The Importance of EF for College Students: An Interview with a College Executive Function Coach

By Brittney Cable
September 2, 2022

There’s a lot of overlap in the skills needed as a child enters a new grade or an adult takes a new role. Young adults who can set goals, get organized, make connections, proactively communicate, and learn how to plan and prioritize will build a framework for long-term success. Employers today report that these soft skills are in high demand among job candidates—yet are often lacking or absent in graduates. Learnfully supports learners of all ages by helping them build and apply these and other foundational executive functioning skills. We sat down with Brittney Cable, a learning specialist who works as the assistant tutorial coordinator at the University of Mississippi, to learn more about the skills high school graduates are missing when they enter college. Brittney works one-on-one daily with student athletes to help them build academic skills and executive functioning. This is what she has to say about supporting college-aged learners as they navigate their first few years as an adult.  

How did you become a learning specialist?

I was originally brought on the athletics team at Penn State as an intern working with the community engagement department. Some great mentors encouraged me to go back to school, and I was offered a graduate assistant position for the athletic academic enrichment department at Ole Miss. Two years later, as I was graduating, there was a learning specialist position open within the department and I was lucky enough to be offered the full time job. I didn’t plan to become a learning specialist when I started my career five years ago, but it has been a wonderful experience with many growths and challenges. 

What are some trends you notice in evaluating incoming athletes and other learners (in the area of executive function, as well as in other key areas of learning)?

Students increasingly want information immediately: they lack the patience to find the correct answer and write out the proper result. Instead of reading the textbook or finding the result of a math problem, students turn to outside sources—and the actual learning process is skipped. They may find the answer, but a working memory is lost. There is a lack of focus and task orientation, so during my sessions I have them take the time and show them how they can use the textbook and lecture videos to develop needed skills; not just for the task at hand, but for the future.  

Why are executive functioning skills important for success in college and as an adult?  

believe the most important skill for success in college and beyond is the ability to manage and prioritize your time: planning out where you need to be, what you have due, and when you should be doing it. Good time management sets up young adults for life after school. Proper planning can also help relieve some stress and build self-restraint. I like to remind students that there is a time for fun (this is college after all and socialization is very important), but it is important to know when to say no and get the work done. Many students that I work with do not have this skill, so it is one of the very first things we work on together. 

How do you develop executive functioning in college students?

The goal of my sessions is to create well-rounded, independent students that can apply the skills they learn on their own, but also be able to ask for help when needed. The model that I follow is known as “I, we, you.” I walk them through an example, then we do the task together, and finally they do it on their own. 

As an example, consider a time management exercise for working on assignments. I start by showing my student  a process for setting up their weekly assignment list, and break down what they have to do for each assignment. We then go through that process together, but with them leading the conversation and writing the assignments down. With practice, they are able to do this on their own and can take the initiative to complete it outside of our session, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Developing good EF strategies  may take several semesters, and progress is different for each student. 

Communication and a trusting relationship are key to building executive function skills in these older learners. Many college students think they should be able to do all of this on their own already and that they shouldn’t need help—when the reality is that they were not given the right tools previously in their education. By giving students continuous encouragement, opportunities for autonomy, and holding them accountable, they start building their own executive function tool box. 

What other thoughts or advice do you have for college-age students?

\I think the biggest piece of advice that I have for students  transitioning out of  high school is to ask for help (and ask questions). We all go through changes, whether that is moving away from home and being independent for the first time or changing jobs. These changes become much easier when you ask questions and seek help. Once you have the information you need, take action—and start to build the confidence that you can succeed. 

About the Author

Brittney is originally from Pennsylvania and has been living in Mississippi for the past seven years. She has a masters degree in recreation administration from the University of Mississippi and a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University in recreation, parks and tourism management. She enjoys reading, being outdoors and watching movies.