The Phenomena Associated with limited memory capacity
The memory demands of secondary school exceed capabilities of many students w/learning disorders. Secondary school curricula place a premium on students' cumulative recall of information (e.g., using information in May that was learned in October), ability to summarize information for oral & written presentations,
differentiation of memory skills by content area & by teacher expectations & expectation for metamemory sophistication, or what individual students know about memory & memory processes
(Levine & Reed, 1992).
Given the complexity of memory systems, there exist a range of memory dysfunctions that predispose to academic difficulty.
We'll describe what we believe to be 4 common adolescent disorders of memory.
Inadequate entry into short term memory
There are students who endure discrete weaknesses of short-term memory. Some have difficulty "recoding" input by paraphrasing
or abbreviating information in lectures & textbooks to allow complex messages to "fit" within the very limited capacity of short-term storage.
Others have highly specific deficits w/the registration of specific modalities of data into short-term memory. Thus,
an adolescent may have problems entering visual-spatial information (e.g., from a map), sequential data (e.g., the steps in a math process) or verbal information (e.g., oral directions from the teacher).
Still others fail to employ effective rehearsal strategies (visual imaging, sub-vocalization
& self-testing) to facilitate & strengthen entry
of information into short-term memory. These
students may have trouble studying for tests & acquiring new information or skills during class sessions.
Active Working Memory Dysfunction
Active working memory enables a student to "hold on
to" different components or procedures within a task while working on that task. Students w/dysfunctions of active working
memory are likely to forget what they're
doing while they're doing it. Active working memory is vital
during extended periods of writing, while performing mathematics computations & while reading.
An affected adolescent may lose the
essence of the beginning of a chapter while reading the subsequent sections. He or she may lose track of a process amid a mathematics problem. The student may forget an idea while trying to recall a specific spelling word or punctuation
rule. Students w/active working memory dysfunctions become
understandably discouraged & anxious in school. They often have serious problems
w/test taking & seem more competent than their performance
Slow &/Or Imprecise Retrieval Memory
Much of the secondary school curriculum demands
rapid & exact recall of facts & processes. When
a student is called on in class, he or she generally has 3 seconds to retrieve a response approximating the answer the teacher
During tests, be it an essay test or a multiple choice
/ true false test, there's a steady need for the rapid recall of previously learned material. While writing, when time doesn't allow for substantive revision (e.g., timed exam), students
must engage in simultaneous retrieval of content knowledge & rules governing written expressions (i.e., they must quickly recall spelling, punctuation, capitalization,
vocabulary, facts, ideas & letter formations).
Some students simply can't meet this challenge & exhibit a chronic abhorrence of writing (Levine, Oberklaid, & Meltzer, 1981).
Others are delayed in mathematics because of slow or imprecise recall of the facts or algorithms (i.e., procedures, such as how to reduce a fraction); especially when they must recall facts & maintain the flow of the algorithms nearly
simultaneously (Levine, Lindsay, & Reed,
The ultimate attainment for retrieval memory is automatization,
the capacity to recall facts or procedures instantaneously w/virtually no expenditure of mental effort. Some secondary school
students are simply poorly automated; nothing at all is automatically accessible from memory. If reading decoding isn't automatic
for a secondary school student, his comprehension
suffers badly. When math facts or computational rules aren't
automatic, it's hard to succeed in algebra.
Poor Pattern Recognition
There are some students who have trouble recognizing the patterns that keep recurring within a subject area. They have trouble identifying themes or processes that keep reappearing over an academic year, or within a
particular subject domain.
To them, information & class work appears fragmented & lacking in cohesion. i.e., in mathematics it may be hard
for them to read a word problem & recognize a pattern within the language of the problem that should cue a particular process.
In reading, these students fail to recognize a theme, image, or character trait that emerges repeatedly in various guises or contexts. Such weaknesses of pattern recognition memory ultimately take their toll on academic performance at the same time that they diminish significantly the likelihood
that a student will find the content of school particularly interesting.
Embedded within the dysfunctions of memory is the ever-present role of attention. At any age,
but possibly more so in adolescence, attention & memory can interact to potentiate more insidious forms of learning disorders.
Are the learning problems manifested in class attributable only to attention deficits? To only memory deficits? Or are the
attention deficits undermining a student's memory capacity or vice versa?
