Executive functions predict conceptual learning of science

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

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We examined the relationship between executive functions and both factual and conceptual learning of science, specifically chemistry, in early adolescence. Sixty-three pupils in their second year of secondary school (aged 12-13 years) participated. Pupils 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 chemistry teaching session, practical and assessment on the topic of acids and alkalis designed specifically for the current study. Executive function data was related to a) the chemistry assessment which included aspects of factual and conceptual learning and b) a recent school science exam. Correlational analyses between executive functions and both the chemistry assessment and science grades, revealed that science achievements were significantly correlated with working memory. Linear regression analysis revealed that visuo-spatial working memory ability was predictive of chemistry performance. Interestingly, this relationship was observed solely in relation to the conceptual learning condition of the assessment highlighting the role of executive functions in understanding and applying knowledge about what is learned within science teaching.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Developmental Psychology
Early online date11 Jan 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Jan 2016


  • chemistry
  • secondary school
  • learning
  • teaching science
  • adolescents


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