Why do some students struggle with learning and completing tasks?
Page 1: Characteristics of High and Low Achievers
Did You Know?
Between 1990 and 2008, the number of students with learning disabilities who received instruction primarily in a general education classroom increased by 166% (i.e., by more than 1.5 times).
Leskey, Landers, Hoppey, & Williamson (2011)
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 Nashville, TN
I have teachers coming to me all the time talking about their students who are lazy. They appear that they aren’t putting forth any effort in class, that they’re not paying attention in class. So the teachers can be very frustrated with their students. I think it’s very important for teachers to not make assumptions that it is a personality thing or they’re lazy. We have to be very careful because right now we see a lot of students who have very poor self esteem as far as academics are concerned, and we have numerous students who are calling themselves stupid and really don’t think they can do it. But when things are put in place that will help them specifically, they are making great strides and are very successful.
As I entered high school, at first it wasn’t really a problem. I made straight A’s freshman year. And then sophomore year came around, and the work got a little harder but not bad. I ended up with a couple B’s, but still nothing really that anyone noticed that bad. But junior and senior year, as the classes really got hard, I entered the advanced placement classes, and everything just kind of fell apart. I wasn’t able to keep up with the classes. The kids that I had been in class with all along, they excelled and they still made straight A’s, whereas my grades started to drop to C’s and D’s, and no one could understand why because nothing had changed about me. It was very frustrating for me because I didn’t know how to change it because they were doing better than I was, but from my perception we were putting in the same amount of work. So I thought. I mean, we were studying the same amount of hours, but it wasn’t working for me like it was for them.
Schoolwork is usually harder for me than most people, so it just takes me longer to learn everything. I struggle in chemistry and algebra II. I spend a lot of time studying for tests, particularly algebra II. It’s my hardest subject. In algebra II, I spend at least two hours or more getting ready or preparing. If I have a test that week, it is every night, but if I don’t have a test that week it’d usually be an hour just on homework. I want teachers to understand that even if I’m failing, I’m still trying my hardest even though my grades don’t show it. It’s just hard for me to understand the material, and it takes me longer to get my grades where they’re supposed to be.
One reason that students struggle, despite their hard work and effort, is because they have deficits in executive functions, the mental 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:
Retaining and recalling information
Organizing materials and managing time
Selecting, monitoring, and using effective learning and study strategies
Erin, Hannah, and Kyra
These executive function processes are highly related to 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. For an overview of the executive function processes of the students introduced in the Challenge video, click here.
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
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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
Connect information to prior knowledge
Identify the important concepts to study
Extract key information from lectures
Take notes on important information
Monitor their understanding of content
Do not activate prior knowledge
Do not know what information to study
Have difficulty identifying important information during lectures
Focus on irrelevant information
Do not take notes, take inadequate notes, or try to record everything the teacher says
Do not monitor their understanding of content
Retaining and Recalling Information
Employ strategies to remember information
Develop their own strategies to remember information
Have difficulty remembering information
Use ineffective or inefficient strategies to recall information (e.g., try to remember information by repeating multiple times)
Organizing Materials and Managing Time
Stay focused and on-task
Use a system to keep information for different subject areas organized (e.g., separate notebooks)
Bring all supplies to class
Have a system for keeping track of assignments
Complete and turn in assignments on time
Plan and schedule time to complete a task
Are easily distracted and engage in off-task behavior
Do not have a system for organizing information for different subject areas
Forget to bring items to class
Have difficulty keeping track of assignments and turning them in on time
Have trouble estimating how long a task will take
Run out of time when working on a project
Require more time than peers to complete tasks
Selecting, Monitoring, and Using Strategies
Are strategic about studying
Can use a variety of strategies flexibly and generalize to other situations
Do not know how to study
Forget to use a strategy
Have difficulty using a strategy in a different content area or situation
Lack knowledge of an appropriate strategy
Use inappropriate or ineffective strategies
Use the same, often ineffective, strategy for all academic tasks
Listen as Hannah, a high-achieving student, describes how she is very strategic in her approach to learning (time: 0:54).
I would say that academically I perform very well because I try to do my very best at everything I can do and just try to push myself to perform well in everything, especially in school and academics. I feel like I spend most of my time on homework, and so by the time I get to studying I’ve already spent a lot of time trying to understand it. I try not to study for tests, like, super-long ’cause I feel like I have a harder time focusing if I do it for a long period of time rather than if I get one of my parents to review me or, like, read over once or twice and then get them to quiz me over it, see if I know it. And that’s usually how I study. Or I make flash cards or something like that just so other people can review me quickly so I’m not spending a ton of time doing it. I think I absorb information really well once I hear it once or twice, or once I write it down. I usually am able to remember it really well.
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 Professor Emeritus University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Working memory is a critical component of effective learning. Working memory allows students to temporarily store and process information. This is required for most academic tasks. Working memory also helps students protect information and maintain it in memory when distractions occur. Students with working memory deficits often have problems following directions or performing tasks with multiple steps because they are unable to maintain information in their working memory. Another function of working memory is it enables students to compare current actions with a standard, such as following class rules, or to past performance. Without this self-awareness, self-regulation is impossible. One thing teachers need to understand about working memory is that students with working memory deficits often appear as if they’re not paying attention. They forget to follow directions or don’t start a task when they’re directed to. That isn’t necessarily failure to pay attention. It can often be a problem with working memory. The students simply have not been able to maintain directions or directives in their working memory, and they can’t retrieve them, thus they can’t start the task.