Executive Function and Writing: What Does It Mean for Writing Centres? – An Open Discussion

Amanda M Marshall, CTESL, M.Ed., is the Writing Centre Project Coordinator for the Nova Scotia Community College.

I have often joked that I have three fantasy careers: an astronaut, a neuroscientist, and a brew-master. While my career trajectory has not led me in those directions, I do have a keen interest in brain-based learning and in how to help students. When thinking about my role as Writing Centre Project Coordinator one evening, possibly over a pint, my inner neuroscientist and prior learning got me thinking, and I started to do some research into Executive Function (EF) skills. EF skills, which include “cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgement” (Bradley-Ruder, 2008), reside in the frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex of the brain. Interestingly, “the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to reach maturation…[and] is not complete until near the age of 25” (Arain et al., 2013, p. 435). Whilst delving more into EF skills, I began to see a significant connection between EF skills development and the development and deployment of writing skills. I would like to explore more of these connections in this blog, as well as make room for discussion on the topic. I hope you will all join in on the conversation.

Amanda Marshall

First, let’s explore Executive Function a bit more. As mentioned, EF includes the ability to develop and reach goals, process and evaluate information, understand cause and effect, and make reasonable inferences (Bradley-Ruder 2008). Residing in the frontal lobe, we also know that this part of the brain is responsible for logic, strategy, working memory, planning, problem-solving, and reasoning skills (Schwaighofer, Buhner, & Fischer, 2017). When a learner faces difficulty in these areas and with these skills, they will likely encounter challenges parsing, sequencing, remembering, evaluating, organizing, manipulating, planning, self-regulating, and with general task follow-through (Zumbrunn, Tadlock, & Roberts, 2011). This can affect both the learner’s interaction within their learning environment(s), as well as with specific program expectations and activities/tasks.

Understanding that the frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex takes a significant amount of time to fully develop, and knowing that EF skills are not innate, post-secondary education is faced with some unique challenges. Much of what we require of our students depends on their ability to organize, critique, remember, reflect, evaluate, plan, and reason (Graham, Karris, & Olinghouse, 2007). If students are coming to us beginning at the age of 18, for example, not only are they still approximately 7 years from having a fully, physiologically-developed frontal lobe, they may also not have had enough exposure and EF training to be fully successful on their own. “Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility” (Johnson, Blum, Geidd, 2009, p. 219), which are all critical skills for post-secondary success and employability. With this in mind, it seems increasingly incumbent on adult educators to direct focus, time, and specific practice to help our students engage in and strengthen their EF skills. When discussing EF skills as they relate to adolescents and young adults, Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child states that “…executive function skills are not yet at adult levels, but the demands placed on these skills often are” (Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child, 2017). Further, Weinberger, Elvevåg, and Geidd (2005) remind us that while adolescents and young adults are “full of promise, often energetic and caring, capable of making many contributions to their communities, and able to make remarkable spurts in intellectual development and learning…neurologically, they are not [yet] adults. They are…a work in progress” (2005, p. 19) and require support to continue learning and developing the skills required for post-secondary success.

Right side of brain

Knowing that “writing is used to gather, remember, and share subject-matter knowledge, as well as to explore, organize, and refine ideas about a topic” (Graham, et al, p. 216), it is easy to see the connections between the act of writing and the use of Executive Function skills. This connection between cognition, executive functions, and the process of writing poses a potentially interesting challenge for writing centres. Inherently, as a means of engaging with students through their writing, we are facilitating the development of EF skills. When we ask students to reflect on their writing, show them organizational techniques, explain thought groups, and review transitions, we are asking them to utilize EF skills. The very act of putting fingers to the keyboard to send a quick email, for example, utilizes the very cognitive skills we know are still developing. My suspicion is that we writing centre professionals are engaging students in ways that facilitate EF development, but that we are not necessarily cognizant of this. As a result, we are likely missing an opportunity to do more overt work in the area of Executive Function development.

At my centres, students often come for support with brainstorming, planning, organizing, and beginning their writing tasks. The “fear of the blank page” can certainly be daunting, but I find myself wondering if that is all there is to it. My centres are newly minted, so I don’t have a wealth of data through which to make specific determinations, but anecdotally, my mind is ablaze with potential opportunities. If we know that Executive Function skills are required for academic and life-long success, and we know that the very act of writing draws on, requires, and utilizes these skills, should writing centre tutors employ distinct and clear strategies that serve to both strengthen learners’ Executive Functions, as well as support their writing skill development? I have a suspicion that many writing centre volunteers are helping students exercise their frontal lobes in many ways, but I’m not sure we’re all aware that we are. Perhaps we need to employ our collective metacognitive strategies and analyze our practices as a whole to see what we’re doing and what more we can do? Cheesy neuroscience humour, I know.

I’d like to conclude with some questions that I hope can help us further develop our own knowledge about Executive Function skills as well as begin to encourage, facilitate, and aid in the development of student EF skills through writing and writing centres. Questions to consider:

  1. How much do you currently explicitly encourage, facilitate, and help in the development of student EF skills? If you do explicitly encourage, facilitate, and help in the development of EF skills, what specific activities do you use?
  2. If you are not currently working with students on EF skill development, do you see room for this in your practice? What would be helpful for you to begin to work with students in this skill area?
  3. If you are a writing centre director or coordinator, do you include EF training for your writing tutors? If yes, what do you include that is specific to EF skills development?

I welcome your answers, thoughts, and feedback or use the comments section below to continue this discussion into Executive Function and writing skills.

 

References

Alvarez, J., & Emory, E. (2006). Executive function and the frontal lobes: a meta-analytical review. Neuropsychology Review, 16(1), 17-27.

Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., … Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449-461.

Bradley-Ruder, D. (2008, September-October). The teen brain. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved from http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/09/the-teen-brain.html

Fuster, J. (2002). Frontal lobe and cognitive development. Journal of Neurocytology, 31, 373-385.

Graham, S., Karris, K., & Olinghouse, N. (2007). Addressing executive function problems in writing: An example from the self-regulated strategy development model. In Meltzer, L. (Ed.), Executive function in education: From theory to practice (216-236). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child. (2017). Activities guide: Enhancing and practicing executive function skills with children from infancy to adolescence. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/activities-guide-enhancing-and-practicing-executive-function-skills-with-children-from-infancy-to-adolescence/

Harvard’s Centre for the Developing Child. (2017). Executive function activities for adolescents. Retrieved from https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Activities-for-Adolescents.pdf

Johnson, S., Blum, R., & Geidd, J. (2009). Adolescent maturation and the brain: the promise of and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. National Institute of Health, 45(3), 216-221.

Paus, T. (2005). Mapping brain maturation and cognitive development during adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 60-68.

Schwaighofer, M., Buhner, M., & Fischer, F. (2017). Executive functions in the context of complex learning: malleable moderators? Frontline Learning Research 5(1), 58-75.

Semrud-Clikeman, M., & Ellison, P.A. (2007). Child neuropsychology: Assessments and interventions for neurodevelopmental disorders. Milwaukee, WI.

University of Michigan. (2017). Executive function problems: What happens when students don’t have good executive function skills? Retrieved from http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/professionals/dyslexia-school/executive-function-disorders

Weinberger, D., Elvevåg, B., & Geidd, J. (2005). The adolescent brain: a work in progress. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 1-36.

Zumbrunn, S., Tadlock, J., & Roberts, E. (2011). Encouraging self-regulated learning in the classroom: a review of literature. Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), 1-28.

 

Images

BrainLobesLabelled. Scott Camzaine. CC BY 3.0

12 thoughts on “Executive Function and Writing: What Does It Mean for Writing Centres? – An Open Discussion

  1. As a person with ADHD, meaning that I have chronic executive function impairment, it has always seemed natural to me to discuss planning and organizational strategies with writers in tutorials. As a writer, I need to have a very detailed understanding of how I’m going to put all the pieces of a writing project together or how I’m going to accomplish each sub-task related to a writing project; otherwise, I’m likely to never finish that project. So when I meet with writers, I am asking about their process, their goals, their plans. I’m also asking about where they write, what time of day, what keeps them focused, etc. I also encourage all writers to take notes, to hand-write new ideas and revisit them later, and to outline, draft, and reverse outline as they write. Of course, these things all support executive function development in one way or another, but I’ve never explicitly discussed them as such.

    Now, though, I’m the director of my university’s writing center, and this present article makes me painfully aware that those same strategies I suggest to writers are absent in my training materials. I wasn’t aware (before today) that these adaptations I’ve developed to cope with my executive function impairment may not be to my tutors the intuitive staples of the writing process that they are to me.

    Of course, my response here is not a direct answer to any of your concluding questions. In short, I haven’t helped my tutors develop an understanding of how EF issues affect writers, but I’m open to learning about strategies to support writers’ EF deficiencies and how we might teach tutors to focus on EF during tutorials.

    1. Thank you so much, Matt. Your insight and thoughts on this topic are very helpful and informative. Would you be interested in talking more about what can be done to implement EF understanding and strategies into writing tutor training?

  2. Amanda this is a thoughtful piece. Executive function is important to develop and your insight helps us to understand that challenge in writing centres and the institutions they support. Thanks again.

  3. What a great conversation! Thanks for getting it started. As a Learning Strategist I regularly teach EF skills. It is challenging for student writers to analyze their larger tasks, especially when their goal (at first) is to complete the work. I love when they learn to manage scope, set interim goals and make changes to be more effective. Yes, writing multiple drafts is a real thing! Learning-focused writing can be a hard sell, but when it works, it works very well.

    1. Thanks, Elaine! As a learning strategist, I imagine you work with and encourage the development of EF strategies quite a bit. Do you ever work with individuals on the connection between EF skills and writing?

  4. Hello, Amanda.

    As with others, I read this with great interest. Coming into university as a mature student some 20 years ago, I recall a comment made by my undergraduate English teacher, (now Professor) Robert McLaughlin, at Illinois State University. He made reference to the creative connections that I made when I tried to understand how literary texts cohered with literary theory. He said that he thought it had to do with the fact that I was older, intuiting what your research seems to confirm. I think that this has some positive implications for mature students, in terms of a strength or edge they can draw from this knowledge when all else around them seems daunting.

    I draw on that ISU experience when talking to students about writing, but I also recognise that if we are going to get students to develop frameworks for critical inquiry, we need to draw them through it, and I think the peer tutoring methods that we use in our writing centre, which are inquisitive, Socratic, are helpful in bringing students to the ‘ah-ha!’ moments, writing tutors modelling successful critical inquiry by asking students the questions that the tutor would ask themselves were they in the student’s writing situation. Getting students, too, to analyse what their audiences want–both the audiences that discourse on their subjects and the audience that is assessing their analysis and evaluation of the discourse, those grading the papers–and working out how those needs can be met in the paper, how the case can be made in a way that is credible in the mind of that audience while demonstrating the achievements of the learning goals for the module (class or course) for the assessor.

    I am going to inform our tutors of this article in the hopes that they might see this topic as an area of writing centre research that they might pursue and present at a future EWCA or EATAW Conference. Thank you, again, for this great piece.

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