By Jennifer Bates, Director of Learning Resources, and Dr. Sarah Lohnes Watulak, Director of Digital Pedagogy & Media, DLINQ

Thus far in the digital detox series, we’ve examined the notion of where and how to focus our attention, particularly in the context of interacting with digital platforms that are designed to capture and keep our attention. In this detox, we’re taking a slightly different approach; we’ll be talking about attention through the lens of executive function, a term used in cognitive psychology to describe “the cognitive management system of the human brain” (Dr. Thomas E. Brown). For our purposes, we are talking about the collection of mental processes that allow us to figure out what we need to do, make a plan to do it, and execute the plan. This involves self-regulation in the service of a goal; executive function is implicated in our ability to focus attention on a particular task.

Burdens on executive function can get in the way of our ability to figure out what we need to do, to make a plan to do it, and to execute our plan. The burdens may arise from chronic executive function challenges such as those seen with ADHD/ADD, or from situational executive dysfunction arising from temporary and contextual factors such as

  • Physical illness or injury (especially concussion)
  • Trauma
  • Bereavement or other significant loss
  • Over-functioning
  • Operating in a non-primary language
  • Operating in a new culture
  • Experiencing stereotype threat or other forms of systemic oppression.

In other words, every person is vulnerable to impaired executive functioning. Almost every student in our classes will encounter situational executive function challenges at some point in their college career (this is true of faculty and staff as well). It’s important to note, this does not mean that the conditions and circumstances which affect executive function are either similar or equivalent in their impact. Executive function support will generally not be sufficient to treat or resolve the negative impact of these conditions and circumstances, either at the individual or systemic level.

And yet, supporting all students’ executive function is an inclusive approach. No matter what kind of challenge a student is facing, minimizing the burden on executive function frees up energy and attention the student can direct to learning tasks, including class discussion, assignments and other problem-solving. For faculty, the Learning Resources office suggests taking several things into consideration during the syllabus and course design process. While it is very reasonable to expect students to be able to engage in complex processes when they are essential to the learning goals (intrinsic cognitive load), you want to avoid extraneous cognitive load, using up students’ executive function budgets on things that aren’t part of the learning goals. Specifically, we suggest building in

  • Clarity
  • Consistency
  • Explicit instructions
  • Specific flexibility (where possible) in both formats and due dates for assignment
  • An expectation of difference

Supporting Executive Function With Digital Tools

Research suggests that carefully selected digital tools can help to reduce burdens on executive function and promote student success. For example, L. Simmons, Crook, Cannonier, and C. Simmons (2018) found, “… perceived usefulness of Homework Suite Planner app positively predicted students’ executive functioning by increasing their organization and time management. Increases in executive functioning due to the Homework Suite app led to more completed assignments, lower anxiety about forgetting homework assignments, and greater overall learning satisfaction for the course.”

The Learning Resources office, in partnership with DLINQ, is working on creating a rubric to evaluate digital tools from the perspective of executive function support (thanks to Middlebury College undergrads Jillian Dos Santos and Mikayla Hyman, and DLINQ Graduate Intern Megan McCullough at the Middlebury Institute for their work on this!). Thus far, we’ve identified a number of criteria that are implicated in decision-making:

  • Utility
  • Usability
  • Aesthetics
  • Cross-Platform
  • Accessibility – look at both cost and VPAT compliance
  • Security:
    Data Ownership
    Privacy and Security Policies
    Cookies and Tracking

In our initial test runs of the rubric, one thing that we’ve learned is that complexities arise! For example, an app like Trello or Asana (project management tools) might be very strong in all other areas but not accessible for students with visual, audio or mobility impairments (so, executive function becomes burdened in figuring out a work around). Conversely, an app might score well on the rubric, but if not implemented with an eye towards reducing executive function burden, might still cause trouble. We note for example that a Learning Management System like Canvas might score relatively well on the rubric for accessibility, but how faculty organize and implement their Canvas course sites has an outsized impact on whether Canvas will help or hinder students’ executive function. We also note that context matters; some apps might be accessible and strong in all areas, and still not work for a particular student.

Finally, we note that although some faculty are reluctant to allow students to use technology in the classroom, technology policies that are overly restrictive can out students with accommodations (e.g., “no electronic devices in the classroom unless you have accommodations, in which case you can see me”). Instead, we recommend considering a policy that normalizes tech use by emphasizing appropriate use of technology for all students: “The use of technology to take notes, engage with class discussion and deepen your learning is encouraged; please do not use technology for non-class activities.” You might even work with your students to co-create a balanced and inclusive technology policy for your class by inviting them to identify what they consider as appropriate uses of technology for your specific classroom context. For example, students in a class might agree for one area of seating to be tech free for those who find it overly distracting, while everyone who wishes to use technology (not just students with accommodations for its use) might sit on the other side of the room.

Future Steps

The Learning Resources office, in partnership with DLINQ, continues to work on refining and testing the rubric referenced above. Our goal is to have a curated page with digital tool evaluations for apps related to time management, project management, note taking, and other areas that have an impact on learning. Given the contextual nature of tool use, rather than making blanket recommendations about which tools to use and which tools to avoid, we believe that making our thinking transparent via the rubric and evaluation will help faculty and students to learn more about the various considerations that go into choosing a tool, and to make their own decisions about what works best for their context.

Take Action

1) The Learning Resources office recommends a set of general strategies that you can use to reduce burden on executive function. Some of these will benefit from the use of digital tools, and others require a mindful disengagement with digital tools.

  • Minimize demands on working memory (externalize structure
  • Create routines wherever possible
  • Minimize decision making
  • Take breaks to renew attention span
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Protect your time
  • Work strategically, not more effortfully

2) Find out more about how to make your syllabus a more accessible and effective tool for executive function.

3) Hybrid and online courses can place high demands on students’ ability to self-regulate. Consider how to support executive functioning using a Universal Design for Learning approach in your hybrid and online courses.


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