Why do some students struggle with learning and completing tasks?
Page 1: Characteristics of High and Low Achievers
Did You Know?
Of students with learning disabilities, 74.8% of them spend 80% or more of their day in the regular classroom and 19.4% spend 40%–79% of their day in the regular classroom.
44th Annual Report to Congress (2022)
An increasing number of students with disabilities today receive instruction in the general education classroom. Many of these students, particularly those with learning disabilities (LD) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), struggle academically. This is especially the case when they encounter the academic demands of high school: large amounts of information presented in textbooks and during lectures in addition to homework assignments, projects, and papers for multiple classes. Though their teachers might provide supports, such as study guides, many students continue to find the challenge of so much content, lengthy lectures, and difficult reading assignments to be overwhelming. Too often the response of teachers is to conclude that these students are not trying hard enough, don’t care about school work, or are simply lazy. Danette Waites, who portrays Ms. Flemming in the Challenge video, oversees programs for high school students with disabilities. Below she discusses such often-incorrect assumptions that teachers make about students who are struggling. Next, Erin and Kyra, both of whom have struggled academically, discuss how hard they worked even if their effort was not always evident in their assignments or on tests.
Danette Waites, Director
Learning Enhancement Programs
Lipscomb High School
One reason that students struggle, despite their hard work and effort, is because they have deficits in executive functions, the cognitive processes that control and coordinate activities related to learning. Executive functioning is not the same as intelligence. Even students who are quite intelligent might experience difficulties with executive function processes related to learning, such as:
- Processing information
- Retaining and recalling information
- Organizing materials and managing time
- Selecting, monitoring, and using effective learning and study strategies
These executive function processes are highly related to study skills strategies and subsequent academic success. They are especially crucial when students are required to complete large multifaceted tasks, such as research papers or end-of-unit projects that necessitate the organization and coordination of multiple activities. For high achievers, many of the skills required to succeed academically come naturally and automatically. That is, without having to think about it too much, this type of learner is capable of acting strategically in her approach to learning and completing assignments. On the other hand, students with learning difficulties tend to lack this ability. They often struggle with tasks that require executive functions.
In the Challenge video, you were introduced to three students. Although the Challenge video was simulated, they were portraying themselves. Their profiles reflect their actual abilities and the interview responses throughout this module capture their own experiences.
Hannah is a high-achieving high school sophomore who excels academically. She puts forth a lot of effort and spends many hours completing assignments. As do many high-achieving students, Hannah has well-developed executive function processes.
- Strong Processing Skills
- Good at Retaining & Recalling Information
- Good Organizational & Time Management Skills
- Employs Effective Study Skills Strategies
Erin is a college freshman. Although she sailed through elementary and middle school, she began to struggle academically when she encountered the academic demands of high school. It was at this time that Erin was diagnosed with ADHD. She has difficulty with certain executive function processes, in particular organizing materials and retaining and recalling information.
Student with ADHD
- Adequately Processes Information
- Some Difficulty Retaining & Recalling Information
- Difficulty Organizing Materials & Managing Time
- Difficulty Selecting, Monitoring, & Using Strategies
Kyra is a high-school sophomore who has struggled academically since she was in elementary school. She has a learning disability and attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder. Like many students with LD and ADHD, she has difficulty with certain executive function processes. She especially struggles with processing information; retaining and recalling information; and selecting, monitoring, and using strategies. Although she puts in a lot of hours working on homework, studying for tests, and attending after-school tutoring sessions, she struggles to make passing grades in several classes.
Student with LD And ADHD
- Difficulty Processing Information
- Difficulty Retaining & Recalling Information
- Some Difficulty Organizing Materials
- Difficulty Selecting, Monitoring, & Using Strategies
The table below highlights some of the differences between high and low achievers (e.g., struggling learners) on four executive function processes related to learning.
|Executive Function Process
|Retaining and Recalling Information
|Organizing Materials and Managing Time
|Selecting, Monitoring, and Using Strategies
Listen as Hannah, a high-achieving student, describes how she is very strategic in her approach to learning (time: 0:54).
Teachers can easily assess the executive functions of their students using a brief questionnaire. The information on Hannah, Erin, and Kyra was collected using the Executive Skills Questionnaire (teen version). For the purpose of assessing their executive functions related to learning, particular attention was given to their responses related to processing information; retaining and recalling information; organization and time management; and selecting, monitoring, and using strategies. Click on the link below to download this questionnaire.
In addition to deficits in executive function processes, students with learning difficulties (e.g., LD and ADHD) often have a weakness with working memory, an active memory system with limited capacity to hold information while a task is accomplished. It can be thought of as a mental workstation where visual, auditory, and written information is temporarily stored and current tasks are managed. In other words, it is a cognitive process. This is not to be confused with short-term memory, which refers only to the temporary storage of information. Working memory often retrieves information from short-term memory and retains that information while a task is accomplished. For students with working memory deficits, complex tasks such as following multi-step directions, writing an essay, or solving a multi-step mathematics problem, can overtax their working memory. When a student’s working memory is overloaded, he struggles to process new information and to retain and recall previously learned information. For example, during a classroom lecture on the distance of the planets from the sun, a student stores the new information in his working memory as he frantically takes notes. Because the student has difficulty identifying important pieces of information, he attempts to write down everything. As he tries to remember the information the teacher presented and to take notes, his working memory becomes overloaded. As a result, he is unable to process the information the teacher is currently talking about. In the end, he has very incomplete notes and is quite frustrated.
Robert Reid, an expert in the education and treatment of children with learning disabilities and ADHD, elaborates on some of the challenges experienced by students with working memory deficits (time: 1:16).
Robert Reid, PhD
University of Nebraska-Lincoln