The Phenomena Associated W/Superficial Understanding
Adolescents w/learning disorders may proceed thru secondary education in a state of mild to moderate & sometimes even severe, confusion. These are students who have trouble grasping & building cognitive bridges between the facts, ideas, concepts
& procedures learned within & across content areas.
Those who appear to gain only a surface level understanding of information may possess hidden language deficits, poor higher-order cognitive skills, including weak formation
of concepts & an over reliance on top-down processing, or they may be passive in their approach to learning.
Adolescents w/Poor Language Processing
The academic demands for verbal comprehension, verbal reasoning & verbal expression explode in volume, density,
complexity & abstractness during students' transition from early adolescence to adolescence (Montgomery, 1992).
Teenagers w/language deficits can manifest gaps in a number of processes & abilities assumed to be
in place by secondary school.
Adolescents w/poor language processing may have difficulty following complex instructions & interpreting extended
verbal explanations (i.e., lectures). They commonly harbor basic weaknesses in semantics, sentence processing
&/or the capacity to deal w/large chunks of language discourse.
These students may reveal delays in their reading comprehension, major difficulties in foreign language acquisition,
problems as well in the verbal aspects of mathematics, including the deciphering of word problems & the mastery of technical
vocabulary (Levine et al., 1992). They are prone to serious problems in courses that rely heavily on
reading for content (such as history).
There are some adolescents who can process language adequately but at a slow pace; they have trouble "keeping up" w/the rapid constant onslaught of verbal communication in the classroom.
Additionally, many of these students have a weak metalinguistic sense, an incomplete understanding of how language works. They are apt to be confusion over parts of speech, grammatical construction & other formal features of language.
In secondary schools there's a heightened need for students to be able to process abstract figurative language, to comprehend textbooks containing densely
packed verbally encoded ideas, to use verbal reasoning skills & to learn a foreign language (Levine & Reed, 1992). There is a lack of well trained professionals w/a background in this. The critical role of language progression
during adolescence is poorly appreciated.
There exists a dearth of appropriate diagnostic tools & adolescent language development (both normal & dysfunctional). Moreover, research into the language disabilities of secondary school students has been sparse.
Adolescents w/Incomplete Conceptualization
Concepts are broad ideas that categorize the phenomena that keep recurring in any subject area. Examples include:
- "balanced equation" in mathematics
- "photosynthesis" in science
- "right wing" in a social studies
- "conjugation" in foreign language
- sonata form" in a music class
Some students struggle in vain with the concepts in one or more secondary school subject areas. In particular, they're
likely to have trouble with the ever-growing array of abstract concepts, those concepts that don't contain any direct sensory
Such students are often described by their teachers as overly "concrete." Their conceptual understanding is incomplete
or tenuous. They may over rely on prototypes, believing (or hoping) that if they can cite an example, they
must understand the concept.
A student might know that the United States
is a democracy without really grasping the components of government that constitute the concept of "democracy." In mathematics,
a student may over rely on rote memory, deploying a so-called "algorithmic approach" to problem solving. She or he may be
able to solve equations without really knowing what equations are. Such tenuous grasping inevitably leads to academic deterioration.
Adolescents With Extreme Top-Down Processing
Students who are extreme in their top-down processing are often very creative & imaginative. However, they have
difficulty focusing on relevant details. They keep imposing or superimposing their own ideas, rich associations & values
over what they're hearing, observing, reading, or discussing.
Adolescents who over rely on top-down processing are likely to have difficulty in highly convergent subject domains,
those courses where there tends to be only one correct answer to a question or only a single acceptable interpretation of a situation. These adolescents often do
poorly on multiple choice tests & can be very distressed when they receive their SAT scores.
Adolescents with Passive Learning Approaches
Some adolescents are conspicuously inactive in their approach to learning. Within the classroom their minds seem to
be inert. They fail to associate new information with what they already know.
They tend to be non-elaborative in their thinking & speaking in school. Very little intellectual content is of any interest to them. Their understanding is constricted & they tend to equate learning with memorization.
Some of these students with passive learning approaches may show attentional dysfunction as well; that is, they seem to have too little mental energy
to partake actively in the learning process.
Associated With Reduced Or Inefficient Output
The expectations of secondary school curriculum demand ever-increasing quantities of self-directed academic productivity. Adolescents
must not only learn to learn, they must also work & learn to work!
