Primary Characteristics of Students with Learning Disabilities (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Cognitive Skill Deficits

Memory Problems  Students with learning disabilities are often characterized by certain cognitive problems that contribute to the difficulties they have learning academic content. One of the most frequently noted problems among students with learning disabilities is a memory deficit. Many students with learning disabilities have difficulty with long-term memory and experience great frustration in attempting to learn basic information and rapidly retrieving this information during school activities. For example, many students with learning disabilities who have problems with math have difficulty learning math facts. Moreover, they may remember facts one day and forget them the next. Much the same can be said about learning to spell for a significant number of students with learning disabilities.

The most frequently investigated aspect of memory for students with learning disabilities is working memory (Siegel, 2003). Working memory is the ability to see something, think about it, and then act on this information. For example, when reading, a student sees a word he does not know, retrieves information from his long-term memory regarding the letters in the word and the sounds they represent, blends these sounds into a word, and then says the word while retaining information regarding the context of what is being read. Obviously, this is a complex process and is made more difficult by the fact that a fundamental problem that many students with learning disabilities face is a deficit in working memory. Evidence indicates that working memory problems contribute to learning disabilities in the areas of reading, mathematics, and written expression (Swanson & Saez, 2003).

Attention Problems

A second cognitive factor that may contribute to many learning disabilities is attention problems. Available evidence suggests that as many as 60% of students with learning disabilities have some level of attentional difficulty (Rock, Fessler, & Church, 1999). Attentional problems for students with learning disabilities may relate to three types of attention.

  • Orienting toward important activities in the classroom (i.e., the teacher provides an example of regrouping on the board, while the student looks out the window at children playing on the playground)
  • Sustaining attention for an appropriate period of time (i.e., paying attention for a sustained period of time without distraction)
  • Selectively attending to material that is most important (e.g., attending to directions before responding to math problems on a worksheet)

Metacognitive Deficits

Students with learning disabilities may also have difficulty with what are called metacognitive skills. Metacognition relates to an awareness of thinking processes and how these processes are monitored. Scott (1999) has more simply characterized this phenomenon as "knowing what you know and how you know it" (p. 55). Students with learning disabilities often have difficulty monitoring their thinking, and these difficulties contribute to academic problems. Many strategies have been used to support students with metacognitive difficulties, including providing advance organizers before presenting material, use of mnemonic devices to assist in remembering information (e.g., HOMES is a device to remember the names of the Great Lakes), and procedures for planning and organizing study time in a content area.

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