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IES Grant

Title: Exploring the Malleability of Executive Control
Center: NCER Year: 2011
Principal Investigator: Ellefson, Michelle Awardee: University of Cambridge
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years Award Amount: $1,049,094
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A110932

Co-Principal Investigators: Zewelanji Serpell (Virginia State University, VSU) and Teresa Parr (Ashley-Parr, LLC)

Purpose: The link between executive control and achievement has prompted researchers to investigate whether executive control (EC) is malleable. A handful of studies on preschool and early elementary school programs incorporating techniques designed to improve executive control in the curriculum demonstrate significant improvements in early literacy and numeracy, and some even indicate sustained achievement gains in subsequent years. However, research exploring the malleability of executive control in the upper elementary grades is limited. As such, the current project will explore the malleability of EC in the context of an experimental training program that incorporates a variety of executive control tasks in the process of learning to play chess, and will monitor how changes in executive function are related to school achievement.

Project Activities: In this project, 300 fourth and fifth graders will participate in a longitudinal study. In the initial year of the project, the researchers will design sessions that facilitate practice with various executive control skills in the context of playing chess in an after-school setting three times per week. Students will work on sustained attention, strategic planning, inhibitory control, working memory, pattern recognition, and visual search. Half of the students will participate in the training sessions in Year 1, and the other half of the students will participate in Year 2. At three points during each of the 3 years of the study, students will be tested on a battery of executive control assessments as well as standardized achievement tests. This design will allow researchers to look at how improvements in executive control demonstrated outside an academic domain are related to school achievement.

Products: Products from this study will include preliminary evidence of how potential improvements in executive control might improve achievement in literacy, math, and science. Peer-reviewed publications will also be produced.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study will take place in a large urban school district in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

Population: Approximately 300 fourth and fifth grade students will participate in an experimental training program during after-school sessions. Participants include a high proportion of under-represented ethnic minority students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Intervention: Students will engage in executive control practice during an after-school chess program. During each session, children will complete a variety of EC activities designed to become more challenging with their improved abilities and to be engaging enough to keep their attention. For example, one of these activities occurs when students are taught to use a map grid (like the chess board) to locate geographical features, plan a route, estimate distances, and practice writing algebraic notation (grid coordinates).

Research Design and Methods: This project uses a wait-list control group in a cross-sequential research design that follows two different cohorts of students for the duration of the project. Using this design, the Executive Control Experimental Manipulation (EC- EXP) will run during two separate school years using two different groups. Cohort A will complete the EC-EXP during the first year. Cohort B is a wait-list control group, serving as the control group during the first year and participating in the program the second year. For all groups of children, the assessment battery will be administered for three sessions each academic year and they will be asked questions about their continued chess playing during the academic year following the EC-EXP. This method allows researchers to assess the effects of the EC-EXP up to one year after participation, and to explore the immediate and long-term effectiveness of this EC-EXP with two different age groups.

Control Condition: Cohort B will be the wait-list control group, serving as the control group during the first year and participating in the program the second year.

Key Measures: The malleability of executive control and how improved executive control relates to school achievement will be assessed during the academic year and one year post training. The assessment battery will include the Stanford 10 Reading Comprehension, Mathematics Problem Solving, and Science, and teacher and parent reports (e.g., Achenbach Teacher Child Behavior Checklist). In addition, a variety of standard measures of executive control—including measures of impulse control; working memory; pattern recognition; visual search; set shifting; sustained attention; planning; problem solving; persistence; fluid intelligence; and working memory—will be collected.

Data Analytic Strategy: Several methods will be used to analyze the data and explore how EC improvements influence academic achievement in specific school domains including: growth curve analysis; hierarchical linear modeling; structural equation modeling; repeated-measures analysis of co-variance; analysis of variance; multivariate analysis of variance; and multiple regression (including forced-entry and hierarchical methods).