The demands of output include increasing amounts of a wide-range of writing genres, such as:
- argumentative/persuasive essays
- compare & contrast formats
- original works of fiction &
each emphasizing students' ability to analyze, synthesize &
evaluate differing perspectives about history, literature & culture.
These important higher-order cognitive functions can stress the still developing or yet-to-be developed systems, that comprise students':
- attentional strength
- memory capacity
- comprehension level
- problem-solving facility
organizational function developmental output demands placed
Written Output Failure
There may be no more complex school-related activity than writing (Levine, 1987). The myriad of
interdependent & recursive cognitive processes & sub-processes required to represent knowledge on paper (see Flower & Hayes, 1981; Hayes & Flower, 1986; Levine
et al., 1993; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986) may make
it the most cognitively expensive performance- based task; yet it's the single most commonly used activity to evaluate competence
in secondary schools, if not at all grade levels.
Presently, schools are adopting performance based assessment tests comprised of open-ended items that students
respond to by "thinking on paper," where generating a product (correct answer) isn't weighed as heavily as the process
(procedures, thought processes) used to arrive at the product.
Such forms of evaluation will no doubt discriminate against students with "output problems" by underestimating their competency. These adolescents
often can partake of activities requiring high-order thinking skills, but they may need to express these skills thru non-traditional means, such as producing a piece of art work that captures the
essence of a poem instead of a written essay that reflects an interpretation of the poem.
Developmental written output failure can be associated with various underlying dysfunctions. Students whose writing is labored, slow & poorly
legible may have graphomotor dysfunction which manifests itself in various forms of fine motor incoordination during writing
that make it difficult for their fingers to keep pace with the flow of their ideas (Levine, et al., 1981).
The effort of transcribing thoughts to paper can functionally undermine thinking & the use of sophisticated language during the writing process (Levine et al., 1993).
Written output failures are also exhibited by students with memory dysfunctions
(see above), language difficulties (see below) & organizational problems (see below).
In addition, the higher-order deficits, such as in:
- problem-solving ability
- social cognition
- planning & revising strategies
can make it difficult for students to select topics & produce
coherent & cohesive text (Hayes &
Disorders of written output can have a profound psychological effect on an adolescent who is prone to become discouraged & anxious about performance in school perhaps so anxious about school performance as to cease being productive at all.
There are many students who have difficulty meeting the high expectations for expressive language fluency (of
which written output is one form).
Many language processing activities require the apportionment of capacity from different cognitive processes (Montgomery, 1992). Classroom teachers can recognize adolescents who may have expressive language dysfunction by observing students who have difficulty communicating
their ideas during class discussions, on paper, or both.
These adolescents are at-risk for academic & social problems (Montgomery, 1992). Montgomery (1992) stated that research results are
mixed as to delineating causal mechanisms underlying language impairments in adolescents.
Deficits in expressive language have been associated with:
- difficulties in social conversational
- word retrieval during conversation
& written expression
- the cohesiveness & coherence
of narrative text
Affected students may live in constant apprehension over the prospect of being called upon in class!
Secondary schools require adolescents to be extremely efficient & effective organizers of:
- time & materials
- pencils, papers, pens
must all arrive at 6-7 different classrooms at the appointed
times to be used in classes led by teachers with different expectations for performance & behavior.
Adolescents can have temporal-sequential deficits, or an inability to estimate, allocate, stage & monitor progress
towards completion of activities, that undermine efficient management of time.
Many adolescents with temporal sequential deficits have trouble making use of stepwise approaches to task completion;
they try to think of what to do as they're in the process of completing a task.
Instead, students need to plan or preview what the final product may look like, generate multiple alternative strategies that could
be used to complete the task, select one strategy, start the task, monitor progress & quality of the product & modify
the strategy or select another when it's no longer facilitating goal attainment.
Adolescents can often benefit from an adult or a peer who will provide "expert scaffolding," or the provision of help,
for the purpose of structuring the timing & sequencing of activities (see Palinscar & Brown, 1984).
The goal should be to model these
covert cognitive processes approached for the student to utilize him/herself during problem-solving tasks.
Other students will experience problems organizing materials for school. Notebooks, desks at home, lockers, assignment
journals & other "props" are simply difficult to manage. These students "lose" many possessions, have difficulty knowing
&/or organizing materials to take home or bring back to school & surround themselves with hopelessly disorganized
work areas & lockers.
