Universities today recognize the importance of responding to their students’ many different learning styles and aptitudes. So they keep an eye out for research like the survey conducted at a highly competitive public university that  “found significant differences between the technology needs, preferences and fluencies of undergraduates with and without disabilities” (Parker & Banerjee, 2007).

Similar studies have dug a bit deeper and revealed that students with ADHD and other learning disabilities may hit daunting roadblocks in today’s digital learning environments. One area where students with such disabilities encounter barriers involves the all-important tasks of writing and research. Parker and Banerjee found that “students with disabilities as a group reported less comfort with online literature searches than did students without disabilities.” These lower levels of comfort seem to be associated with the challenges of multitasking on the computer, another area in which students with disabilities struggle.

For students with ADHD, heightened distractibility can be a major hindrance.  I was diagnosed with ADHD myself about 15 years ago, so those struggles are familiar to me. Even some of the most scholarly sites around bristle and clamor with opportunities for this absent-minded professor to let himself go off-task and lose focus—and precious time—once again. Fortunately I’ve developed a lot of strategies that keep me on task. Certain technologies have helped me a lot with self-regulation. For example, when I’m doing difficult, not-always-enthralling work like grading a ton of research papers, I use the online egg timer to plug away in 15-minute increments, then reward myself with a two-minute respite.

Without such tools and strategies, I’m much less productive and efficient—distractibility makes my ADHD mind a really hard dog to keep under the porch. So I just nod in sympathetic agreement when I read about the challenges of students with learning disabilities. Students whose ADHD manifests primarily as inattention, for example, “have been shown to process information more slowly, a problem that can be amplified as additional distracters are added to the learning environment.”

When the learning environment is digital, the distracters can take many forms. Web pages with lots of links, text and images offer a rich host of choices and tools, but might also be setting up big hurdles for students who have trouble regulating their attention.

A student visiting a library website to do research on a major project needs to focus on keyword searches that will quickly yield the most relevant and high-quality sources. Fruitful focus is consistent without being rigid. A creative, exploratory frame of mind can help students make perceptive, original connections that will develop the paper’s content even in a pre-drafting research stage. So research strategies should balance targeted focus with a supple openness to rich associations.

But a college research paper is already a daunting project for many first-year students to tackle, so such balance can be difficult to achieve and sustain. It’s especially hard for students with ADHD and other learning disabilities, whose self-regulatory learning behaviors are often impaired (Ruban, McCoach, et al.). For these students, openness to original and relevant associations often dovetails with heightened distractibility. Researchers thus recommend integrating new learning technologies designed to shore up focus and support self-regulation. According to Parker and Banerjee, students with learning disabilities are more likely to benefit from these technologies when they view them as “a continuum of choices.”

Q for Research by 11trees is a powerful addition to this continuum. The Q extension for Chrome and the Q Word add-in are library search tools stripped clean of the usual distractions. Instead of having to navigate away from the Google Docs page where she’s jotted notes or a first draft, the student can simply click on the Q icon at the top of her browser, and type keywords into streamlined drop-down search boxes. She can choose among several options that narrow the search from all database resources, to scholarly publications, to peer-reviewed work. No need to open a new window or visit a library landing page full of distracting images and links irrelevant to her task. The Word add-in version offers a similarly streamlined panel right inside the document the student is working on.

Q’s minimal design is like a smooth, cleared-off, wiped-down desk, free of clutter that clogs the distractible mind. Q may not totally silence the siren call of digital distractions—students still have to avoid Facebook or Youtube while they’re working—but it can muffle the temptations and funnel students’ focus more reliably into their research than a cluttered library site can.

It’s great that today’s universities offer a field-leveling “continuum of choices” to students with learning disabilities. Those schools can use Q to enrich that continuum and give their students a more robust, empowered fighting chance.

Works Cited

  1. Parker, David, and Manju Banerjee. “Leveling the Digital Playing Field: Assessing the Learning Technology Needs of College-Bound Students with LD and/or ADHD.” Hammill Institute on Disabilities (2007). Web.
  2. Ruban, Lilia M., D Betsy McCoach, Joan M McGuire and Sally M Reis. “The differential impact of academic self-regulatory methods on academic achievement among university students with and without learning disabilities.”  Journal of Learning Disabilities; May/Jun 2003; 36, 3; pg. 270. Web.