In response to COVID-19, Evoke Learning has shifted all of its services and programs online

Executive Function and Learning Skills

The executive functions are a set of higher-level cognitive skills that are necessary for academic success. They include organizational abilities such as planning, problem-solving, and attention and regulatory abilities such as self-control, initiation, and decision-making. Just like other skills, executive functions can be learned and strengthened.

At Evoke Learning, we put ourselves in other people’s shoes. We understand the perspective of someone with executive function challenges, and how deficits in these abilities can feel overwhelming and frustrating. We know how people feel when they struggle with organization, setting priorities, managing alertness, getting what’s in their head down on paper, sustaining effort, shifting focus, and regulating processing speed and output. We understand and are sensitive to the challenges our students have and what is uncomfortable and difficult for them. We don’t believe in laziness; we believe there are barriers to learning and situations that hold individuals back, and that it is our job to understand the needs of our students, identify those barriers, and help our students address them.

The Role of the Academic Strategist

Our academic strategists are allies who partner with students to teach research-informed approaches—grounded in science—to overcoming executive function barriers. They provide students with the resources, tools, strategies, accommodations, and external scaffolding they need to master the skills required for independent learning and reduce their cognitive overload. It is our experience that when students are taught the science of learning and see the sense in using a research-informed approach to their academic work, and when they also can practice these new skills, we can assist them in developing a more effective approach to learning. Research has demonstrated that external “scaffolding” influences the development of executive function; these skills can be supported, trained, and strengthened over time with research-informed interventions and consistent reinforcement.

The role of the academic strategist is multifaceted. Academic strategists support students using a holistic approach to help strengthen their self-regulation and executive functioning skills and improve their academic performance. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Individuals require different strategies and learners have a variety of needs. Academic strategists share options for increasing efficacy and create personalized learning plans for students that will help them identify and understand their strengths and challenges, assist them in developing specific learning strategies to meet the demands of academic life, and support their executive function challenges. Students receive support with goal setting, time management, understanding and getting started on assignments, advocating for accommodations, the use of assistive technology to lighten cognitive load, reading and annotating effectively, studying for tests and exams, and developing writing strategies.

Sessions focus on:

  • Co-creating personalized action plans for student success, analyzing progress, and developing strategies to optimize performance,
  • The cognitive science behind how the brain learns (how to work smarter, not harder) and misunderstandings about learning,
  • Reducing cognitive load to increase motivation and academic outcomes,
  • Deepening the student’s understanding of, and the ability to use, assistive technology (if needed),
  • Assisting students with advocating for and accessing accommodations and support (if applicable),
  • Teaching executive function strategies that enhance organization, planning, initiation, and creating effective routines and structure,
  • Teaching academic (learning) skills, including how to study, high-level reading strategies, and note-taking strategies, and
  • Teaching writing strategies and pairing those with the use of assistive technology, as necessary.

Executive Function and Writing Are Intertwined

Because it requires the brain to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, the writing process can be cognitively demanding. The student must employ various executive functions (planning, organizing, monitoring, and revising text), and enlist all aspects of memory, attention, and language. In addition, writers must consider meaning, purpose, and audience—a significant load on working memory. Those with executive function challenges, ADHD, and learning disabilities often have difficulty organizing their writing, distinguishing between what is and what is not important, and putting their ideas into logical order.

Writing is the most difficult academic skill to teach and learn. It places demands on a student’s graphomotor skills, cognitive and linguistic abilities, and awareness of text and social conventions. Students with learning challenges frequently struggle to clarify their thoughts and express themselves. Writing requires a high level of abstraction, elaboration, and reflection, and teachers may lack the resources and time to provide direct instruction in writing. Assigning extensive writing assignments and providing exposure to effective writing does not normally produce capable writers; direct and explicit instruction is the key to developing strong writing skills. Because struggling writers have different needs, student support must be individualized.

Teaching Writing Strategies

Evidence-based research shows that struggling writers can improve their skills dramatically if they receive the detailed, explicit instruction they need (Graham & Harris, 2005). Such strategies can improve the writing skills of students with learning disabilities, although they are equally effective for individuals who just need extra help.

