Executive function: bridging the cognitive and the non-cognitive

The ability to plan and set goals is generally believed to represent a higher- order cognitive function. Executive function is an umbrella term that includes a number of these types of ability and it seems logical to assume that there is a relationship between academic buoyancy and these higher-order functions. As well as planning and goal setting, executive function is concerned with a number of other factors, including a person's ability to analyse their own progress, inhibit actions that might lead them away from their goal and check whether or not they are on the right track (Smith & Firth, 2018). Robert Logie of the University of Edinburgh summarises executive function as including any cognitive abilities that involve the control of other, simpler, abilities (Logie, 2016).

While the intricacies of executive function remain marginally contentious, there is a general consensus that it includes a group of three specific skills that allow people to manage thoughts, actions and emotions in order to achieve what they have set out to do. These skills are related to working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control (see Figure 4.1).

Main components of executive function

Figure 4.1 Main components of executive function

The first of these skills (working memory) relates to the ability to keep information in our minds and use it in some way. Working memory is shortterm memory, so it won't last very long and the amount of information we can store is limited. But working memory is essential for learning because it represents the present. For example, when we carry out mental arithmetic, we are taking information from our long-term memory and placing it into working memory. We then manipulate the information (add, subject, multiply and so on) in order to reach an answer. This is also where the instructions we are given verbally are dealt with. If, for example, I were to ask you to read this sentence again, put your finger on the tip of your nose and then stand up, this sequence will have been held in your working memory until the actions have been completed.

It's easy to see how the capacity to store more information in working memory would benefit learning, but also how individuals with deficits of working memory might be significantly disadvantaged. This is why it's useful to break information down into small chunks or stages, as it reduces the amount of information our cognitive system needs to deal with at any one time. The pressure placed on these limited mental resources is known as load or, more specifically, cognitive load and is encapsulated within a model known as Cognitive Load Theory. Many of the attributes that help to reduce cognitive load are also implicated in higher levels of academic buoyancy and this is one reason why it's best not to be too stringent about the use of the term non-cognitive skills.

Cognitive flexibility (or flexible thinking) is the ability to think about something in more than one way. We might, for example, try to analyse a passage from a text from alternative viewpoints or even try and think of alternative uses for an everyday object (a technique used in research to test divergent thinking). Such thinking could then be employed when we reach an academic impasse and have to carefully and thoughtfully negotiate our way through it.

The third skill (inhibitory control) relates to our ability to ignore distractions and resist temptation and includes emotion regulation, the ability to use emotional states effectively and appropriately (such as remaining calm in potentially stressful situations). Emotion regulation also plays a role in what is termed hot executive control or hot cognition, that is, those actions that include high emotional states, such as test anxiety. There is also an element of self- control here, that is, our ability to forego small rewards now in favour of bigger rewards later. The aim is to reach our ultimate goal and we do this by pursuing smaller goals on the way, yet we may well encounter distractions between these sub-goals - the shiny things, the Sirens whose job it is to waylay us.

In the classroom, students with higher levels of inhibitory control will be the ones who raise their hands without calling out, patiently wait their turn and remain relatively calm when faced with tests and high stakes exams. They will still get nervous, but this nervousness can be seen as more positive than negative - the student is able to control the anxiety, rather than letting it control them.

These three primary skills then promote a number of secondary skills, including attention, staying focussed on tasks and self-monitoring (keeping track of what we are doing). This also implies that certain skills are beneficial to several outcomes, including academic attainment and the ability to adapt to setbacks, remain focussed on the task in hand and set realistic and achievable goals.

 
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