Course 5: Executive Functions

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What are executive functions?

Where’s my phone? Where are my keys? I forgot my folder! I can’t finish this assignment! I can’t figure out this math word problem!  Executive function (EF) is the ability to plan and organize information in order to execute a task. Jacoby (n.d.) identified several aspects of EF: Attention, organization and planning, self-regulation, self-monitoring, problem-solving, working memory, memory retrieval, time management.

Attention: Focusing on one piece of information while ignoring the rest.

Organization: Ability to organize work space, materials and information.

Planning: Prioritize and sequence actions into achievement.

Self Regulation: Get started, maintaining effort to complete task.

Self monitoring: Evaluate self, adjust behavior.

Cognitive Flexibility: Change view or adapt approach to fit situation such as schedule or problem solve.

Working memory: Mentally retain and utilize information.

Memory Retrieval: Retrieving previously learned information.

Time management: estimate time, awareness of passage of time.

Challenges of Executive Functions

Having low EF skills, or executive dysfunction, can lead to issues socially, emotionally, and academically. These students with executive function disorder do not choose to not complete tasks or not remember to bring their folder from home. They lack the mental abilities to function the same as their peers. This may be due to underdevelopment, excess stress or anxiety, or brain injury. There is also research suggesting poor EF is hereditary. The bright side is EF skills can be taught and improved upon (Logsdon, 2020) through targeted strategies and accommodations (Executive Control Network, n.d.).

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Logsdon (2020) identified several signs to look for in a student you might be concerned about:

(1.) Difficulty in planning and completing projects, (2.) Problems understanding how long a project will take to complete, (3.) Struggling with telling a story in the right sequence with important details and minimal irrelevant details, (4.) Trouble communicating details in an organized, sequential manner; (5.) Problems initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently; (6.) Difficulty retaining information while doing something with it such as remembering a phone number while dialing.

Executive Control Network (n.d.) explained executive function disorder is not an official disorder and it may even resemble Attention Deficit Disorder. Furthermore, intelligence is not directly related to EF either. For instance, a student with poor EF can have a high IQ, they just may not perform up to their potential.

“The key to unlocking content and ensuring a pathway to long-term memory is through executive function” (Sulla, 2018).


There are so many strategies to try with students. After a time, reevaluate if a strategy is helping. If it is, continue but if it is not, then try something else. Logsdon (2020) provided the following list:

      • Give clear step-by-step instructions with visual organizational aids.
      • Children with executive dysfunction may not make logical leaps to know what to do. Be as explicit as possible with instructions. Use visual models and hands-on activities when possible. Adjust your level of detail based on the student’s success.
      • Use planners, organizers, computers, or timers.
      • Provide visual schedules and review them at least every morning, after lunch, and in the afternoon. Review more frequently for people who need those reminders.
      • Pair written directions with spoken instructions and visual models whenever possible.
      • If possible, use a daily routine.
      • Create checklists and “to do” lists.
      • Use positive reinforcement to help kids stay on task.
      • Break long assignments into smaller tasks and assign mini-timelines for completion of each. If children become overwhelmed with lists of tasks, share only a few at a time.
      • Use visual calendars or wall planners to keep track of long-term assignments, deadlines, and activities.
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In conclusion

Executive Functions are abilities that may need to be taught to certain students so they can be more successful in the classroom. Most students are not purposely sloppy or slow. They just have not been given the strategies they need to reach their full potential, yet.


Course 5: Why is Writing so Difficult?

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Is writing the most difficult skill for students to learn?

While researching for my COETAIL final project, I came across a blog post by Erin Sturm. She explained three reasons why writing is so difficult, (1.) trying to be perfect, (2.) being out of practice, and (3.) fear of failure. As I was reading her post, I made a connection between how writing is as difficult for students as how completing COETAIL projects are difficult for me.

