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
Danette Waites,
Learning Enhancement Programs Lipscomb High School
Nashville, TN

(time: 0:49)


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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:

  • Processing information
  • Retaining and recalling information
  • Organizing materials and managing time
  • Selecting, monitoring, and using effective learning and study strategies

three girls studying in a group

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.

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 High Achievers Low Achievers
Processing Information
  • 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).

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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.


Working Memory

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
Robert Reid, PhD
Professor Emeritus
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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