Studying tips and tricks: a Neurodivergent perspective

22 March 2022

With multiple assignments and competing deadlines, Comparative Literature student Alice takes us through how she manages her studies during assessment season.

Two poetry books on a table, surrounded by flowers and a cup of tea

Assignments and deadlines have started piling up and the days before deadlines seem to last both an eternity and half a second… assessments are coming up and it can be quite overwhelming to see what seems to be an endless list of deadlines.

I find it very difficult switching from one task to the other which is quite problematic when there are several assignments due at the same time. At first I tried working on a bit of everything each day by spending a couple hours on each assignment but this has proven very difficult concentration wise. By the time I felt fully focused on my work, I had to change tasks and start the whole focusing process all over again. Because of autism and ADHD, I tend to spend more energy trying to focus than actually doing the work. However, I have tried a different studying method recently. I focus on one piece of work at a time, to avoid spending too much time and energy changing tasks. 

Having a study schedule that covers the revision period is both reassuring and useful. I sometimes get carried away and spend too much time on an assignment because I want it to be perfect, meaning I end up having only a few days left to work on my other assignments. Scheduling what assignment I will work on and when helps me with managing time and making sure I have enough time to prepare for each deadline.

Make sure that your schedule or study plan is realistic and easy to achieve. You have to be confident that you can do it and that it is feasible during an average day in terms of physical and mental health. The schedule needs to take into account your body’s rhythm and time for looking after your wellbeing. I am very productive in the mornings and find it easier to focus, whereas in the afternoons I struggle with sensory overload, meaning that focusing and thinking in a coherent way tend to be harder. Therefore I prioritise essay-writing and learning in the morning, and plan to do reading, proofreading and crossreferencing in the afternoons. Try and allow room for manoeuvre. An appointment might pop up during the week or you might need to spend more time on something than expected. This is absolutely fine, you just have to adapt your study plan. Don’t let yourself be stressed out or think that you are failing because you can’t keep up with your study schedule. Remember that this plan is made to help you, not to stress you out. If you don’t manage to do what you had planned, then you might need to review your study plan and change it according to your abilities. Adapt the schedule to you, not the opposite.

Try to make sure that you have time off every week. I try to have at least a whole day off (or two afternoons) each week. Stopping studying seems paradoxical during such a busy time, but regular time off is what allows me to keep going for weeks and have productive working days. When I don’t take enough rest days I tend to fall into a ‘boom and bust’ pattern: I will be extremely productive for several days, and then crash for even longer and be physically and nervously drained.

The most helpful advice I ever received was to always make a detailed short note of what I need to do next at the end of the day. This may sound like futile advice but it is what has helped me the most when writing essays and my dissertation. Instead of spending sometimes up to two hours moving back and forth between my Word document, reading notes and reading lists looking for something to do, feeling lost and overwhelmed, I know straight away what I have to do. This helps me a lot with ‘moving on’ and not spending too much time on details. Starting the day knowing what I have to do is motivating and it also helps ‘switch off’ in the evening and stops me thinking about assignments.

Speaking of switching off, switching off the device you use for academic work at the end of the day and as much as possible during your days off brings you peace of mind and is an efficient way of avoiding any temptation of spending a few more hours during the night. It is a good idea to have a cut-off point at the end of the day. Although it is quite scary and sometimes frustrating to stop, it helps maximise time spent studying. Knowing that I have only three hours left to work during the afternoon, helps me focus and not let myself get distracted or adopt the “I’ll do it later” mentality, while also giving me something to look forward to, in three hours I know I will stop and relax or go on a walk.

Listening to our bodies is key in successfully making it through this busy and stressful time. Sometimes despite a good rhythm with a good night's sleep, healthy meals and regular rest days, there are days or moments during the day during which I can’t focus, I keep making mistakes, and I’m getting nowhere with what I am doing. These kinds of signs are important to look for and need to be listened to. It might mean that you need to switch to an easier task, take a break earlier than planned, or even sometimes call it a day. Knowing when to stop is key if you want to be able to carry on for weeks. Stopping earlier can be more helpful and productive than pushing through and eventually crashing under stress and fatigue later. 

Finally, I will never thank my study buddies enough for their support. I never thought that I would enjoy studying around others. I find the Student Centre and the cold libraries too noisy, the constant typing on laptop keyboards agitates me, the lights are exhausting and I tend to get lost in daydreaming. I get nowhere with my essays, if anything I get tired and somehow feel even more lonely and isolated. When working from home I get distracted, lack motivation, panic and often struggle with sleepiness because of emotional exhaustion. During the pandemic, I started video-calling some friends for study sessions. We are sometimes a street apart or continent apart and none of my study buddies study a topic even remotely close to my degree, but it doesn't matter. We meet up everyday at 8 or 9 am on Zoom, and study together all day with the camera on to keep each other company. Online study-buddying motivates me a lot and helps me stay focussed. It helps me cope with loneliness which has dramatically worsened throughout lockdowns. I can turn the volume down if need be which is really helpful to manage sensory overload and I remember to take regular breaks during which I can have a quick chat with my study buddy, complain and laugh and this is a very efficient way to stick to a work routine with regular hours, get started in the morning and stop at the end of the day.

When assessments and deadlines are getting too stressful, remember to listen to your body, and take it one day at a time, you can do it! Good luck and happy studying!

Support available during the assessment period

For more advice on looking after yourself, check out 'Staying healthy during assessment season' from the Assessment Success Guide.

If you are disabled or have a health condition that you feel might impact on your ability to perform in assessments, you can apply for reasonable adjustments to your assessment(s). The deadline for Main Summer Central Assessment Period is 11 April 2022, 4.00pm UK time (BST (UTC+1 hour)). Find full information on applying for reasonable adjustments here.

Student Support and Wellbeing have lots of support available, including additional appointments with advisers. Call us on 020 7679 0100 between 9 and 10am to make an appointment for the same day, or submit an enquiry via askUCL and we will contact you to make an appointment, which can be via video call, phone call, or Microsoft Teams chat.

Alice Farion-Renard, BA Comparative Literature