What College Students with ADHD Need for Lectures

Problem and Motivation

CSE 440 Staff
5 min readNov 15, 2019

The one-size-fits-all approach to education fails to account for the challenges that students with ADHD face, making it difficult for them to perform at the same level as their peers. For example, college students with ADHD struggle to maintain focus in lecture, take thorough notes, and split their attention between listening and note-taking. The implications of these challenges range from missing key pieces of information to having difficulty with exams and homework assignments. Our goal is to level the playing field for college students with ADHD. Specifically, we want to improve the experience in college lecture halls by designing a tool that will improve their a student’s focus during lectures and assist them with thorough note taking.

Interviewing College Students

The first step of the design process is to better understand the problem; to figure out what students with ADHD need during lecture in order to have an improved learning experience. Given our short timeline and need to collect as much information as possible, we chose to interview three college students with ADHD. This method allowed us to gather accurate, in-depth information about the experiences and problems that these students face during lecture. We interviewed three students diagnosed with either ADD or ADHD — a junior at the University of Washington studying Informatics, a recent graduate from Texas Tech who majored in computer science, and a sophomore from Bellevue College. All interviews were conducted remotely over phone or video. We asked participants about the challenges they face in lecture and what techniques or tools they currently use and followed up with questions about the benefits and drawbacks of these tools. Finally, we wanted to learn what issues they don’t have any solution to and what they feel has the greatest impact on their learning experience.

After concluding our interviews we discovered recurring themes and pain points related to losing focus and the consequential learning barriers. Two themes related to staying focused are the engagement-factor of a lecture and the use of low-attention activities to limit other more intrusive distractions in the room. A high engagement-factor of a lecture has a positive impact on our user group’s ability to focus. Breaking up long spells of speaking with interactive activities increases engagement, making it easier to focus. Interviewees mentioned things like PollEverywhere surveys, pausing for questions, using physical objects to support lecture material, doing live demonstrations, allowing breaks and otherwise general lecturer enthusiasm and delivery.

In large classrooms and lecture halls, there are more distractions due increased noise and activity. To mitigate this issue, our participants use stimulating (stimming) techniques, like tapping on their desk, or doodling, to help them avoid drifting off in thought. One participant explained that stimming allows them to be occupied just enough to not be distracted by their surroundings so they still have attention reserved for the lecture. The effectiveness of using a tactic like this varied among all our participants. Some said it allows them to focus their full attention on the lecture, others said their attention is split 50/50 between the stimming activity and the lecture.

All interviewees spoke about the problems that are a consequence of losing focus. They talked about missing critical information and having incomplete notes. They said that when their mind wanders, they fall behind and are no longer listening to the lecture or taking notes. When they regain focus, it’s hard to understand the material. Students also fell behind not only due to a lack of focus, but because it’s too much to both take notes and pay attention to the lecture since both tasks demand focus.

Participants shared their experiences with the different tools they use to assist their notetaking like OneNote and Sonocent. The technologies are helpful but they have some drawbacks. The participant who uses Sonocent said that the interface was so poorly designed that the application was only mildly helpful. A consensus is that while using laptops, phones and tablets to help with note taking, the devices create distractions since they can be used for messaging, gaming, or other activities not related to the lecture.

We designed a fidget cube with a recording device; something that will both help students focus in the classroom and assist them with listening and note taking during lecture. From our research, we know that stimming increases focus and that one of the most significant challenges is being able to simultaneously take thorough notes while following the lecture since both activities require focus. The cube comes equipped with a recording device that both records raw audio and accurately transcribes recorded audio. It also contains a camera.

Initial design sketches illustrating the six sides of the cube.

Two sides of the cube have standard fidget toy features to provide users a stimming device — see side 3 and 4 in the design sketch below. One side of the cube has a detachable microphone that can be placed anywhere in the room — an important feature for students at large universities who may want to put it on the lecturers’ stand. There are four buttons that allow students to control the recording and transcription — a start/stop button for recording audio and transcribing, a start/stop button for bolding annotated text, a button that stars annotated text to mark importance and a button for taking pictures. Other sides of the cube have standard fidget toy features like a joy stick and flick switch.

The fidget cube comes with a companion app where students can review, edit, organize and search their lecture notes. The app can be accessed on a mobile phone or tablet and contains the transcribed audio and raw audio clips and pictures which are inserted into the transcribed audio as they’re captured. Students have the ability to edit transcribed text at anytime and re-listen to raw audio recordings with the transcribed text in front of them.

Initial design sketch illustrates the companion application.

The solution is a practical device that will be easy for students to integrate into their current routine but will greatly improve their experience during lecture. By combining a fidget cube with recording and transcribing technology, we hope college students with ADHD will have better focus during lecture, more thorough class notes and an improved learning experience overall.

Researched, designed and authored by Connor Carlson, Lloyd Deng, Han Sarayli, and Frankie O’Rourke



CSE 440 Staff

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction