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ExQ: Exercising Executive Functions

Sivan Livnat

Since the beginning of the school year, 10th to 12th-grade students have spent their designated weekly Skills Lab time working on strengthening their executive functioning skills through an online platform called “ExQ.” Created by Sucheta Kamath, ExQ aims to “bridge the gap between what you know and what you DO with what you know,” as explained on the company’s website. 

ExQ focuses on developing executive function through “game-based personalized training.” The program assesses each student based on seven executive function skills that are essential to functioning in life and beyond: self-awareness, focus, working memory, organization and planning, prospective memory, problem-solving, and mental flexibility/perspective-taking. These assessments are based on a variety of interactive games that students play each lesson. The lessons go through various stages designed to improve executive function. Introspective activities also occur in each lesson.

The lesson starts with a couple of games. These games are designed to tackle and challenge one of the executive function skills mentioned above. While playing the game, ExQ calculates the accuracy score, self-awareness score, and game strategy score. After the games, students will watch a video of someone else playing the game and in some way messing up. The student will then be prompted to choose the mistakes the video made and relate it to other mistakes they might make in their day-to-day life without that executive functioning skill. Finally, the student will complete META (Mindful Examination of Thinking and Awareness) Training. This training comprises looking back on previous work and strategizing new ways to achieve executive function goals. Students make a video scripted by previous answers to questions asked by ExQ. This process is repeated up to five times for the five lessons students were encouraged to complete.

For over seven weeks, students have been engaging with the online program intended to “develop and [nurture] Executive Function skills that assist with focus, problem-solving, mental flexibility, and self-awareness,” High School Guidance Counselor Dr. Pam Mason — who introduced ExQ into the Skills Lab curriculum — explained. She further described that “Executive Function skills allow students to learn to think, self-reflect, and act according to future goals and not just immediate ones.” The Skills Lab period was designed to provide an opportunity to “teach skills not directly addressed in the curriculum that students need to master in order to thrive in the classroom and beyond,” and ExQ fit that description perfectly. 

In an interview with Palette, ExQ founder Kamath explained the program metaphorically: “At the heart of the training program is something called metacognition… it’s like a flashlight.” She detailed how ExQ uses metacognition to turn the flashlight inwards to “shine light” on a student’s current executive functioning skills; therefore, because of the blinding flashlight in one’s eyes, there is a “level of discomfort that comes from doing self-work.”

When AJA partnered with ExQ, Dr. Mason was one of the teachers who enrolled in the program, taking Lessons 1 and 2 just like the students. Similar to Kamath, she described how having her “ weaknesses highlighted” was an “uncomfortable and vulnerable experience,” but she nonetheless “embraced the opportunity for self-growth.”

Conversely, students seemed to express a much different approach to ExQ than Kamath and Dr. Mason. “I think that it was never really explained very well when we started,” senior Kira Mermelstein said. “I’m not putting my all into the games and into the journal entries and the videos because I don’t see the purpose, so I’m just trying to get it done so that it’s over with.” This sentiment, plus or minus a few expletives, has been echoed by several other AJA students. 

These students feel that ExQ isn’t serving them, and not only that, but it is considered a mundane or even excruciating chore. Kamath gathered this reaction toward the program and said, “So one thing that [I’m sensing] is that the kids are being facetious, being snarky, being smug and…  thinking that they’re smarter than a system.” She elaborated and explained how when ExQ shows information about a student’s approach, students “might feel frustrated with it, rather than developing a mutual relationship with [the] process.”

This “mutual relationship” is one that many students struggle with when they feel the program does not accurately assess one’s skills. Sophomore Jemima Schoen explained, “I do not enjoy the patronizing tone of the program, nor the system errors. How can we determine someone’s value and skills based on whether or not they can sort shapes and animals?” Jemima struggled with the platform that ExQ operates on, which uses simple games to determine a student’s executive function. Similarly, senior Matthew Kaplan said, “I dislike ExQ and the way it assesses your capabilities. The message that I have picked up is that there should be one strategy all should follow to everything, which seems absurd.” 

Some students questioned how their game strategy score was high while their self-awareness score was low. Kamath described this as a gap between how students do something and how they arrive at that. Meaning, a student might be able to perform a task easily, but if they are unable to introspect and understand how they got to the point, their self-awareness score would be lower. 

Senior Matthew Minsk described how the simplistic nature of the games he was playing prevented him from engaging in the building of his executive function skills. “I understand the value of executive function skills, but I can’t build those skills when I… can’t engage my brain [in] the ‘task’ I’m supposed to be doing.” The set-up of ExQ hindered any progress because of how “mind-numbingly boring” the interface was.

Dr. Mason acknowledged student perception of the program, saying, “Yes, some of the interface has felt juvenile at times, but that can be deceiving because the lessons themselves are challenging and adjusted for every individual’s self-growth.” When the games and challenges are suited to individual students, Kamath described how a student can experience discomfort when being told something about themselves, so the student is “going to have incredible resistance to that process.”

A different form of resistance to the process resulted due to technical difficulties when trying to work on the program. Dr. Mason said, “ExQ is a relatively new technology. Like any new technology, there have been more technology glitches than we anticipated. I… was frustrated when we were encountering these obstacles.” These obstacles included students being unable to submit videos, move on to different lessons, or log in to their accounts.  Regardless of the student opinion of the program, both Kamath and Dr. Mason feel strongly that ExQ — and more broadly, developing executive functioning skills — will serve the students well in high school and beyond. Kamath said, “I have great hopes for ExQ. If I lived in an ideal world, I would like a school experience where students learn math and Hebrew and literature and executive function, so they are provided with information about who they are; how their brain works; what should matter to them.” For Kamath and Dr. Mason, executive functioning skills are imperative to understanding oneself.

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