ADHD and Working Memory: what is the link?


Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) will struggle to keep track of what they need to do, find it difficult to read information from slides in lectures, and will have difficulties sustaining attention. 

This blog will explore the link between ADHD and working memory. By understanding how the brain influences ADHD, we can improve our understanding of the difficulties these students face when studying. 


Firstly, what is ADHD? 

Composed of both hyperactive/impulsive behaviours and inattentive behaviours, ADHD is classed as a behavioural disorder. Students with ADHD typically display behaviours such as:

  • Being overly active
  • Finding it hard to follow instructions
  • Forgetting what they are doing or what they have learned
  • Having difficulty paying attention to detail
  • Getting easily distracted
  • Struggling to organise or finish a task. 

Poor inhibition is also a central feature of ADHD, which is closely related to executive function – a cognitive skill that helps to plan, manage and control behaviour. 

Sustained attention is a related executive function that students with ADHD will find challenging; because they find it hard to monitor their actions, they will lose sight of the objective of a task. A student with ADHD will find it difficult to inhibit thoughts unrelated to the task they are working on, and thus cause delays and negatively impact on the completion of the task. 


So how does the brain influence ADHD? 

Studies have shown that students with ADHD often have an under-active prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex is where our working memory is housed and operates from. If this area of the brain is reduced in volume, then our ‘brain work-space’ where we can perform mental work and operate coherent thought is reduced.  

This means that the working memory in students with ADHD may not be able to exert control over intrusive and unrelated thoughts that enter their heads while they are trying to focus on a task. 

While the prefrontal cortex is under-active in the brains of students with ADHD, the motor cortex has been found to be overactive. The motor cortex is responsible for planning and controlling our motor functions. This can lead to restless, fidgety, overly active behaviour that interferes with our ability to focus and sustain attention. 

Students with ADHD find multitasking a challenge; they may struggle to stay focused during multi stage problems or instructions, and will often lose track or only complete one part of a task. 

So why do they struggle to process the information that enables them to carry out these tasks? As mentioned in a previous blog:

we must attend to the incoming information in order for it to be efficiently processed, i.e. transferred from our sensory perception (visual or auditory) into our memory’. 

The information is not processed because the ADHD student struggles to sustain attention, which is partly due to a poor working memory capacity. 


How can we support students with ADHD in the learning environment?

ADHD and working memory deficit may impact a student’s ability to hold information or focus in class, but there are steps available to improve support.

Assistive technology can help students with ADHD to minimise the impact of their symptoms. 

Assistive software may:

  • help students break their assignments down into manageable chunks and support them with planning and organisation of ideas
  • help students plan their work schedule so that they do not have to multitask too much
  • audio record their lectures so that they can break the information down and listen to it multiple times
  • help students with time management so that they work in small timed efforts
  • simultaneously deliver information through auditory as well as visual channels to support deeper processing 

These strategies will help to reduce working memory load and processing, and boost working memory capacity. This will, in turn, improve sustained attention and facilitate learning. 


Find out More

If you would like to read more about cognition and learning, Dr. Sue Wilkinson has previously written about mental health and cognitive function, as well as the relationship between depression and concentration. 

She’ll continue to contribute her expertise to the Sonocent Blog with new posts to help you improve support for your students.

In the meantime, there are a wealth of options available for disability service departments to accommodate students with ADHD. The question is, where do you start looking? And what should you look out for? 

At Sonocent, we have 12 years’ experience developing tools for these students, and we’d like to show you what we’ve learned.

Looking into AT? It's important to make sure the solutions you choose are suitable for users of all cognitive abilities. Read our blog to find out more.

Published by

Dr Sue Wilkinson

Dr. Sue Wilkinson is a cognitive psychologist, Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy and Director at NeuroDigital Consulting Ltd. With 10 years’ experience in Higher Education and 4 years working with students with disabilities, she’s developed a particular expertise in neurodiversity in education, its effect on cognition, and the use of assistive technology to support learning.

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