According to Erin, we have similar issues. First of all, I want my projects to be perfect; however, the idea “done is better than perfect” is a difficult concept to accept. I realized I tell students often to just start writing and not to worry about it being perfect. Usually, this is not helpful advice as they just do not listen to me. But I understand because I rarely take my own advice and still want to be perfect. This reminds me of how crippling it can be to initiate a task. Getting started is a difficult first step into the writing swimming pool when you are worried about getting the writing right. If we would just jump in and get started writing anything without first worrying about the quality, we would find we are able to swim through the writing process-one stroke at a time. Second, Erin advised we need to have a consistent writing routine. We should work on our writing every day for a few minutes to improve our productivity. Third, she described how a fear of failure can hold us back from being writers.

According to El-Koumy  (2020), many students struggle with expressing themselves through writing with complete, organized, and logical ideas. They get lost in the process and end up with a jumble of words on their paper that may not have characters or a clear goal for their story. Many of these students focus on their handwriting and spelling instead of their ideas. These microstructural elements of writing are not as important as being able to express ideas.

Teaching writing might be as complex as English grammar but it is also one the most important skills we teach. Students will need writing to be successful in the academic and professional worlds. Students who are good writers independently follow the writing processes:  plan, draft, revise, and edit. Students with poor writing skills need to be taught strategies for every step of the writing process to help them learn how to be efficient writers (El-Koumy, 2020).

Teaching the writing process is made up of several distinct skills and it is not easy to learn to put them all together. Research supports teaching writing with a focus on the writing process, instead of focusing on writing conventions, which establishes students who will enjoy writing, write more, and write better (El-Koumy, 2020).

Writing Strategies

El-Koumy (2020) outlined four strategies teachers should practice across all genres when teaching the writing process. First and foremost, teachers should model writing. This helps students to visualize what and how they should be writing. Teachers should verbally and visually model the four substages of the writing process – planning, drafting, revising, and editing. When verbalizing what the teacher is doing, she helps students better visualize the process. After the modeling stage, students should practice the writing strategies with a partner or small group before moving on to practicing the strategies independently.

Infographic made with Canva by Holly
Writing with technology can be motivational

Students have areas they need to improve in as well as their individual gifts. In my lived experience, using technology is one of the areas many students excel in. An eight-year-old student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) taught me how to use the tools in iMovie. Another student who was an English learner taught me how to maneuver around Google Classroom. My own children taught me how to play World of Warcraft and that game is complicated! Students do not seem timid to try new games, software, or new ways of completing their classwork. I am surrounded by dozens of change agents!

Holly’s new WOW mount-Hogrus, Swine of Good Fortune

The use of technology or access to the internet does not mean a student definitely will learn more or better. However, technology can provide students opportunities to try different ways to complete assignments. For example, in one study; English learning graduate students were judged with a pre and post-writing test. The experimental group blogged their essays, while the control group used pencil and paper. The experimental group was more motivated and found the writing more interesting (Kashani,  Mahmud, & Kalajahi, 2013). Had I been in this experimental group, I would have agreed with the others since I have had the experience with our COETAIL blogging. It is more interesting.

Can technology lighten the cognitive load when writing?

Sometimes having reluctant writers use assistive technology can ease the cognitive load so they are able to produce their ideas easier, quicker, and maybe with more fun. For example, students can narrate their learning as an alternative. I discovered during this unit sometimes it is necessary to differentiate the writing in order for the student to have enough time to show their learning in ways other than the written word. Students learning English and/or with learning disabilities need differentiated activities. They have the same high expectations for learning; however, they cannot be expected to always perform exactly like their peers. Alternative formative assessments can include the student speaking instead of writing with voice-to-text, using predictive text, spell check, online dictionaries, and thesauruses.

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In Nawal’s (2018) research, they found, “writing performance was improved by the reduction of unnecessary cognitive load, in this case by removing the use of dictionaries while writing.” Cognitive load theory explains there is only so much our brains can hang on to at one time so for students to achieve mastery, they need to learn one chunk at a time. Heick (n.d.) explained, “since the brain can only do so many things at once, we should be intentional about what we ask it to do.” If a teacher wants a student to show their spelling and handwriting skills then assistive technology (AT) is not the way but if she wants a student to show the writing process then it might not be a bad idea to allow for AT.

