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Does Improving Executive Function Cause Better Academic Achievement?

For something as geeky as a cognitive process, "executive function" is pretty sexy now. Interventions that run the gamut from physical exercise to focused computer games are being pitched as improving executive functions like attention, self-control, mental flexibiltiy, and working memory— all with the assumption that boosting these will, in turn, boost students' academic achievement.

Not so fast. While better working memory, attention, and control are associated with higher academic achievement, so far there's no evidence that improving executive function causes a boost in academics, according to a new analysis in the Review of Educational Research of 67 studies of executive function and achievement among children ages 2 to 18.

"It's not necessarily that I think we're looking at the wrong thing," said study co-author Robin T. Jacob, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research, "but I have a hunch ... that trying to intervene directly to target these [executive function] skills may not be the best way to intervene."

Jacob and Julia Parkinson of the American Institutes for Research started digging into the links between these cognitive processes and academic performance while developing their own intervention for social and emotional learning, which in part targeted executive skills. 

"We were initially very excited, and we still are hopeful that [targeting executive function] has potential to help intervene with kids," Jacob said, "but then, when my colleagues and I started digging into the literature, we were surprised that, given the hype, we were disappointed to find there's not much [causal evidence] there."

The studies did find evidence it's possible to improve executive skills using a school-based program, and they found higher executive function was both associated with higher academic performance at any given point in time and predicted future high performance. But that correlation was much weaker once the researchers controlled for student background characteristics, such as general IQ. And there was no stronger correlation for any of the individual parts of executive function or with some subject areas more than others.

"There's a lot of talk that math and executive function are really highly correlated, and that's not the way it played out," Jacob said.

Since many studies in the analysis took it as a given that executive function improvements boosted achievement, there were few that attempted to separate interventions that improved each thing. Only two interventions attempted to improve executive function without also focusing on academic material, and these did not show academic improvements caused by rising executive skills. To the contrary, a study of computer-based attention training seemed to suggest that interventions designed to improve academic performance also boosted executive skills.

Worth the Cost?

Interventions targeting executive functions have become a big business: The San Francisco-based market-research firm SharpBrains estimated that between 2005 and 2009, the global market for "brain-fitness software," including working-memory training programs, rose 31 percent, to $295 million, with $148 million of those purchases coming from the United States. 

If they don't cost much in time or money, Jacob said, such interventions are unlikely to hurt students, "but I don't think the research is there to invest heavily in programs to improve executive function if your primary goal is to improve academic achievement," she said, adding, "In fact, there's some evidence if you intervene in academics, you will get improvements to [executive function] along the way."

Jacob hopes to partner with a neuroscientist in a follow up to the analysis, to determine how much academic- and executive-function-focused interventions each change brain function. You can see Jacob talking in more detail about the study below.

Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

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