Woman distracted by her phone with a clock in the background.
February 12th, 2021 E-Learning

Using instructional design skills to help learners improve their executive function can also improve learner outcomes.

As we’ve talked about before on this blog, there are two parts to designing any course: There is the content itself (the subject matter you are an expert in), and then there’s the instructional design, or how that matter is taught. Many instructors start out in online education because they know their subject matter very well. However, unless they’ve taken teaching courses, they usually have a lot to learn about how to deliver that content.

It’s important for online educators to learn about instructional design, because without understanding key principles—including ideas about the psychology of learning—they may struggle to create courses that are useful and engaging to learners. In the worst case scenario, they may see their learners struggling to keep up with a course, and not know why. One psychological idea that is relevant to both instructional design and student success is that of executive function.

“Executive function” is the psychological term used to describe the higher-order mental processes necessary to control impulses, remember instructions, multitask, plan, and stay focused. Individuals have varying levels of innate executive function. Some are born with high levels, characterized by an ability to remain focused and “in the moment” as much as necessary. Others, such as those with ADHD, have low executive function and struggle to stay on task.

Executive function can be improved over time. It can also be diminished by factors such as stress, anxiety, or trauma. A person who is struggling with executive function issues can benefit from an instructor who is aware of those difficulties and can help them work through them. Instructors can also help learners through design choices that support a learner’s ability to prioritize while also removing distractions. Here’s how.

1. Remove distractions and visual clutter.

Any person who describes themselves as “easily distractable” can attest to how difficult it is to stay focused on a lesson when there are sidebars, menus, and buttons begging for their attention. Learners with executive function problems may be trying their best to resist these temptations, but the willpower it takes to avoid them becomes a drain on their learning. They may successfully avoid navigating off screen, but the effort will have kept them from remembering key content, and they may leave faster because they feel burnt out.

Removing unnecessary distractions helps the learner keep their energy on the coursework at hand. LearnDash has a “focus mode” feature specifically designed to reduce visual clutter on the screen. When enabled, it hides some of the extraneous sidebars so that the learner can keep their attention on the content.

2. Use visual cues to establish hierarchy and priority.

Many learners who struggle with executive function also struggle to set priorities and make plans. If they see several tasks that need to be handled, they may put off doing any of them because they can’t make up their minds as to which is the most important.

Help remove your learner’s hesitations by creating task priorities for them. Also, arrange information on your site to show what is the most important. Use headers to guide learners through blocks of text, avoid using too many call out boxes with unnecessary information, and label important information that your learners need to remember.

3. Post a schedule and create reminders.

Time management is a key executive function task. While you can’t hand-hold your learners, you also don’t have to leave everything up to them. When it comes to time management, you can support your learners by posting the course schedule and sending out reminders whenever a due date is approaching. When creating schedules and task lists, also set time estimates for how long you think each step will take. This can help a learner plan when they will get the work done, and can reduce procrastination if they see the next step will only take a few minutes.

4. Use visual aids to help learners remember processes.

We discussed visual aids in terms of hierarchy and priority, but infographics and other visual tools can also help learners remember processes. This is critical in areas where thoroughness and attention to detail are requisite qualities for learners to have. Create an infographic that walks learners through the steps and you can reduce instances of user error caused by poor memory.

5. Create branching scenarios to promote impulse control, emotional control, and self-monitoring.

Branching scenarios are one of the most useful and innovative tools in the instructional designers tool box. A branching scenario helps learners practice probable real-life situations, thereby identifying areas where they might be struggling, and giving them an opportunity to practice ways to improve. This can help with impulse control (a lack of inhibitions), emotional control (responding to criticism, interacting with customers), and self-monitoring (awareness of how well they understand the learning material).

6. Apply gamification to encourage learners with task initiation.

It should come as no shock that those with executive function problems are serial procrastinators. Not only do these learners struggle to remain focused on what they’re doing, they struggle to even get started. Finding ways to improve task initiation is difficult, but one way is through gamification. Gamification builds engagement, and therefore lowers the barriers some learners may have to initiating course work.

7. Check in with learners who are falling behind.

Finally, if you notice a learner is struggling, don’t leave them to flounder alone. Be proactive in reaching out to your learners and asking them if they need help. Offer time slots to connect via video chat, and prepare some options you could offer to support them that are manageable for you.

Executive function problems are common, but your course can help learners stay focused.

Many learners struggle with executive function problems. These may present as distractedness, repeated mistakes on exams due to hastiness, work that is turned in late or at the last minute, absentmindedness, and general frustration.

Fortunately, as an instructor, you are not without tools to support your learners. Design a course that reduces distraction, helps learners create priorities, makes engagement easier, and visually demonstrates priority, and you’ll have come a long way toward helping your learners to success.

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