By Emily Reynolds

Doing well in educational settings can have huge advantages — better job prospects, higher wages, greater life satisfaction and more. Achievement at university isn’t always to do with how hard you work or how intelligent you are, however — first generation university students are more at risk of impostor syndrome, for example, reducing their engagement in class, their attendance, and their overall performance.

And for those with extra needs, university can offer all kinds of extra challenges, as a new study in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology makes clear. It finds that students with ADHD obtained significantly lower grades than those without the diagnosis, suggesting that academic and pastoral services are not going far enough to support neurodiverse students.

The team recruited 456 US-based students for a longitudinal study: at the first point, students were in their first year of university, with further participation each year for four years. Around half met criteria for ADHD, while the other half did not, and of those who met ADHD criteria half were taking medication. About 70% of students with ADHD and 85% of control participants completed all four assessments.

To measure ADHD, participants were first asked to complete a self-report scale listing inattention and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms commonly seen in those with the diagnosis. They then took part in a semi-structured interview with the team, designed to explore severity and onset of symptoms, and in an online test designed to measure other potentially significant symptoms such as anxiety or low mood.

Parents of the students also filled in a scale indicating their child’s behaviour from the ages of five to twelve and in the six months prior to the study’s start. Using all of this data, a panel of psychologists with expertise in ADHD determined whether each student would be placed in the ADHD or non-ADHD group.

Over the course of the study, the team tracked several factors, including: grades (in the form of GPAs and either reported by the students or taken from university records); progress towards graduation, assessed through how many credits a student had accrued; and whether a student was still enrolled in university. The team also looked at study skills: how well were students engaging in learning strategies like tracking goals, self-testing, or managing their time efficiently?

The researchers found that those in the ADHD cohort overall obtained significantly lower GPAs than those in the control cohort. Students with ADHD symptoms were also less likely to use study skills than their peers, and those who were not taking medication were also more likely to drop out of university altogether.

Other factors also had an impact on academic success: those with higher levels of executive functioning, who were more likely to be in the control group, were more likely to obtain higher GPAs and remain in education. Interestingly, those who engaged with university support services were also more likely to achieve academically, suggesting that universities could be doing more to reach those who need help.

Helping students with executive functioning — which includes organisation skills, time management, paying attention and self-monitoring — could be one way of supporting them academically. They could also benefit from more support in wider study skills: how to successfully plan, structure, and complete an assignment, for example.

Incorporating strategies specifically designed to help neurodiverse students could also be key here. Students with depressive symptoms were also less likely to succeed; including mental health and wider pastoral support is also likely to have a big impact on students with ADHD. Results from the study suggest that isn’t always happening, though. The majority of students with ADHD received no support with academic skills, tailored tutoring or mentoring — only 19.7% received support with academic matters and 34% with tutoring. Universities may need to spend time reaching out to neurodiverse students or those facing other barriers, or risk creating an environment that makes it hard for all to thrive.

Academic Trajectories of College Students with and without ADHD: Predictors of Four-Year Outcomes

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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