by Lora Johns
Lawyers have a split reputation. On the one hand, there’s Dr. Jekyll, Esq. He’s organized; he’s focused; he can write a motion to dismiss and record his billable hours down to the 6-minute increment with impeccable accuracy. Then there’s Mr. Hyde, Of Counsel. He procrastinates and misses deadlines; he can’t even find the bottles of whiskey in his office, hidden amongst the dunes of scattered paperwork.
Dissonant as they are, these traits can coexist inside one brain. For some people, they are the manifestations of high-functioning Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In honor of ADHD Awareness Month, let’s break down the stigma and learn how librarians and instructors can support law students whose learning styles may be different as a result of ADHD and the related Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
First, let’s clear up some misinformation: ADD and ADHD are real, genetically hard-wired, brain-based medical phenomena. They’re not just something students fabricate to get their hands on stimulant medications. In the case of ADHD, over 4% of U.S. adults meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, but a large percentage do not receive a proper diagnosis. For ADD, the numbers are similar: between 5% and 8% of Americans have it – that’s roughly 10 million people – but only 15% have been diagnosed and treated.
In adults, the “H” isn’t usually the big symptom. Instead, the biggest problems include forgetfulness, distractability, procrastination, and impulsivity. It is common to self-medicate with caffeine, alcohol, and risky behaviors. Untreated, these disorders lead to rates of addiction, ER visits, and even suicide that far exceed the average. Yet because of the stigma surrounding mental health – especially in the legal profession – many people will not seek the help that they need.
While librarians and instructors can’t take the place of psychiatrists and therapists, we can foster a learning environment that sets students up to succeed whether they have an attention disorder or not. See Robin A. Boyle, Law Students With Attention Deficit Disorder: How to Reach Them, How to Teach Them, 39 J. Marshall L. Rev. 349 (2006).
Fortunately, people with these disorders respond well to a variety of teaching techniques. What’s more, people with ADD and ADHD often report having positive traits, like intense interest and creativity, which — when channeled effectively — only serve to enhance their lives.
Here are some ideas for incorporating ADD- and ADHD-friendly teaching into legal research classes:
Using visual aids
Principles of Universal Design apply to teaching methods as much as to physical facilities. Presenting the same information in diverse ways helps more students to grasp the skills being taught. See Meredith George & Wendy Newby, Inclusive Instruction: Blurring Diversity and Disability in Law School Classrooms Through Universal Design, 69 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 475 (2008). Graphic aids like flowcharts or PowerPoint presentations can supplement more traditional outlines and articles to play to the strengths of students with ADD, who often prefer to learn visually.
Different research tools may be more advantageous to different types of students. For instance, a student who learns best by reading might prefer Westlaw for case research, but a visual learner might prefer Lexis Advance, which offers color-coded representations of search terms and graphical Shepard’s. Teaching students multiple paths to the same destination could make a world of difference to a student with ADD.
Breaking up monotonous lectures
If we’re honest with ourselves, it is probably difficult even for a non-ADD person to sustain focus for much longer than 20 minutes or so in law school. The average student (and instructor) is overcaffeinated, underslept, and stressed out. People with attention disorders must contend with yet another obstacle to concentration.
To help compensate for flagging attention spans, after 20 minutes of lecturing or demonstrating a research tool, instructors can give students the opportunity to try out a similar research task on their own or in groups. This breaks up the monotony and, as a bonus, incorporates multiple learning styles into the class. For ideas on how to incorporate different kinds of activities into a class, see Robin A. Boyle & Rita Dunn, Teaching Law Students Through Individual Learning Styles, 62 Alb. L. Rev. 213 (1998).
Organize the course clearly and provide structure
Structure and organization are paramount for students with attention disorders. It’s not that they don’t understand the importance of tasks and deadlines; they just find it more difficult to stick to them. A syllabus without clear organization, amorphous assignments, and ever-shifting due dates don’t help matters.
To that end, educators have found it helpful to have clear deadlines in the syllabus, to reiterate them orally in class, and to post them clearly on the course website. Structuring the course materials with programmed learning sequences and contract activity packages have been shown in at least one study to be highly effective for teaching legal research to first-year law students with and without learning disabilities. See Robin A Boyle & Lynne Dolle, Providing Structure to Law Students — Introducing the Programmed Learning Sequence as an Instructional Tool, 8 Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing 60 (2002).
Breaking up larger research projects into smaller, more manageable tasks helps students learn how to attack seemingly unwieldy projects and practice imposing order on amorphous research problems. That’s a valuable skill to learn whether or not you have ADD.
Providing models — like assignments that proceed stepwise through a research problem, instructing the student on how to proceed at every turn — can also provide much-needed structure. When teaching legislative history, for example, the assignment could be broken down into discrete groups of resources — Westlaw and Lexis, HeinOnline, ProQuest — each with a block of logically ordered questions to answer. This gives the student clear signals about when it is time to finish one task and start another, something which ADD makes difficult to do on one’s own, and also helps teach the logic of the research trail.
While helping students with attention disorders succeed is reward enough, these non-traditional instructional strategies have the bonus value of engaging non-ADD students with diverse learning styles that benefit from a wider variety of teaching techniques.