Title

Measuring executive functions and problem solving in an engaging new way in students

Author Identifiers

Valeska Berg

https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2156-0969

Date of Award

2022

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Mark McMahon

Second Advisor

Shane Rogers

Third Advisor

Michael Garrett

Abstract

Executive functions and problem solving are important skills for success in school and life. Measuring executive functions and problem solving with child-friendly tools that can be applied outside the traditional clinical settings remains a challenge. The overall aim of this PhD project was to design a new child-friendly online assessment tool (eFun) to better understand relationships among executive function constructs, problem solving and academic outcomes. The assessment tool eFun was developed in collaboration with designers, software developers, and researchers to ensure validity and usability. eFun measures problem solving ability and the core executive function constructs working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility on an iPad. This PhD thesis addresses two major gaps in the executive function literature. Firstly, it introduces the development and evaluation of new cognitive tasks for children. Secondly, it addresses the relationship between executive functions, problem solving and academic outcomes.

This research adds to the current limited evidence base by investigating children’s evaluation of game-based executive function and problem solving assessments and by exploring new approaches to measuring cognitive functions and validating executive function tasks for children. Furthermore, the thesis extends the literature by examining intercorrelations among the newly developed cognitive tasks and academic achievement, and compares results with existing theories.

Findings indicate that children enjoy playing the newly developed eFun tasks, especially the inhibition task. Overall, low to medium associations were found between the performance scores of individual executive functions and between executive functions and problem solving. Furthermore, executive functions were found to be a predictor of academic success (grades), whereas the association between problem solving and academic outcomes was less clear. The eFun problem solving task was enjoyed more than the traditional Tower of Hanoi task. The eFun problem solving task performance was found to be positively associated with the Tower of Hanoi task performance, providing some initial evidence for convergent validity for the eFun problem solving task. The newly developed eFun tasks will offer enhanced opportunities to measure children’s cognitive functions (i.e., executive functions and problem solving) in a school context. This research advances the cognitive function literature and provides insights into new approaches to measuring cognitive functions in children.

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