April 17, 2015

Helping Learners with ADD/ADHD to be Successful

by Sarah Jaffery, Pharm.D., PGY1 Community Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Most educators will agree that ensuring each student has an effective learning experience is no easy task.  This becomes all the more daunting when teaching students with learning difficulties. A well-known disorder that may act as a barrier in the learning process for students is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADD/ADHD is commonly thought of as a pediatric disorder, but up to 65% of children diagnosed with this disorder continue to have symptoms into adulthood.1 More than 4% of adults are estimated to have ADHD.2  Although ADD/ADHD is not considered a learning disability, it can certainly have detrimental effects on daily functioning including impairments in educational performance.1 To be an effective teacher to a student with ADD/ADHD, it is necessary to have an awareness of the medical components of this disorder, a solid foundation in behavioral management, and proficiency in instructional design.3

According to the diagnostic criteria for ADD/ADHD, adults who are not diagnosed during
childhood need to exhibit five or more inattentive and/or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms for at least six months.  These symptoms need to be severe enough to interfere with social, academic, or occupational functioning. Inattention symptoms might include difficulty remaining focused during lectures; beginning tasks but quickly losing focus and getting sidetracked; difficulty keeping materials in order; poor time management; failure to meet deadlines; and losing belongings such as school materials, wallets, keys, and paperwork. Hyperactive-impulsive symptoms include leaving one’s seat during a class; feeling restless; inability to stay still for a long period of time; talking excessively; and interrupting or taking over what others are doing.5 Not only do these behaviors make it more difficult for the adult with ADD/ADHD to be successful in school, but they can be disruptive to other learners too.

Several strategies can be employed to foster a more conducive learning environment for students with ADD/ADHD. These strategies require the educator to spend extra time with students to ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goal. An educator may suggest the following strategies to students with ADD/ADHD at the start of a class or learning experience:3
    • Sit near the front with your back to the class to keep other students out of view and thus minimize distractions
    • Participate in peer tutoring and cooperative/collaborative learning
    • Study in an area with minimal stimuli
    • Take extra time to complete tasks and assignments
    • Set specific times and routines for studying
    • Report to a mentor or study buddy who encourages assignment completion and organization
      Educators’ views and beliefs regarding their learners influence how they approach teaching. These views guide instructors’ ideas about which methods of teaching best suit the learner’s needs. A research report developed by the Learning & Skills Research Centre of the UK aimed to propose an alternative way for educators to think about learning and suggests a more person-centered and well-informed approach to teaching students with learning difficulties. First, a variety of teaching strategies / methods should be used - not just one. Next, there should be a focus on the purpose of learning rather than the outcome, as this takes into account the emotional and psychological aspects of learning and promotes participation. In addition, the learner’s fundamental values, stage of development, inclinations, and capabilities should be explored and should guide the teaching. Finally, to teach effectively, learning activities should take place in controlled settings (e.g. in the classroom and labs) as well as real-life (e.g. at home and on the job). This will help students test and apply the knowledge learned in a controlled setting in situations meaningful to them. Moreover, it provides opportunities for interactions with and to learn from people other than the teacher.4

      Another strategy to help students with ADD/ADHD improve their learning capacity is teaching metacognition, or thinking about learning. Studies have shown that students who utilize metacognitive strategies tend to be better learners. Given that students with ADD/ADHD do not typically thrive in academic settings, they may benefit from training in metacognitive thinking. A study conducted in children and adults with ADD/ADHD demonstrated that training students to adopt metacognitive strategies is helpful.6 Students were coached to think about and monitor their learning. They were taught active reading strategies, listening skills, and organization skills, among others. There was an emphasis on being attentive when listening and studying as well as organizing and creating material to help with recall. This work resulted in positive outcomes including decreased inattention symptoms and improved academic/intellectual functioning.4 A more recent study explored the efficacy of a 12-week metacognitive therapy group intervention, focused on time management and organization, in adults with ADHD.7 Strategies used to promote metacognition in this study included teaching practical skills like using a daily planner, along with time management skills to help them organize and complete complicated projects. There were significant improvements in ADHD symptoms of those participants in the metacognitive therapy group when compared to the symptoms of participants in a control therapy group. It seems intuitive that training the brain to reflect on one’s learning, something that individuals with ADD/ADHD have difficulty doing, would be a beneficial behavioral technique.

      It is clear that teaching is less effective using a one-size-fits-all approach. Creating an effective learning environment requires effort from both the educator and the student. For the educator, it is important to understand the medical aspects of ADD/ADHD as well as to be skillful in behavioral management and instructional design. If the educator has an in-depth knowledge regarding a variety of teaching approaches that can be used to meet the individual student needs, the likelihood of success is greater.

