Executive Function (EF) skills are a set of three neurocognitive skills—cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory—that allow for the conscious control of attention and behavior to achieve a goal.

Think of EF skills as the brain’s air traffic controller. Your brain has many metaphorical planes arriving and departing on many different runways. You’ve got work. Family. Friends. Continuing education. Domestic tasks. Volunteer work. Hobbies. Leisure activities. Civic and cultural engagement. And all of life’s many distractions. All of which are competing for your time and attention. Your EF skills have got to prioritize these tasks, filter distractions, and control impulses to keep everything running smoothly, so all the planes get where they need to go when they need to get there. 

It’s easy to see how EF skills have a big impact on success in learning and in life. 

Now let’s think about EF skills from the student’s perspective: 

Let’s say you’re doing asynchronous remote learning. The lectures are long pre-recorded videos that you have to figure out when to slot into your already jam-packed schedule. There’s a discussion forum, but you’re not sure when others post, so you have to keep remembering to check in. Your written assignments are all given to you at once, the required components are unclear to you, and you have seek out the instructor if you want feedback. All of these materials are located somewhere in your learning management system (LMS) but you’re totally unfamiliar with how your LMS even works. 

The task of developing a plan to navigate through a learning experience like this one increases strain on your EF skills because there are multiple planes trying to land at the airport before you’ve even gotten to tackling the actual course material. For learners experiencing other significant life stressors or struggling with learning differences that impact EF, the difficulty skyrockets exponentially.

Contrast the above scenario with one where you’re welcomed to the course with a tutorial that walks you through exactly where all the materials are located and how to use all the technology you’ll need in the course. The course material is broken down into easy-to-digest chunks with regular low-stakes formative assessments and flexible due dates to keep you on track. If you fall off track, someone checks in with you to see if you need support. You know exactly when and how to check discussion forums and get instructor feedback. When you’re doing your coursework, you’re given scaffolding that helps you prioritize tasks and minimize distractions. 

The material taught in both scenarios could be identical, but it’s going to be way easier for students to succeed in the latter scenario because their EF skills are supported.

You can remove some of the strain on your students’ EF skills with tactics such as:

  • establishing clear routines and reminding your students of these routines and expectations regularly
  • devoting class time to teaching your students how to use your LMS
  • following individual and class-wide trends to see who might need more support and intervene early. 
  • Creating strong feedback loops
  • Proactively planning to train and support EF skills

No one likes a crowded runway. When educators view their courses through a learner-centered EF lens, they can support learners’ EF skills through smart instructional design and delivery that keeps the number of planes circling the runway to a minimum.

Are you interested in using your LMS to support your learners’ EF skills? Schedule a chat with us, take advantage of our webinars. We’d love to help you harness the power of your data.