Evidence for a role of executive functions in learning biology

Sinead M. Rhodes, Josephine N. Booth, Lorna Ellise Campbell, Richard A. Blythe, Nial J. Wheate, Mirela Delibegovic

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Research examining cognition and science learning has focused on working memory but evidence implicates a broader set of executive functions. The current study examined executive functions and learning of biology in young adolescents. Fifty-six participants, aged 12-13 years, completed tasks of working memory (Spatial Working Memory), inhibition (Stop-Signal), attention set-shifting (ID/ED), and planning (Stockings of Cambridge), from the CANTAB. They also participated in a biology teaching session, practical and assessment on the topic of DNA designed specifically for the current study which measured a) memory for biology facts taught and b) understanding of information learned in the practical. Linear regression analysis revealed that planning ability predicted performance on the factual assessment and both spatial working memory and planning were predictive of performance on the conceptual assessment. The findings suggest that planning ability is important in learning biological facts but that a broader set of executive functions are important for conceptual learning, highlighting the role of executive functions in understanding and applying knowledge about what is learned within science teaching.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-83
Number of pages16
JournalInfant and Child Development
Issue number1
Early online date7 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jan 2014


  • executive function
  • working memory
  • planning
  • science learning
  • biology

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