How to Improve Executive Function in Students

Executive functions are an essential set of skills for every student. It includes all the mental processes required to facilitate goal-directed behavior, like motivation, planning, emotional regulation, processing regulation, self-monitoring and self-regulation. Interestingly, this is one of the last cognitive skills to develop (approximately at age 25). In addition, executive functioning is highly interdependent with other cognitive abilities such as attention, metacognition and working memory, among others. For this reason, a difficulty in any of these can have far reaching effects on executive function.


So, what can we do about it? The first thing to know is that, just like other cognitive skills, executive function can be improved with effort and the right strategies. There are two great ways to improve executive function: setting goals and organizing information. Although they may sound simple, they can be very tricky and even have negative results if we don’t know how to apply them properly. 


Let’s begin with setting goals. These drive behaviors, which equate to learning for students in school, and engage them to pursue learning activities, serving as the rationale supporting the desired outcome for educators. Therefore, it is in the best interest of everyone to know what types of goals motivate students most, as well as how to set goals effectively. Traditional schooling has coalesced around performance-based goals, which are friendly to standardized tests and summative assessments. However, research suggests they are less effective at motivating students and can lead to academic performance through surface-level learning, which is fleeting. Performance-based goals motivate students to demonstrate that they have adequate ability. When students perceive they have low ability, performance goals can have an adverse effect by provoking students to avoid tasks. That in turn, causes students to avoid not just tasks, but challenges as well. 


In contrast, students persist in the face of challenging tasks and process information more deeply when they adopt mastery goals rather than performance goals. Setting goals that are short term (proximal), specific, and moderately challenging enhance motivation more than establishing goals that are long term (distal), general, and overly challenging. Students who adopt mastery goals are more likely to pursue challenges because these are oriented towards acquiring a new skill or higher level of competence. Mastery goals motivate students intrinsically to develop competence by learning as much as they can, which is more likely to motivate them to exert effort to excel and learn the new skill. 


In summary, effective goals share three properties—they are proximal, specific, and moderately challenging. Proximal pertains to a goal that is attainable in the short-term and facilitates judgment toward progress. Specific, the second property, refers to the specificity or clarity of the goal. For example, completing 20 math exercises with accuracy is both proximal and specific. Whereas “I will try my best” is vague and less useful. Lastly, the level of challenge is important as a goal that is too challenging can be paralyzing, and one that is too easy is not motivating.


Moving on to the second strategy, if we help students to organize their knowledge, they will be more likely to make connections and build knowledge networks. This enables them to apply that knowledge in new contexts, retain it over time, and think critically about new information. What is important for instructors to keep in mind is that students tend to be better at providing evidence of learning when there is alignment between how they organize knowledge and the form of the assignments they complete. We must consider how students will need to access and use the knowledge and help them organize knowledge in a way that will facilitate effective retrieval and use of that knowledge.


There are different pathways to organizing knowledge and it starts with thinking about ideas in isolation from each other. For example, if we learn about floods as a natural disaster, we will likely think about how rain is formed – i.e., the cycle of water – in isolation from yet connecting it to landslides, then advance to thinking about it in relative terms (an estimation of the issue without particulars regarding the amount of precipitation, how and when it occurs etc.), and only as the thinking and learning progress, these two ideas will start integrating, and, ultimately, be considered together in new contexts to create new ideas. This last step is known as the transfer of knowledge, which is the ultimate goal of learning. At this point, the learner can be expected to think about floods and landslides, their cause-and-effect relation, and the multiple variables that can influence this relation and so on. The two ideas are no longer disconnected and thinking about them together can lead to identifying solutions.


These two strategies can go a long way in helping students develop their executive function. However, as executive functioning encompasses all goal directed behaviors there are still some more specific strategies that can help students in different parts of the learning process, whether it is before, during or after learning.


  1. American Psychological Association (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK–12 teaching and learning.
  2. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Eylon, B. S., & Reif, F. (1984). Effects of knowledge organization on task performance. Cognition and Instruction, (1), 5-44. 
  4. Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
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