      1. Adler LA. Epidemiology, impairments, and differential diagnosis in adult ADHD:introduction. CNS Spectr. 2008;13:8(Suppl 12):4-5.
      2. Kessler RC, Adler L, Barkley R, et al. The prevalence and correlates of adult ADHD in the UnitedStates: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Am J Psychiatry. 2006. 163(4):716-732.
      3. TeacherVision: Teaching Children with ADHD. [online] 1998 Sept. ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. (Accessed 2015 Mar 24)
      4. Dee L, Devecchi C, Florian L, et al. Being, having and doing: theories of learning and adultswith learning difficulties. LSRC Research Report.
      5. Rabiner D. New Diagnostic Criteria for ADHD. Attention Deficit Disorder Association. (Accessed 2015 Apr 1)
      6. Thompson L and Thompson M. Neurofeedback combined with training in metacognitive strategies:effectiveness in students with ADD. Appl Psychophys Biof. 1998. 23(4):243-263.
      7. Solanto MV, Marks DJ, Wassersein J, et al. Efficacy of meta-cognitive etherapy for adult ADHD. Am J Psychiatry. 2010;167(8):958-68.

      April 13, 2015

      Teaching Empathy

      by Kumaran Ramakrishnan, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

      To teach the pathophysiology of Parkinson’s, a teacher can use a lecture with a PowerPoint. The lecture can teach the pathophysiology of the disease or the therapeutic guidelines for treating the symptoms.  But how can the student learn empathy for a patient with a debilitating condition like Parkinson’s disease?  Or how to understand and relate to the patient?  Numerous articles have been published stating that empathy increases not only are the patient’s positive perception of the physician but also health outcomes. One study found that patients who’s physicians had high empathy scores were more likely to achieve better disease control as evidence by lower A1c and LDL-C measurements.1 Similar results have been seen in patients with the other disease states such as the common cold. The Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) requires schools of pharmacy to include empathy in the curriculum in order to provide high quality health care to patients with diverse backgrounds.

      Unfortunately health professional students become less empathetic as they progress through school. One longitudinal study of medical students found the greatest erosion of empathy was in the third professional year.2 This erosion of empathy appears to occur when students focus too much on applying their classroom-based knowledge to real patient situations.  A similar longitudinal study has not been conducted in pharmacy students, but there have been reports that interventions can increase empathy among pharmacy students at different stages in their career. 

      One study conducted in the second professional year of pharmacy school, engaged students in simulation activities.  Students were asked to act as though they had lost the use of their dominant hand, vision, and speech. There were small and large group discussions after each activity to engage the students.3 The Jefferson Scale of Empathy-Health Profession (JSE-HPS) was administered before the interventions, seven days, and ninety days after these activities. The JSE is a tool designed to measure empathy in medical students, and JSE-HPS has been adapted for other health professionals.4 The tool is widely used in studies to measure empathy for both students and practitioners alike. The results showed that while there was an increase in the scores seven days after the activities, JSE-HPS scores returned to baseline 90 days later. When comparing the scores with a control group, there is little difference in the net increase in empathy scores.3 

      In another study, students watch a play featuring two actors — an elderly patient with a “demanding personality’ and an assistant manager who “cared more about rules and regulations than the elderly person’s concerns.” After the play, students engaged in a discussion about the stimulated encounter and how they would use the information in the future. The JSE was administered before the play, immediately after the play, seven days, and 26 days later. Similar to the previous study, while there was a significant increase between the pre-test and immediate posttest, by day 26, the scores were nearly back to baseline.5 

      Several other methods have been employed to teach empathy.  Students have been asked to keep a nutritional diary,6 participate in a 7-day active learning assignment about diaetes,7 and use community resources for patients with a chronic disease.8 All of these studies show short-term increases in empathy but scores return to pre-intervention levels in the long run. This provides a unique challenge as any method used must not only increase empathy but maintain it. A solution might be use interventions throughout the curriculum. Accrediting agencies, such as the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, have incorporated empathy into their standards. The ACPE standards mention empathy has an important component of professional communication, ethical behavior, and professionalism. Since empathy is such an important trait for effective health care professionals to possess, it is essential for teachers to understand how to teach empathy.  The studies have shown that several methods, while effective in the short term, have little effect in the long term.  For students to learn empathy and be effective professionals it is important to integrate empathy exercises throughout the curriculum – not just in one isolated course. 


      1. Hojat M, Louis D, Markham F, Wender R, Rabinowitz C, Gonnella J.  Physicians' empathy and clinical outcomes for diabetic patients. Acad Med. 2011;86(3):359-364.
      2. Hojat M1, Vergare MJ, Maxwell K, Brainard G, Herrine SK, Isenberg GA, Veloski J, Gonnella JS. The devil is in the third year: A longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school. Acad Med. 2009 Nov 2009;84(11):1182-91. 
      3. Lor K, Trong J, Ip E, Barnett, M. A randomized prospective study onoutcomes of an empathy intervention among second-year student pharmacists . APJE. 2015;79; Article 18
      4. Fjortoft N,Van Winkle L, Mohammadreza H. Measuring empathy in pharmacy students. AJPE 2011;75: Article 109.  
      5. Van Winkle L, Fjortoft N, Hojat M. Impact of aworkshop about aging on the empathy scores of pharmacy and medical students. AJPE. 2012 2012;76: Article 9
      6. Whitley H. Active-learning diabetes simulation in an advanced pharmacy practice experience to develop patient empathy. APJE. 2012;76; Article 203. 
      7. Trujillo J HY. A nutrition journal and diabetesshopping experience to improve pharmacy students’ empathy and cultural competence. APJE. 2009 37; Article 37.
      8. Chen JT, LaLopa J, Dang DK. Impact of patient empathy modeling on pharmacy students caring for the underserved. AJPE. 2008,;72: Article 40.