Executive function: what you need to know

Executive function is increasingly being seen as a key part of learning - here Marc Smith explores the latest research

Executive function: What teachers need to know about this area of education research

There’s a growing tendency in education to view learning in cognitive terms; specifically, the process by which relatively permanent behaviour changes occur as the result of past experience (in particular, changes in long-term memory). 

However, learning also involves a set of higher-order cognitive abilities that control other, simpler ones.

Executive function is an umbrella term used to describe these higher-order cognitive functions.


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A new study from researchers in Switzerland suggests that these abilities can be enhanced through games designed to tap into the main components of executive function.

In general, executive function applies to a person’s ability to plan, pursue goals, self-check, remain relatively calm under pressure, avoid distraction and successfully utilise certain aspects of memory and other cognitive resources.

Executive function and learning

It has been implicated in many aspects of behaviour and learning and studies have found that children with poor executive function are more likely to display behavioural problems, show less interest in school and are more likely to drop out of mainstream education.

It would make sense, therefore, to investigate ways that could nurture and enhance such abilities.

The skills that fall under the executive function umbrella are generally considered to be those relating to working memory, cognitive flexibility (or flexible thinking) and inhibitory control. These three abilities then support other functions that are important to learning.

The big three

Working memory refers to the ability to keep information in mind and mentally process it, through processes like undertaking mental arithmetic or following a set of instructions. Working memory capacity is limited, even though its precise limits aren’t fully understood. 

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how higher working memory capacity, or the use of strategies that work around these limitations, would benefit learning.

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to think about something in a different way or to shift between tasks or mental sets. This could include adjusting to changes in the demands of a task or viewing a particular problem from an alternative perspective.

The third ability (inhibitory control) is about being able to ignore distractions and resist temptation. It also includes emotion regulation, such as remaining relatively calm in a potentially stressful situation.

 We might consider such an ability to be non-cognitive, yet there are few functions that are completely void of cognition, so the distinction is perhaps a false one. Inhibitory control and emotion regulation do naturally follow a developmental trajectory, meaning that younger children are less adept at focusing their attention than older ones.

Although these skills certainly improve with age and experience, there are some indications that they can be taught through targeted interventions. To date, such interventions have included computer-based training, games, physical activity and school curriculum activities. 

Enhancing executive function

There is some convincing evidence that executive function can be enhanced using such techniques, just as long as the tasks constantly challenge executive function and gradually increase in difficulty (Diamond & Ling, 2016).

Interventions may be direct, in that they target a single domain (computerised working memory training, for example) or indirect, those that target multiple domains. These different styles of intervention have their strengths and limitations.

For example, direct interventions offer the greatest improvement but display fewer transfer effects, that is, they can’t be generalised to other types of learning. Indirect interventions, on the other hand, see fewer training improvements but greater transfer.  

Gamification may be particularly useful in helping to nurture these skills. When children play games in groups they are naturally increasing possible opportunities to practice many of the skills that are related to executive function, such as social interaction and turn-taking. Furthermore, games can be continuously adapted to pinpoint specific higher-order functions.

By periodically changing the rules of a game, for example, players are encouraged to change the way they think about the game and any strategies required to be successful at it, while waiting for your turn encourages self-control.

Those games that involve negotiation skills and adhering to a set of rules have also been found to promote school and social adjustment (Pellegrini, Blatchford, Kato, & Baines, 2004).

Correcting imbalance

Up until now, interventions have tended to focus on pre-school and early primary school children, leading to a lack of information on older primary-aged children and their ability to benefit from such interventions.

But a new paper published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology attempts to correct this imbalance by testing a game designed to increase the three main facets of executive function with older children. 

Valentin Benzing and his co-researchers from the University of Bern, Switzerland, recruited 118 children aged between 10 and 12 years and randomly assigned them to one of two groups (Benzing et al, 2019). 

One of the groups were given an intervention using card and board games specifically designed to train aspects of executive function. A second group attended lessons as usual. This was a wait-list control group, meaning that the intervention would be delivered only after the experimental group had received it.

 The intervention lasted six weeks, with two 30-minute sessions each week.

The games were adapted from previous research and were designed to enhance specific executive function skills. One game (Invasion of the Insects) required children to follow instructions, inhibit behaviour and then adapt when the rules were changed. Another game tapped into attention, updating (working memory), visual search ability and speed of reaction. 

In all games, the level of difficulty increased. For example, where reaction time was involved, it was ruled that if certain cards were dealt, players were forbidden from reacting. In other conditions the rules would be switched, forcing players to adapt to changing circumstances and update information in working memory.

Executive function was then assessed using an established research technique designed specifically for the purpose.

Results found an increase in two components of executive function (working memory and flexibility), suggesting that such intervention may well be useful in improving certain cognitive functions in older primary school-aged children.

This new study is a welcome addition to the literature on such interventions. However, the sample size was quite small so we might have to wait for other studies before we can be sure that the results translate to larger and more diverse groups. 

It could also have been that the games increased motivation and this was the reason for the generally positive results. Disappointingly, the study didn’t test for transfer of skills, so it’s difficult to tell if the changes will still be seen outside the very specific game environment, most importantly, the everyday classroom.

Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner, and co-author with Jonathan Firth of Psychology in the Classroom. He tweets @marcxsmith

References

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