In conclusion

The writing process is a complicated system that is much more than spelling words correctly and having pretty handwriting. Students need to be taught explicitly the various steps and given grace for not being an expert right away. There should be many opportunities for practice and feedback plus students need to come away with positive feelings and a sense of being a successful writer. Writing may not be the most difficult skill a student learns in her educational career but it is towards the top of the list.

Course 5, Final Project

Holly’s final project video 

I have grown as a learner in numerous ways. First, I set my 2020-2021 goal for my  Professional Growth Plan (PGP) to complete the COETAIL certificate. I have explored and applied pedagogical approaches made possible by technology and reflect on their effectiveness (1a).

2020-21 PGP Goal

Staying Current with the Research

Second, I am attempting to, “stay current with research that supports improved student learning outcomes, including findings from the learning sciences” (1c) by researching questions I have about the practices we are implementing with our students. Our school has a subscription to Ebsco and I also use Google Scholar to investigate my wondering.

Professional Interests

Third, I have pursued my professional interests by participating in different professional online groups (1b). I noted in my community involvement blog several of the groups I follow and have started participating in, such as the Orton Gillingham Online Academy group and the Teachers Pay Teachers.

Empowered Learners

I have endeavored to help students to become empowered learners in two ways. First, I have “advocated for equitable access to educational technology, digital content and learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of all students” (2b). I spearheaded a trial of the Google extension Read&Write for our Special Educational Needs department. This extension has the potential to help our students comprehend their grade-level content. I also encourage teachers to accept students’ written work done with voice-to-text and word suggestions. Second, I have tried to “model for colleagues the identification, exploration, evaluation, curation and adoption of new digital resources and tools for learning” (2c). Two examples are, I have shared with teachers how they can have their students create infographics to show their learning. Another example is, I have shown teachers how they can share their anchor charts with their students through Google Keep and the students have them next to their Google doc while writing on their Chromebooks. Finally, I am working with teachers on deciding how to best implement tech in our lesson planning.

 Video to classroom teacher

I have deepened my practice, initiated collaboration with my peers, challenged myself to rethink traditional approaches, and prepared students to drive their own learning.

I have “dedicated planning time to collaborate with colleagues to create authentic learning experiences that leverage technology” (4a) by meeting weekly with classroom teachers to plan lessons the differentiate for students’ needs. I typically make suggestions towards using technology when appropriate.

Traditional Approaches

When considering appropriate technology to integrate into lessons, I will consider the traditional approach and determine if the technological approach would be any better than the traditional approach. If the technology does not improve the lesson, then it is not used.

Students Drive their own Learning

I have helped to prepare students to drive their own learning by giving them voice-and-choice. For all projects, students have opportunities to pick their own topics and to pick how they would like to present their learning on their topics. They even can choose if they want to use traditional approaches such as creating a poster using pencils and markers or use a green screen to present their presentation.

Mikolaj presents
ISTE Standards for Students

My practice of authentically embedding the ISTE Standards for Students has improved because of becoming more aware of the ISTE Standards. Because I am more aware of the ISTE standards, it is becoming second nature to reinforce the standards with students throughout their learning. Even if the lessons were created by another teacher, I am now able to make small suggestions towards improving their learning and explaining to the classroom teacher why it would be a good idea to include that little something extra. For example, when researching online, students are learning to cite their sources (2c). This is a new concept and expectation of them. I had a conversation with a classroom teacher recently explaining, even if students are not correctly citing their sources now, by making the beginnings of an effort, it will be easier the next time they attempt to make citations. Another example is when I noticed students were not using their own drawings in a project. I went to the classroom teacher discussed the importance of the students learning to not just copy and paste from the internet. The teacher agreed and we made it a mandate the students must include at least one of their original drawings in their work (6b).

