Driven to distraction: the role of inhibitory abilities on academic performance

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Project Duration
December 2015 - November 2016


Executive functioning refers to higher cognitive processes used to control more fundamental cognitive and perceptive operations. Two domains of executive functioning are of relevance to the proposed work: updating and inhibition. Updating refers to the mental capacity or processes that allow for information to be analysed and held in active memory. Inhibitory abilities refer to the efficiency with which we could suppress irrelevant or automated responses that are inappropriate to the task at hand. In a recent review, we found updating capacity, but not inhibitory abilities uniquely explained performance in mathematics performance (Bull & Lee, 2014). Most of us have experienced difficulties staying on task on account of external distraction or distraction from internal thoughts. It is thus surprising that inhibitory abilities do not have a more prominent role. We suspect that the extant findings are affected by (a) the sensitivity of existing inhibitory measures, (b) the sub-domain of inhibitory abilities targeted in previous studies, and (b) the type of academic achievement measured in prior studies. One limitation of existing methods is that they evaluate the effects of distractors on how quickly a task is performed, but does not evaluate the amount of distraction needed to result in task failure. A major challenge for the full proposal is to develop new inhibitory measures that provide calibrated and modulated demands on different aspects of inhibitory abilities. A second challenge is to identify mathematical tasks that are more susceptible to differences in inhibitory abilities. In preparation for the full proposal, this planning proposal will focus on a comprehensive literature review on the issues identified above. We will also compile and pilot a sample of candidate tasks.

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