Individual differences in executive function and learning: The role of knowledge type and conflict with prior knowledge

Amanda Grenell, Stephanie M. Carlson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Executive function (EF) predicts children's academic achievement; however, less is known about the relation between EF and the actual learning process. The current study examined how aspects of the material to be learned—the type of information and the amount of conflict between the content to be learned and children's prior knowledge—influence the relation between individual differences in EF and learning. Typically developing 4-year-olds (N = 61) completed a battery of EF tasks and several animal learning tasks that varied on the type of information being learned (factual vs. conceptual) and the amount of conflict with the learners’ prior knowledge (no prior knowledge vs. no conflicting prior knowledge vs. conflicting prior knowledge). Individual differences in EF predicted children's overall learning, controlling for age, verbal IQ, and prior knowledge. Children's working memory and cognitive flexibility skills predicted their conceptual learning, whereas children's inhibitory control skills predicted their factual learning. In addition, individual differences in EF mattered more for children's learning of information that conflicted with their prior knowledge. These findings suggest that there may be differential relations between EF and learning depending on whether factual or conceptual information is being taught and the degree of conceptual change that is required. A better understanding of these different relations serves as an essential foundation for future research designed to create more effective academic interventions to optimize children's learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105079
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - Jun 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a Departmental Small Grant from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota to Amanda Grenell. We thank undergraduate research assistants, including Kerry Houlihan, Ryan Anderson, Caitlin Petersen, Katie Magnan, Krista Garrett, and Maggie Ryan, and all the families who participated in this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Inc.


  • Conflict
  • Executive function
  • Individual differences
  • Learning
  • Preschool
  • Prior knowledge

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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