7 Ideas For ADHD-Pleasant eLearning
Getting e-learning right for 5% of the workforce
Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD, also known as ADD, they are the same thing) affect 5% of the adult population – 2 million adults in the UK alone! ADHD is a combination of the inability to regulate attention (note, no absence or deficit of it – it’s a misnomer), impulsiveness, and emotional reactivity that may or may not be associated with hyperactivity. This can lead to problems with communication, time management, and building professional relationships. It also brings many benefits, such as innovative problem solving, limitless creativity, and lots of energy.
With many companies now realizing the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce and actively recruiting for one, and the massive shift to online learning thanks to COVID, there has never been a better time to make sure our eLearning offerings are ADHD friendly. This is especially the case when you’re designing learning experiences for passionate, high-intensity professionals – think police, doctors, nurses, teachers – who are likely to have more employees with ADHD. Fortunately, the steps towards ADHD-friendly eLearning are largely in line with best practices, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for anyone to achieve.
Tips to Make eLearning ADHD Friendly
1. Decent slides help messy brains
ADHD exhibits the inability to regulate attention, which means it can be either scattered or hyperfocused. When a person with ADHD is scattered about, they cannot focus their attention on “landing” on what they need. Instead, it scurries from one thing to the next, much to the mounting frustration of its owner who is undoubtedly working hard to get it back where it is needed. When it comes to eLearning, it’s important not to feed the fluttering focus with unnecessary bells and whistles. There shouldn’t be anything on a slide that doesn’t need to be there, and definitely not anything that shows up or disrupts the flow of learning. Ensuring plenty of white space and orderly layouts go a long way in helping people with ADHD stay on track.
2. But no boring slides
This is where ADHD can create tension with some other neurodivergent conditions that value regularity and consistency. The ADHD brain is affected by novelties and the unexpected (hence no popups, see above). While keeping your slides clean and organized is important, if you want to keep your learners interested in ADHD, it is important that they not be repetitive or predictable. Good instructional design practice recommends using a reduced number of layouts as learners generally like the consistency. The challenge then is to be creative and use fewer layouts to strike a balance between consistency for general learners and novelty for learners with ADHD. One solution could be to keep the layouts similar but vary the interactivity within each layout.
3. Draw from microlearning
In many ways, microlearning seems like the panacea for the learner with ADHD, but it is not. The danger with microlearning is that the learner with ADHD will complete a few units, drop out of the course and never return, attract their attention elsewhere and soon forget about your eLearning. In many ways, it is better to get their attention beforehand and try to hold it until the end (if that is convenient for your course length). There are many micro-learning principles that can help achieve this. For example, segmenting the course into bite-sized sections with a clear roadmap ahead of time, and having live progress tracking are good strategies for keeping your learners with ADHD on board.
4. Include break reminders
At the other end of the attention regulation spectrum is hyperfocus. Hyperfocus is when someone with ADHD has “fixed” attention on one thing at the expense of literally everything else. Hyperfocus periods can last 12 to 16 hours without interrupting water, eating, or using the toilet and life falling apart around the person. While it may be tempting to capitalize on it to reach a learner with ADHD through a full learning program, it is far more supportive (and humane!) To include break reminders. Better still, incorporate breaks by doing a mandatory 10-minute countdown between sections. The learner may or may not heed the reminder, but there is no way to be silent for 10 minutes on a neutral screen. You just have to make sure that your course is interesting enough that after the 10 minutes are up, you’ll want to come back!
5. Pile of praise
People with ADHD respond surprisingly well to encouragement and praise, far more so than neurotypical people. It’s always important to build positive feedback into eLearning, but when you consider that your praise will be taken to heart by learners with ADHD, it pays to go the extra mile to make it even more impactful. One of the easiest ways to do this is to provide personalized feedback using the learner’s name and personal information. A more flashy way of doing this is to use an AI bot to provide the feedback and make it really specific to the learner’s answers and personal details. Just make sure the bot doesn’t show up and cause unnecessary distraction!
6. Use real problems
People with ADHD tend to excel in a crisis and have remarkably effective problem-solving skills outside of the box. This means that they are interested in solving real-world problems that may, if not likely, arise in the course of their work. Abstract problems that will never arise, or simple “humorous” questions (“Should John block the emergency exit? Yes or No.”) will not attract the attention of learners with ADHD and are likely to deter them from continuing the course. Instead, use real-world scenarios that actually occurred, especially if they were solved using a lateral approach. Make sure the questions are tested and require some level of problem solving. The level of difficulty can remain relatively low, but the required effort should be higher.
7. Gamification is not the answer
With its badges and rewards, clear roadmaps, and manageable sections, Gamification seems like the perfect answer to the needs of our ADHD learners. Unfortunately, too often it exacerbates some of the worst characteristics of ADHD: hyperfocus, hyper-competitiveness, and emotional reactivity. It can adopt the mindset of the learner with ADHD at the expense of everyone else while encouraging them to behave socially undesirable. Instead of explicit gamification like microlearning, it is best to rely on the Principles to create a reasoned course that takes into account all aspects of ADHD, rather than incorrectly focusing on a shortened attention span.
It doesn’t take much to be ADHD friendly
The number of people with ADHD is increasing, so it pays to familiarize yourself with ADHD-friendly eLearning and incorporate it into your digital accessibility strategy sooner rather than later. Fortunately, ADHD learners don’t need to fundamentally revise standard practice, just make sure we are aware of their needs every step of the way.