Learning from Course 4

During Course 4, I created a learning plan I would use in the future for the Course 5 final project. The reality of it worked out to be I made several changes. I narrowed my focus from the big picture of scientific writing down to specifically focusing on using assistive writing to help students improve the quality of their content.

scientific writing pacing calendar

I chose to introduce the Google extension, Read&Write. With this extension, students have several tools at their disposal to help with their writing, like voice-to-text and predictive text. After presenting this extension, I realized the reading aspects for researching are in addition to what iPads and Google already offer. In hindsight, I realized the writing tools are already available to the students. Of course, it was not a total waste of time. The advantage was I encouraged students to use these tools, practiced with them so they would be more proficient with them, and had the support of classroom teachers. Students struggling with learning differences are not “cheating” by using assistive technology, they are simply leveling the playing field by being able to be more successful with showing their learning.

Darja’s plants
My Reflection

Over the past year of my COETAIL learning journey, I learned much to improve my teaching practice. Learning how to design my blog to be more reader-friendly, how to design infographics, and being a contributor and not just a consumer of the world wide web were three areas I enjoyed significantly. One area I still want to work on is redesigning units to have superior technology integration. I am able to incorporate all of these topics when working with my students.

Learning how to “redefine (SAMR), transform (TIM), and find the balance of technological, pedagogical, & content knowledge (TPACK)” will be an area I will continue to work on after COETAIL and on into the near future. As a support teacher, I started at a disadvantage not having experience with building units. I have always tried to support units with differentiation for English learners and students with learning differences; however, rebuilding a unit is a huge undertaking. I do not teach entire units nor am present for an entire unit with my students. I am an inconsistent constant in the students’ learning! I am present in math, reading, writing, and Units of Inquiry; however, not every day for every student. This is not possible as a support teacher. Therefore, I did my best with the final project assignment and making it my own.

During Course 4, I chose the writing unit that would be happening during the Course 5 project. I choose writing because it is an area my students need the most help with. It is difficult for many to take the ideas they have and put them to paper. I believed focusing on integrating technology to help students with their scientific writing would be a win-win. I would have a unit to focus on for my COETAIL project and my students would have some new ways of working on improving their writing.

Google doc with my SAMR ladder graphic

We were introduced to the SAMR model during our COETAIL journey, and it has been a constant reminder to me to consider how I am integrating technology in my lessons. Am I only substituting or augmenting the work? Or could I improve my lesson plans and move up to modification and redefinition? It is a goal I strive to achieve more often.

Substitute sticky notes for scientific note-taking
Augmenting scientific method report with voice-to-text

During Course 4, I created a digital scientific notebook for students to use as a graphic organizer to help them with their scientific notetaking and article writing. If the students were simply typing on the sticky notes, that would be an example of substitution (SAMR). Many of my students have written expression issues so I encourage them to use voice-to-text, spell check,  and predictive text. This boosts the use of typing in the digital notebook to augmenting the learning. Finally, the students redefined their learning by taking the research they collected during the How the World Works Unit of Inquiry and their Scientific Writing unit and creating their own Bookcreator book. Students included text and narration. I strongly encouraged students to create their own drawings or take their own photographs for their final product; however, that was not very popular with the students and making a suggestion was not enough for students to make the switch from copy and pasting photos to creating their own. This will have to be another lesson!

Lev’s Book Creator
In conclusion

My COETAIL experience over the past year has been filled with learning opportunities, support from my peers, and our instructor. I do not feel this is the end of my “just another COTAIL journey” but the continuation of one. Thank you Joel and Lissa for all your help and a special thank you to Erika and Shalene for being the best of my COETAIL community members.

holly erika shalene


G3 Scientific Writing Slide Deck

G3 U2 – Reading to Learn and Scientific Writing

Holly’s Final Project Video for Course 5

ISTE Standards for Educators

ISTE Standards for Students

Lev’s Book Creator

Scientific writing pacing calendar