just say "Let's do X", schedule a time for follow-up when X is done, and only talk about Y then.
  • Repeat "general" instructions every time they are relevant: Instead of saying "When you take notes on a bunch of papers, make sure to cite which paper each idea comes from" and then expecting the student to do this moving forward, I will give the instruction again each time that the student is reading papers: "Look through and take notes on these papers. In your notes, make sure to cite which paper each idea comes from..."
  • Have the student repeat back a summary of the instructions, with ALL of the important details, after hearing them.
  • Review the student's plans regarding what to work on at what time, together with the student (to help with planning and make sure we are prioritizing important tasks).

With these and similar modifications, a student with attention problems can be about as productive as one without attention problems. (Without these modifications, the student keeps doing the wrong thing, and isn't productive at all.) But that kind of supervision is not really consistent with the goal of having my students become capable of independent research. For example, it's very hard for them to see the "big picture", identify next steps on their own, think about where the research is going and what intermediate steps are needed to achieve the end goals...

Obviously my primary role is as a research supervisor, not an ADD coach. So I'm not looking for generic ideas for helping an adult with ADD, or for suggestions to pass along to the student - I am looking for ideas specific to my role as a supervisor in an academic research environment.

As a research supervisor, what - if anything - can I do, to help students with attention problems be both productive AND independent?

  • 2
    When you say "research student," do you mean doctoral student? Does the student already have experience doing research? By "attention problems," do you know for a fact that the student has an ADHD/ADD diagnosis, or is the cause some other problem such as a head injury, depression, autism, etc.? (In the US, the disability office is not supposed to disclose this, but the student might have said something on their own.) Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 20:31
  • @ElizabethHenning No, a more junior student (e.g. undergrad) doing research for the first time. No diagnosis has been disclosed to me by anyone. The student is not particularly self-aware. I have no idea if he has ADD, but from my point of view he acts exactly like someone who does, and the interventions that I have found helpful for those with ADD, have helped him. So I want to know how to help a student who exhibits classic ADD behaviors, whether that is actually the cause in the case of this particular student or not.
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 20:59
  • As a thought, the described student's condition doesn't seem consistent with ADHD (which is technically the umbrella term for the condition regardless of whether or not it includes hyperactivity). But it's not hard to test - people with ADHD tend to have an easier time focusing when they take stimulants, whereas most other people have a harder time. So while a doctor wold tend to prescribe a prescription-grade stimulant, more readily available stimulants like energy drinks (Five Hour Energy being a favorite) can help.
    – Nat
    Commented Oct 21, 2017 at 21:29
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    Mostly just from the initial bullet points. The below answer had a good point, "The main takeaway is that ADHD adults often do much better in more self-directed activities than they do when given close supervision.". So, some of the thoughts in the initial bullet points - like limiting the tasks provided, repeating instructions, structured planning, etc., tend to be quite harmful to ADHD people; they actually need much the opposite - a larger variety of tasks to juggle, concise instructions, freedom to schedule as works best for them, etc..
    – Nat
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 1:01
  • 1
    Actually I guess it was the title that got me thinking that, "what can I do to help the student be more independent?". The thing's that ADD people are already very independent. Just like cats' independence makes them bad at being on a leash compared to dogs, an ADD's person's independence makes them bad at following another's lead compared to a non-ADD person.
    – Nat
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 1:06

2 Answers 2


OK. First of all, you are to be commended for having the awareness and sensitivity to take the initiative on this. LD/ADHD students tend to be treated rather badly in higher ed, so it's reassuring to see someone reach out for help.

I think the zeroth thing you should do is bring up your observations to the student for the following extremely important reason: If the student does have a disability, either the student already has a diagnosis and is worried about being judged negatively (or overestimates how well they're managing without accommodation), or the student has been struggling for years wondering what's wrong. It's impossible to address a problem correctly if you don't know what's causing it. With that in mind, I can only comment on ADHD, which is not difficulty paying attention, it's difficulty regulating attention.

Another preliminary observation is that if the student is ADHD, it's possible that they never developed good learning skills either as a direct result of the ADHD or as a result of the kind of spoon-feeding you are (correctly!) identifying as problematic. This kind of "accommodation" is often recommended for ADHD, but it's ultimately self-defeating. So you might be in a situation where the student is on the steep side of the learning curve for learning how to learn. It's tempting to just spoon-feed so that the student "makes progress," but this is bad advising, just as it would be bad parenting. So set the project scope and your expectations accordingly if this is the case. And the student might need an ADHD coach, academic tutor, or therapist to help with the logistics of just putting quality time in, which can be formidable for ADHDers.

In terms of practical day-to-day suggestions:

  • Audio-recording meetings, or important parts of meetings, might be helpful. ADHDers often tune in and out without even being aware of it, so they don't know that they've missed something.
  • Work on the "big picture" first. This might seem counterintuitive, but the student might find it easier to recognize what to focus on once they have a clear idea of how the pieces fit together.
  • Ask the student to come up with their own suggestions about how to approach the project. Be open-minded about what the student comes back with.
  • Provide regular, structured, nonjudgmental feedback about your expectations and what is and isn't working.
  • Let the student know you're on their side and that you have confidence in their abilities. Anyone with a disability can tell you that the worst part isn't managing the disability, it's dealing with the low expectations and lack of inclusiveness from everyone else.

The main takeaway is that ADHD adults often do much better in more self-directed activities than they do when given close supervision. A common incorrect assumption is that because an ADHD student has trouble following instructions, then it must be the case that the student is incapable of working more independently. Which is not to say that the student should be left to their own devices, but rather that the support provided by the supervisor needs to be more student-centered to be effective (and efficient).

  • +1 for bringing up "[...] it's difficulty regulating attention."
    – Our
    Commented Apr 12, 2022 at 22:03

I'm not sure how I would adress the issues of doing the wrong thing, being unable to identify next steps, or not seeing the big picture. I'm not sure those are specifically related to ADHD in the first place. Obviously, my experience isn't necessarily representative of everyone, but my diagnosis has never affected my ability in regards to those things.

That being said, general productivity is something you can have a significant effect on.

What has worked best for me is to setup short meetings with my advisor on a fixed (preferrably weekly) schedule. I present what I've done during the week, what I haven't done, and what I plan on doing the following week. I also ask minor questions I have. These meetings don't have to be long or very detailed. Most of the time, they last 10-15 minutes at most. If I have major questions or blockers, we schedule a bit more time to adress them.

Having ADHD in academia can be hard to deal with since there are long periods of relative calm between deadlines where we can't rely on external pressure to maintain focus. Our perception of time is affected and sometimes it feels like there exists exactly two times: "NOW!" or "eventually...". In a sense, if it's not due NOW!, then it's due at some unspecified point later and isn't pressing, no matter how rationally aware we are of the amount of work required. This is not too big of a deal when the tasks and deadlines are short, but when a task is long enough that it has to be started before NOW! kicks in... That's when issues crop up.

Regular meetings help bring a bit of NOW! into the schedule. Even if there's no requirement or deadline, having an outside party check-in adds enough pressure to stay focused and moving forward. The work rhythm this creates is much healthier than alternating between (usually involuntary) procrastination and panic-induced last minute rushing.

This might not work for every student obviously, but if you can fit it in your schedule, it's definitively worth a shot.

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