March 20, 2017 10:34 am

Norman Eng


Usually the latter. That’s why I stop asking questions like, “Class, does that make sense?”

It’s useless. Rarely do they respond with statements like, “Not really. Can you go over the theory of moral sentiments again?”

A few students might say they “kinda” get it (which means they don’t). In a whole class setting, you’ll more likely get a blank look. Or the “let-me-review-my-notes-again” look.

I was trying to describe the term executive function, the mental processes that enable us to get things done—manage time, pay attention, remember instruction, juggle tasks, and resist temptation. Executive function has been described as the air traffic controller of the brain. It’s an increasingly popular term in the field of early childhood development.

But did my students KNOW what any of this means? Just because they think they get the material as it is presented is not the same as being able to recount it.

(Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains the science behind this phenomenon in his post, “Why Students Think They Understand—When They Don’t.”)

Take a bicycle, for instance. We’re all familiar with it. But do we actually know what it looks like? Go ahead, really think about how it looks like. In fact, draw it on a piece of paper right now.


Designer Gianluca Gimini and cognitive psychologist Rebecca Lawson asked participants to do the same thing. The result? The bikes people drew were mostly—and hilariously—impractical or not functional. If you want a good laugh, check some samples here and here.

Regarding most things, we think we know. But we don’t.

That’s why marketers run ads over and over. In a saturated market, products don’t strike a chord with viewers without repeated exposure. And people will buy familiarity—even if they know nothing else about a service.

Hey, I know only one injury law firm in NYC by name—Cellino & Barnes—because I can’t get their advertising jingle out of my head.

What does all this mean for you, the instructor?

First, students absorb lectures less than you think. Second, they may confuse what they know with what they’re familiar with. I hear undergrads say, “Oh yeah, I know about Jean Piaget from another course!” But when we discuss him in class, it’s all new to them.

So double check for understanding. Here are two ways.

1. Ask pairs of students to explain the concept to each other

One hint is to incorporate the prompt, “Yes and …” Here’s an example of an exchange:

Student 1: “OK, executive function deals with organizing thoughts, impulse control, and flexible thinking, right?”

Student 2: “Yes, and working memory, I think.”

Student 1: “Yes, and it’s like an air traffic controller who has to figure out which planes to land first and which runways to use.”

Student 2: “Yes, and executive function can actually be improved.”

By articulating with peers, students demonstrate what they actually know, continue to build knowledge, and clarify misunderstandings. All in a low-stakes environment. There’s built in accountability. Your job is to walk around and listen in.

2. Use exit slips during the middle or end of class

Here, students briefly answer 1-3 prompts, such as:

Describe executive function in your own words.

Why is executive function so important to develop at a young age?

What part of executive function could be more clearly explained?

Notice the last question puts the burden on the teacher. It doesn’t ask, What part are you unsure of?, which may trigger self-esteem issues or feelings of defensiveness. For the student, it’s easier to admit to things that teachers could do better than to things he or she feels unsure of.

Collect these slips, but don’t grade them. Instead, use them to: 1) check students’ understanding; 2) identify areas of instruction you can improve upon; and 3) determine how you want to help strugglers. Exit slips may take longer than turn-and-talks, but they are more informative.

So in the end, I knew I had to find better ways to teach executive function. What did I do next term?

I pushed them to think like teachers.

Sitting in groups, students developed strategies to improve children’s working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. Something they will definitely do as future teachers. I love that they came up with ideas like “counting to 10 before reacting” and “playing memory games.”

All of the sudden, executive function became meaningful and concrete. I know, because I used exit slips!

THINK They Know –> KNOW

So every time I lesson plan, I ask myself: How can I help students move from the left side of the arrow to the right?

  • I’ve heard of using exit slips. In most of my classes, students have a worksheet they complete, related to that day’s lecture. The intent is for them to read the chapter before class, complete the worksheet at least partially (3-4 questions) and turn it end at the end of class. I know many answer some questions during the lecture. I have used the worksheet to aid in small group work relating to the info. It seems to work. I will have to try exit slips in my smaller classes. Thanks for a great post!

    • Thanks Terri. I do like the worksheet method you described b/c it acts as a guide for students throughout the lecture. With exit slips, I just cut a paper into 4 pieces and have them answer on those small sheets. Let me know how it goes!

  • Norman,
    I enjoy reading your blogs, though I lecture at a state college the content of this blog can be applied to that of high school leavers. I also lecture a Management course with adults and I can apply this concept to them as well. Thanks for these invaluable insights and keep them coming – I do appreciate them.

    • Thanks Katie! And you’re right that much of this can be applied to high school. In fact, that was the the premise of my book “Teaching College”–that college instructors should look to K-12 for instructional guidance. My professional goal with this blog and my work is to bring that insight to the higher ed level!

  • I wonder, do you use exit slips every class? It seems like a great way to assess but time consuming. I would like to know other alternatives to add on.

  • One of my favorite exit strategies is called 1-2-3
    At the end of the class, students have 1 minute to tell 2 students 3 things they learned about during the day’s class. Each student reciprocates. Takes maybe 3-4 min because there will probably be some duplication. Sometimes I switch it up to 1-2-2-1 or if it’s really challenging material 1-2-1-1-1. One minute, two students stays the same but either tell 2 new things and 1 you didn’t get, or 1 totally got it, 1 kinda, 1 are you sure that was English? Students email me their ‘this needs more for me to get it’ so I can do some revision or reteaching next time. Can also do a whole class thumbs up, thumbs wagging, thumbs down. Toss out three important things you want the class to carry away with them and -with their eyes closed- thumb vote their understanding. Only takes a second to determine do you need a lot of time to address issues, a shorter special seminar or some individual or small group tutoring. These work from grade 1 on up. At least they have for me. C

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