Working Memory, Attention, & Executive Function

The recent interest in how brain function affects learning has brought into focus the role of working memory, attention and executive function. These three cognitive functions are interwoven in a complex system of neural networks, and they are crucial to the learning process. Strong working memory results in functional attention networks and good executive function, all of which correlate strongly with academic achievement (Tannock, 2008). Below is a brief explanation of these three cognitive processes and their effect on mathematical learning.

What is Working Memory?

Working memory consists of the brain processes used for temporary storage and manipulation of information. It operates over only a few seconds, and it allows us to focus our attention, resist distractions, and guide our decision-making. Low working memory is a barrier to both the efficiency and learning of both calculation and higher level problem solving. The most current research on working memory describes it as a passive store component, plus attentional control. Researchers have also shown that working memory is necessary for the control of attention. Working memory and control of attention are inseparable (Klingberg, 2008).
visual depiction of working memory
The majority of studies on math disabilities suggest that children with a math disability have memory deficits. (Swanson 2006) Memory deficits affect mathematical performance in several ways:

  • Performance on simple arithmetic depends on speedy and efficient retrieval from long-term memory.
  • Temporary storage of numbers when attempting to find the answer to a mathematical problem is crucial. If the ability to use working memory resources is compromised, then problem solving is extremely difficult.
  • Poor recall of facts leads to difficulties executing calculation procedures and immature problem-solving strategies.

Research also shows that math disabilities are frequently co-morbid with reading disabilities (Swanson, 2006). Students with co-occurring math and reading disabilities fall further behind in math achievement than those with only a math disability. However, research shows that the most common deficit among all students with a math disability, with or without a co-occurring reading disability, is their difficulty in performing on working memory tasks.


Inattention is most commonly associated with ADHD, but it is present in many brain disorders. Inattention is a widespread problem for learners. Inattention is a risk factor for poor math achievement, and low working memory is a causative factor.

Inattention has three cognitive aspects that are determined by three neural networks, which are anatomically and cognitively separate.

  1. Alerting
    • Critical for optimal performance, the alerting network prepares an individual for perceiving and receiving new stimuli.
    • Symptoms of dysfunction include:
      • Complaining that a task is too boring or hard
      • Yawning
      • Laying one’s head down on a desk
  2. Orienting
    • This network selects and sorts relevant information from general sensory input.
    • Symptoms of dysfunction include:
      • Focusing on irrelevant stimuli
      • Easily distracted by anything
  3. Executive Attention
    • This is the network that is responsible for planning, organizing, recognizing errors, and involves the working memory
    • Symptoms of dysfunction include:
      • Getting sidetracked and not noticing signs in math
      • Missing words in written work
      • Forgetting instructions
      • Difficulty organizing materials and academic work

The risks related to inattention are many (Tannock, 2008). Inattentive behavior predicts a poor response to reading instruction, as well as math achievement. Poor attenders do worse on tests of oral reading fluency. Despite the attention given to students with hyperactivity and conduct problems in the classroom, those students have more academic success than students who are poor attenders.

Tannock Risk Triad


Klingberg, T. (2005). The concept of working memory. Retrieved April 24, 2008 from

Swanson, H. Lee, Jerman, O. (2006). Math disabilities: a selective meta-analysis of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 6(2), 249-274.

Tannock, R. (2008, March 7). Paying attention to inattention. Paper presented at the Harvard Learning Differences Conference.