It is surprising to think how many skills, neuropsychologically speaking, a student needs to execute in one single classroom learning activity. These skills are termed executive function. By definition, executive function refers to a set of processes involving mental control and self-regulation that enable us to flexibly control and coordinate daily behaviors.

For example, to solve a math problem, a student first needs to absorb the teacher’s instruction (attentional control, working memory), shift his/her attention from teacher to worksheet (shift, inhibitory control), knows where to start working (initiate), plan out the steps for solving the problem (plan and organize), retrieve relevant formula or learned knowledge (long-term memory, association), apply the formula (cognitive flexibility), carry out the calculation (attentional control, attention to detail, processing speed), and write down the results (self-monitor).

Too often times, as teachers, we overlook the need to train these executive function skills, as we take these skills for granted and also have the pressure to progress on academic tasks. However, in fact, setting aside time to work on students’ executive function skills will largely improve their learning effectiveness and facilitate their learning outcomes in a long run. Not to mention that practicing executive function skills usually takes place in the form of games, which is super fun!

Benefits of incorporating games into classroom teaching

  • Increase students’ motivation and interest to engage;

  • Foster positive peer interaction and collaboration;

  • Control competition and encourage healthy competition;

  • Decrease learning stress;

  • Offer students a mental break from learning;

  • Consolidate learned knowledge.

Game Example: Matching Puzzle

Game Walk-Through

  • On a piece of paper, draw a rectangle in the center of the paper and write down the concept to be matched to

  • Divide the rest of the paper into puzzle pieces

  • On each puzzle piece, write down different ways that the target concept may be expressed (or click here to download a PPT template that can be edited!)

  • Prepare multiple puzzle sets

  • Collect the target concept pieces together

  • Separate and scramble all the rest of the puzzle pieces

  • Have students pick one target concept, and then start picking out the matching puzzle pieces to form a complete puzzle

Game Adaptation

  • Teachers may change the concepts on the puzzle for specific subjects

    • For vocabulary, the target concept can be one word (e.g., pilot), and the puzzle pieces can be a definition of the word (e.g., the person who controls an airplane), visual (a picture of a pilot), a related concept (e.g., an airplane), or phonetic symbol (/’p aɪ l ə t/).

  • Within the subject, the puzzle pieces can be created to match the specific learning purpose

    • For math, if to practice multiplication, then the target concept can be one number (e.g., 144), and the puzzle pieces can have different multiplication equation (e.g., 12x12; 72x2)

  • Number of puzzle pieces may be increased or decreased

  • Students may create their own puzzles and exchange puzzles between classmates


  • Strengthening connections between learned concepts;

  • Facilitating information retrieval skill;

  • Improving cognitive flexibility;

  • Practicing working memory and attention skills;

  • And more!

To learn more practical activities that you can incorporate into your classroom from Shining, join ELG’s free professional development day for teachers on Saturday, October 27, 2018. In the workshop, she will introduce some games that can achieve the above purposes, and most importantly, foster a range of executive function skills that are required for effective learning. Other games targeting different executive function skills important to students’ learning (e.g., inhibitory control, attentional control, and working memory skills) will be introduced during the workshop. She will also give you an opportunity to brainstorm practical application on how to incorporate these games into your classroom teaching. Click here to register!