The Academic Writing and Strategies Program gives students the tools and techniques to assist with every phase of the writing process—from brainstorming and goal setting to proofreading and revision—strategies that have been researched and proven to work with students at all levels, especially those who are challenged by learning disabilities. Together, student and strategist identify the most pertinent obstacles to the student’s writing and choose the writing strategies that best address these challenges. Our strategies are evidence-based and introduced gradually as students demonstrate increased understanding. Students are taught how to execute their academic writing assignments. Our program is tailored to students who wish to enhance their writing skills as well as those who require fundamental remediation.

Lifelong Impact

Strengthening students’ academic writing skills has many benefits. It boosts creativity and confidence, and helps students think critically and present complex ideas logically. These skills are not only useful in school but will be needed after graduation as the student pursues their career. Evoke provides students with a solid foundation of skills and strategies that enable them to understand the role executive function plays in writing and helps them develop confidence in their skills.

FAQs

Who are your Academic and Writing Strategy Program tutors?

Evoke refers to the practitioners in our Academic and Writing Strategy Program as academic strategists. Diversity in the classroom includes differences in the way students’ brains learn (neurodiversity). Neurodiverse students include those with learning disabilities, ADHD, giftedness, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Quite often these students are also impacted by other conditions, such as anxiety, depression, fine and gross motor challenges, and executive function difficulties, which can become barriers to learning. Academic strategists are practitioners who understand that students who require assistance with writing skill development may also struggle with organization and planning. For learning to occur, students need to have the underlying academic skills to access the curriculum; however, if they struggle with deficits in executive function, time management, and self-regulation, their attention in the classroom will also be a challenge. Simply put, academic strategists are specialists who understand the multifaceted needs of neurodiverse learners and can provide support in multiple areas of learning: executive function and learning skills development, writing strategies, and the use of assistive technology.

Will students receive assistance with writing assignments when working with an academic strategist in your program?

The academic strategist teaches students academic writing strategies, and shares new approaches for writing more robustly, generating ideas, and organizing ideas on paper. During sessions, an academic strategist will assist a student to ensure they understand the requirements of their writing assignment, are aware of the assessment criteria, and can “chunk” their work into manageable steps. The strategist teaches the student writing strategies (and how to apply them), provides feedback on written work, and helps the student create an outline of their assignment and get started on their work. The goal is to help the student reduce their cognitive load and to learn and apply strategies that will ultimately result in the student’s ability to write effectively and independently. While there is time during sessions to work on written assignments, students who require significant assistance or have large, time-consuming assignments should arrange additional sessions with their academic strategist on an as-needed basis.

My child has challenges with motor coordination and finds writing difficult because of this. Does your Academic and Writing Strategies Program help with this?

Academic strategists are well-equipped to support students who require the use of assistive technology for reading and writing. This also includes note-taking and annotating. Students who require assistive technology to access the curriculum, such as individuals with processing deficits, or motor coordination and visual-motor coordination challenges, receive support in understanding how to use assistive technology to lighten their cognitive load (reduce the demand of writing on the brain) so there is capacity for critical thinking to produce written work. The use of assistive technology is blended with writing strategies to make the writing process much less taxing and overwhelming for the student.

I have been diagnosed with deficits in executive function. Does an academic strategist work with students who struggle with this?

Academic strategists have a strong understanding of executive function deficits and how these difficulties can get in the way of learning. While we are unable to change a student’s neurobiology (we can’t make blue eyes brown!) we can teach and improve executive function skills through strategy-based approaches and repeated practice. Academic strategists provide external scaffolding to support students by helping them to complete tasks, gradually stepping back as they begin to manage the process independently. Executive function develops differently for everyone and while we are unable to help the prefrontal cortex of the brain to grow, cognitive science tells us that when we use routine, strategies, practice, and external support, we can depend less on our executive functions and teach our brain to change a habit through practice and automaticity. At Evoke, we understand that executive function requires effort; it’s easier to lean into automaticity than to consider what to do next, which is why strategies work so well.