Trying To Survive Online Classes With ADHD? 7 Tips

Are you enrolled in online college classes? If you’re barely hanging on, you’re not alone.

With novel coronavirus forcing many universities to transition classes to an online format, many people who thought they would be studying on campus are now stuck in front of a computer. The lack of structure—and growing uncertainty about what the future may bring—is taking its toll. Self-confidence is eroding. Some people have told me they are thinking about dropping out. Many students, especially those with ADHD, are at the breaking point.

There are several reasons why it’s so hard to adapt to the online environment when you have ADHD. For one, there’s very little to break up the monotony of the day. Rather than having to get up every couple of hours to walk across campus to your next class, you are sitting in the same place all day. If you enjoy stimulation and variety, this may be causing a real problem for you.

The presence of so many potential distractions at home may also be throwing you off. Even if you live alone in a quiet setting, you probably still face many temptations. There’s that laundry that needs doing in the hamper and that tasty snack waiting for you in the kitchen. Just a few clicks away is your favorite social media site or perhaps your favorite show, which just released a new episode.

With no one around to help you stay on track, your self-control is your only defense. During an in-person class, the instructor serves as a point of focus, and classmates’ attention on them reinforces this. Your professor notices if you get up and walk out. They also see when the class’s attention wanes, allowing them to call it back. Online learning lacks these cues, so you may find it more challenging to focus on your tasks.

Here’s another problem: online instructors may also be unable to tell when people are confused, so perplexed students often stay that way. Their resulting frustration can be particularly problematic in individuals with ADHD, who tend to struggle with emotional regulation.

7 Tips For Getting Through Online College With ADHD

If online college hasn’t been working out for you, you’re probably feeling stuck. If COVID-19 has forced your school to move classes online, that may be your only option for finishing school. You may be thinking of dropping out, but it’s still possible to succeed in online college, even with ADHD. Here are some things you can do to make the online college experience less exasperating.

1. Don’t be too hard on yourself

Many students started online classes believing they are easier than in-person ones. After all, you don’t have to drive to campus every day, dress up, or even shower if you don’t want to, all of which saves you time. The social pressures are also reduced to some degree, even though you’ll still interact with your peers virtually.

However, studies show that students in online schools typically struggle more than those in hybrid or in-person models.[1] Maybe you weren’t expecting to have so much trouble with online school, but you’re not the only one. If you’re struggling, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means that you need a new approach. So stop asking yourself, “Why am I so bad at online school?” and start asking, “What can I do differently to make things easier?” Which leads to my second tip:

2. Make school into a ritual

With campus-based classes, there are a variety of mental cues that tell your brain to wake up and focus on academics. There’s the sound of your alarm clock, the feel of your textbook on your lap, and the smell of the lecture hall. On your home computer, there’s nothing to tell your brain that it’s time to learn unless you create a routine—and stick with it. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to struggle with ADHD in college.

Some students benefit from recreating the routines they had when they were on campus. That might mean waking up at the same time, having a good breakfast, and dressing in something other than sweats. You might also want to designate a time to stop studying to avoid burning yourself out. There are no clear-cut physical lines between online school and the rest of your life. If you have ADHD, creating these psychological boundaries can help your brain switch to study mode.

3. Manage your time

Your exact schedule may not be set out for you by your teacher when you attend online classes. If you have ADHD, you can use this to your advantage by setting aside blocks of time for studying, attending lectures, and completing assignments. Because you won’t be stuck in a lecture hall for hours at a time, you can build in frequent breaks to keep yourself refreshed.

If you’re required to attend lectures live, find out whether they are recorded and saved for later use. If not, consider making a video or audio recording yourself. That way, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t at your mental best during every lecture. If you’re worried you might have missed something, return to your recording when you’re more alert. If it’s too long to sit through in one go, you can pause the recording to take breaks.

4. Pay attention to how you’re feeling

Which tasks are the most challenging for you? Which due dates are rapidly approaching? Is there something you’ve been putting off? Identify your priorities and plan to tackle them first thing in the morning each day. That way, you’re not mentally exhausted by the time you get around to doing the hard stuff.

While this strategy works well for a lot of people, it’s important to consider what times of day you’re most focused. For night owls, your best time to focus might be later in the day. If you’re on medication, it might start around an hour after your dose. The only way to know for sure is to pay attention to those times of day when you feel most alert. Then you can adjust your schedule accordingly.

5. Set up a functional work station

In a perfect world, you could study in a quiet, ergonomic office, but not every college student has one. Even if you don’t have an office, you can set up an area separate from where you sleep. This could be as simple as a table on the other side of the room from your bed. Eliminate potential distractions, such as your phone or game console, from your field of view. You can also temporarily block digital temptations from your computer by installing a website-blocking app such as Freedom or FocusMe.

If you enjoy soft ambient music while you study, make sure your speakers are working. You might also consider buying some Bluetooth headphones so you can walk around when you’re attending lectures or meetings. The ability to bounce on an exercise ball or play with something in your hands is also helpful. Just be sure to mute yourself if you’re clicking your pen during a Zoom call.

6. Put all of your “to-dos” in one place

College professors are using all available tools to enrich the learning experience, but sometimes that means asking students to jump back and forth between various programs. It also means that your materials and tasks may not be in one place. Your professor may hand out your assignments in a variety of ways, sometimes putting them on the syllabus, sometimes sending you emails, or occasionally telling you verbally during lectures. This chaos is a recipe for confusion and missed assignments.

Remedy the situation by putting all of your assignments in a single place. Many adults with ADHD function best with something physical like a whiteboard, planner, or large desktop calendar, but you can also use an online calendar if that works for you. Just be sure to record each new assignment or task into your chosen location right away, so you don’t forget. From there, you can create a plan for larger projects. Working backward from the date you will turn something in, put progress benchmarks on the calendar to keep you on track. If you can make this a new habit, you’ll soon understand why it is an essential organizational tip for online college students.

7. Surround yourself with support

If your professors don’t know you’re struggling, they may not bother to check in on you. You may need to take the initiative and reach out via email or by giving them a call during their weekly office hours. It may even be possible to set up a weekly check-in with them. Most instructors are more than happy to help. After all, it’s their job.

Just because you’re in online college doesn’t mean specialized help isn’t available. If you need more support than what is given to the typical student, consider applying for accommodations. IEP and 504 plans from high school do not carry over into college. Still, you may be able to get extended test-taking time, access to prerecorded lectures, or other benefits by reaching out to your campus disability office. You can also talk directly to your professors and let them know how they can help you be successful in their classes.


Getting through online classes with ADHD is no easy task. For more online college advice and tips, consider working with a therapist. As an ADHD specialist, I help young adults make the transition from high school to college, regardless of the format in which their classes are taught. Contact me for a free consultation to learn about my approach to getting through online college with ADHD.


[1] Miller, 2011