Visualize Executive Function

“Place your attention in the center of your body.  You may want to close your eyes. Take a few breaths and allow your body to relax. Imagine you are at your favorite place to visit in the summer…”

This may sound like the start of a yoga class, but it’s actually the lead-in to visualization, a powerful way to engage executive function processes.

When we ask students to visualize, they create a mental representation that will help them get their work done. This could include visualizing a challenging vocabulary word, a difficult math process, an upcoming presentation, or even a personal goal.

Visualizing works by decreasing the working memory load associated with challenging academic tasks. As with any mnemonic strategy, when a student uses visualization to prepare, they are creating personally meaningful links between what they need to do and the kind of things their brain naturally thinks about. Then, when it’s time to get to work, the brain can follow these links and access the important information more efficiently.

Teaching students to visualize challenging tasks can reduce anxiety and increase motivation. Visualization is actually a common strategy used by therapists to help patients overcome extreme anxiety. By visualizing something that is anxiety producing, a patient can analyze their reactions and defuse some of the intensely negative emotions.

Detailed visualizations are also key to motivation.  Anders Ericcson’s research into mastery has shown that people who are “experts” at a given task often have much more detailed mental representations of the task compared to those who are novices. By helping students visualize their work strategically, they can build a more detailed mental representation of the task at hand, which will help them improve more than mere practice alone.

While we may think that visualizing belongs in the meditation room, the truth is that visualizing can be a powerful tool for students in any class. Take time to guide students’ visualization as they study for a test or attempt to master a new type of word problem. If your students are going to daydream, why not have them daydream about their schoolwork?

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director