Memory and ADHD: Strategies

” I have a lot of trouble remembering the facts on a test, even if I have gone over them many times.”

” I understand the material but it is very hard for me to write about it in an essay. My mom always has to help me.”

These students with ADHD are struggling! The brain’s “executive functions” work together as a kind of conductor for overall brain activity, coordinating smooth performance so to speak. Often with ADHD, one or a number of the executive functions are impaired, creating challenges for managing certain aspects of life.


One of these executive functions is memory. ADHD expert Dr. Thomas E. Brown describes the impact of ADHD on memory as occurring primarily in utilizing working memory (the ability to hold multiple pieces of information”on line” for simultaneous use) and accessing recall. According to Brown:

“Very often, people with ADHD will report that they have adequate or exceptional memory for things that happened long ago, but great difficulty in being able to remember where they just put something, what someone just said to them, or what they were about to say. They may describe difficulty holding one or several things “on line” while attending to other tasks. In addition, persons with ADHD often complain that they cannot pull out of memory information they have learned when they need it.”

Impact of Memory Impairments on Students

Memory issues impact students with ADHD in a number of ways. Most obvious, perhaps, is difficulty retrieving information in class discussions, for use in assignments, and on quizzes and tests. Less obvious, but equally impairing is the impact of  challenges with working memory on all aspects of school work.  As an example, by allowing a student to simultaneously hold a number of pieces of information in the fore-front of his or her mind, working memory assists with applying formulas and facts and directions simultaneously in math homework. As another example, working memory assists with simultaneous use use of vocabulary, concepts, spelling, punctuation and more when writing. So, impairments in working memory can be very challenging. Memory challenges can also impact follow-through with various chores of daily life.

Strategies to Assist Students with Memory Challenges

Educator Sandra Rief  has described approaches utilizing creativity and sensory impact to promote memorization for students with ADHD:

Make it visual: Associating information to be learned with drawings or diagrams can help cement learning and promote easier recall. “Vocabulary Cartoons” offers one example of this approach. The Lindamood-Bell “Seeing Stars” program uses student visualization to improve reading skills, including comprehension, and spelling in children with dyslexia. Graphic novels, movies of classic literature, and Larry Gonick’s “Cartoon Guides” to science and history topics are all useful resources for visual learners.

Make it musical: Music can be used to augment concentration. But, additionally, setting information to be learned to a catchy tune can help some students. Resources include: “Rap with the Facts,” musically, and the classic “School House Rock” videos. Or, create your own songs!

Use mnemonics: Mnemonics and acrostics are time-tested strategies that can help reduce memory burden. Examples include: HOMES for the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior), Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge for EGBDF, the sequence of lines in the treble clef. Search for widely used mnemonics or create your own.

Last Spring, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, reviewed recent research suggesting the following strategies:

Caffeine:  Caffeine may enhance memory through its impact on norepinephrine, a hormone that acts in the brain to improve intensity of concentration and consolidation of information for later retrieval.
Regular aerobic exercise: Studies have shown that exercise can increase the volume of hippocampus, a part of the brain that is crucial to memory.

Squishy stress balls: Used in a certain way to trigger certain areas of the brain, squishing a stress ball might aid quick recall of information. According to Gupta, “In one study, participants who used the right hand before memorizing and then used the left before recalling remembered more words than the group who did the opposite. The finding supports the idea that the brain’s left hemisphere (activated when using your right hand) is responsible for storing certain memories, while the right retrieves information.”

Omega 3s: Fatty acids, such as Omega 3s may regulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter (transmitter of nerve impulses in the brain) that works to improve cognition and possibly working memory.

Other research has suggested these approaches:

Vary study settings: The more associations a student’s brain can make with the material being studied, the denser the neural networks related to that material in the brain, and the more avenues the student will have to access the information for recall and retrieval.

Quiz yourself: Quizzing is a way to get your brain not just to hold material but to interact with t. Quizzing oneself – using flashcards is one way – is an active learning approach that can help improve memory.

Finally, subject-specific learning accommodations for memory challenges associated with ADHD can include:

Formula Sheets and calculators: Use of formula sheets and calculators on math and science tests allows a student to demonstrate both and understanding of and ability to do the work without the added burden of relying on poor working memory and recall.

Formats: Learning various formats for paragraphs and different types of papers can help reduce the writing burden. One resource is the book “Format Writing.”

Grade content separately from mechanics: Offering separate content and mechanics grades on writing projects allows a student with working memory issues to be graded well on understanding and thinking about content. Grades for mechanics can then be weighted less as an accommodation.

Extended time: Allowing extended time on papers and tests may help compensate for the difficulty with working memory for some students.

Alternative evaluation approaches: Providing alternative evaluation approaches – instead of a test or a paper,  allow a discussion or submission of a powerpoint for example – can play to a student’s strengths instead of weaknesses.

That’s quite a list of options to ponder… Which strategies catch your attention? What one strategy can you plan to try out this week?

photo credit: renjith krishnan,

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