Training Executive Functions to Improve Academic Achievement: Tackling Avenues to Far Transfer

The aim of training executive functions is usually to improve the ability to attain real-life goals such as academic achievement, that is, far transfer. Although many executive function trainings are successful in improving executive functions, far transfer is more difficult to achieve (cf. Diamond and Lee, 2011; Sala and Gobet, 2020). In this perspective article, we focus on the transfer of executive function training to academic performance. First, we disentangle possible sources of transfer problems. We argue that executive functions can facilitate academic performance via two specific pathways, namely learning-related behaviors and learning-related cognitions. Further, we discuss how domain-specific factors (e.g., task-specific demands and prior knowledge) may influence the successful application of executive functions to learning in this domain. Second, we discuss how the school setting can be used to enhance executive function training with approaches to facilitating far transfer to academic achievement. Specifically, we suggest that training executive functions as a means to improve academic performance is most promising in young students, for whom both behavioral and domain-specific cognitive demands of formal schooling are quite novel challenges. Furthermore, we outline that students could be supported in far transfer of trained executive functions by being informed of the specific relevance of these skills for learning-related behaviors and by having them practice executive functions under such authentic conditions. Moreover, we suggest that in order to promote ongoing effects of executive function training beyond short-term interventions, teachers should be equipped to consider the specific executive function components that might facilitate and support students’ acquisition of a particular subject matter.

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