Some phenomena that impair learning & attention in adolescents have been presented in a compartmentalized, linear
fashion. In reality these phenomena associated with negative school-related outcomes never operate in isolation.
Importantly from a developmental perspective, all cognitive processes
are highly interdependent & can influence each other's development & refinement. i.e., an early adolescent may possess
attentional strengths but weak memory capacity during middle school that over time functionally undermines existent attentional
This student's inability to continue to use developed attentional processes during middle school may result in weak
attentional strength & reduced memory capacity in high school. In fact, by the time students reach secondary school age
it may be very difficult, if not futile, to identify single dimensions of cognition that cause learning problems.
That is, is a student's negative performance related only to deficits in attention, memory, language, or a combination
of two, or a combination of three?
Furthermore, a unitary explanation for learning & attention deficits implies a single treatment strategy.
What are teachers, parents & adolescents left to do regarding the management of the phenomena underlying underachievement
given the complexity of these learning & attentional disorders & the limitations of standardized tests for illuminating subtle & sometimes hidden learning problems?
First, the phenomenological approach to learning disorders requires teachers to be well educated in adolescent cognitive
& social development. Teachers need to be keen developmentalists especially about the phenomena relating to areas such
- higher-order cognition
Second, well-educated teachers should apply this knowledge using as observational tools to record prospectively relevant
dimensions of performance.
Additionally, teachers should engage their knowledge in skillful analyses of students' error patterns. Teachers can
gather their evidence, including reports from the parent(s) & the student & draw inferences regarding the functional
status of a struggling adolescent.
Third, teacher(s), parents & students need to collaborate in a process of formulating, monitoring & evaluating the
effectiveness of educational management techniques that lead to academic achievement, social skill development & enhanced
Optimal management must include "demystification" of the phenomena associated with negative school-related outcomes
& may include use of accommodations that "by-pass" the problematic areas &/or direct cognitive interventions that
instruct students about the covert processes underlying school related outcomes.
Demystification of the Phenomena
Educating students about their learning strengths, weaknesses & affinities is based on the premise that students
must begin to understand the mysterious processes
underlying learning & the nature of their differences as a precondition of intervention.
Students' inclusion in the process of management grows in importance as they grow older; it's futile to attempt to intervene in this age range if adolescents don't have a firm grasp
on the nature of their cognitive assets & shortcomings (Levine, 1993).
The purpose of demystification is to educate students about their own unique patterns of ability using non-threatening,
non-moralistic & jargon-free vocabulary & examples. It's hoped that such teaching can relieve students of negative attributions for their success & failure in the classroom & fantasies ("I'm
dumb!') about themselves commonly associated with low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness & loss of motivation in children & adolescents with learning & attentional disorders (Borkowski, Weyhing, & Carr, 1988; Sabatino, 1982; Swartz,
Purdy, & Fullingim, 1983).
One component of the educational management plan may be the formulation of "by-pass" techniques. The purpose of using by-pass techniques is to change the nature of tasks to minimize the negative impact of inadequately developed cognitive processes underlying school-related outcomes (i.e., long division, writing).
Such techniques demand flexibility & compassion on the part of teachers.
Generally, accommodations take the following forms:
(a) rate adjustment, or modifying the speed in which information is taken in & the speed in which output is expected to be produced
(b) volume adjustment. or modifying the ideational density of information taken in or amount expected to be produced
(c) complexity adjustment, or modifying the number of steps to be remembered within a procedure, reducing the linguistic
demands of instruction
(d) devices, or the use of props (i.e.,
calculators, word processors). Instructional decisions regarding
the use of accommodations, individually or in combination with others, is a function of the student's profile of neurodevelopmental
strengths & weaknesses & the teacher's understanding of their interactions with components of specific tasks.
An adolescent who produces very little written output on paper, but who is very eloquent & sophisticated in her
verbal output during discussions & then transcribing it to paper.
If this by-pass technique isn't possible, the teacher can reduce the complexity of the writing task by encouraging the
student to write the initial draft of her paper without regard to spelling, punctuation & grammatical structure of the
sentences & paragraphs.
The teacher will then evaluate only the quality of the ideas contained in the initial draft; the teacher will evaluate
other mechanical aspects of the essay in later drafts. This process may require the teacher to make adjustments in her expectations
for when the student will turn in the final paper. But, the teacher will be evaluating an essay that more closely approximates
this student's competence.