Evidence for a role of executive functions in learning biology

Sinéad M. Rhodes*, Josephine N. Booth, Lorna Elise Campbell, Richard A. Blythe, Nial J. Wheate, Mirela Delibegovic

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalConference paperpeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


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 Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery. They also participated in a biology teaching session, practical and assessment on the topic of DNA designed specifically for the current study that 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 pages17
JournalInfant and Child Development
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Biology
  • Executive function
  • Planning
  • Science learning
  • Working memory


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