Inhibitory control

Inhibitory control is a cognitive ability that allows us to stop (or inhibit) an automatic response or desirable action. This ability continues to mature through adolescence, in line with changes in the prefrontal cortex. It can be difficult for adolescents to inhibit certain behaviours or impulses in the classroom, such as talking to friends or fiddling with pens. Still maturing inhibitory control might also manifest in students giving their first response to a question, rather than thinking carefully before providing an answer.

Some evidence suggests that students who have better inhibitory control are also better at answering questions about counterintuitive science and maths concepts. This suggests that inhibitory control enables them to stop their intuitive and incorrect response, and that not using inhibitory control may lead to misconceptions. What strategies do you use to help students who may answer without thinking first? Students may benefit from being encouraged to wait for a few seconds before giving their response, and to be aware that their first response isn’t necessarily the right one.

Researchers at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience are running a large project to test whether or not students do indeed benefit from being told to “stop and think” (engaging their inhibitory control) before giving their answer in science and maths. This project is with primary school students, but will give an indication of whether or not this is a good strategy that can be adopted with older students. Note that this mechanism may operate in other disciplines (not just science and maths), but there is currently plenty of research in these disciplines, and science and maths are often given a lot of attention as they are considered particularly difficult to learn.

Inhibitory control is related to another cognitive skill called working memory (or updating). Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind and manipulate it. Both of these skills are part of the executive function system, supported by the prefrontal cortex. Many classroom activities, such as mental arithmetic, require use of the ‘mental jotting pad’ that is working memory.


Click on the topics below to find out more about the science in the film.

Sleep      ***      Hormonal Changes      ***      Prefrontal Changes
Inhibitory Control      ***      Mental Time Travel      ***      Limbic Changes
Sensation Seeking       ***       Risk taking       ***       Social Development
Theories of Adolescence      ***     Evolution      ***      Mental Health
Neuroconstructivism      ***     Educational Neuroscience


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