A recent 26 page OECD working paper, entitled ‘Beyond literacy: The incremental value of noncognitive skills’ suggests that over the past few years non-cognitive skills have gained attention as predictors of life outcomes over and above cognitive skills. This paper, which is a pretty dense one, “reviews a number of previous studies that have investigated how measure of non-cognitive skills predict important life outcomes such as educational attainment, employment, earnings, and self-reported health and life satisfaction.”

Another publication, to be found on ‘Researchgate’ was edited by Myint Swe Khine and Shaljan Areepattamannil and entitled ‘Non-Cognitive Skills and Factors in Educational Success and Academic Achievement’ covers much the same ground. You can access an overview and introductory chapter here.

Why noncognitive skills matter

The OECD paper notes that cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy, are undoubtedly powerful predictors of important life outcomes and are strongly related to educational attainment, income, labour force participation, and health. Nevertheless, in the last decade “the focus of the search for the determinants of life success has increasingly shifted to traits beyond cognitive skills, for example personality traits, motivation, interests, self-concepts, and beliefs.” This, of course, is why many see issues with the way competency standards are written – although these noncognitive skills are also difficult to describe and therefore measure. The ‘Big Five’, according to the OECD’s paper, are “extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience.” Perhaps more tangibly they are expressed through “the abilities to control impulses and emotions, maintain long-term motivation, and co-operate with others.”

However, the paper also suggests that vocational choice may be another key factor, and “vocational choice is highly dependent on a person’s enduring vocational interests.” At a global level the six vocational interests realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional, and can help – albeit in a minor way – to explain life outcomes such as education, professional success, and satisfaction.

Likewise, the other publication (linked to the introductory chapter) highlighted the above and also points out that:

“Researchers firmly believe that noncognitive factors and skills are equally or even more important than cognitive aspects in educative process and employment potential. When identifying the personal qualities that require to functioning well in the 21st century, the role of noncognitive factors are often highlighted in the discourse. Increasing attempts are made to investigate the role of noncognitive factors and how it associates with academic and life success.”

Thus, it’s suggested in this publication that these noncognitive factors should be taken seriously. A myriad of specific factors have been identified as noncognitive, the publication points out, and it names a few: grit, tenacity, curiosity, attitudes, self-concept, self-efficacy, anxiety, coping strategies, motivation, perseverance and confidence. These are among those frequently referred to in the literature. Others might include the more commonly recognised generic skills like critical thinking, problem solving, social, emotional health, self-control, self-regulation, persistence, academic confidence, teamwork, organizational and communication skills.

What is concluded?

The OECD paper summarised the findings of a number of recent European studies investigating noncognitive skills. It concludes that:

“Together, these studies provide robust evidence that (1) non-cognitive skills are largely independent of cognitive skills, (2) noncognitive skills are incrementally associated with life success over and above cognitive skills, and (3) most of these associations can be generalised across countries.”

In particular, they noted that “the global Big Five domains extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness, and the more specific Big Five facets (especially grit, conceived of as a facet of conscientiousness), revealed strong conceptual and empirical value over and above cognitive skills and are thus valuable.”

Assessing these noncognitive traits

The assessment of these skills and recording their attainment in some way has always been seen in Australia as a tough gig, and one therefore does not find a lot of research on the topic. There is one ‘blast from the past’ piece that readers may be interested in looking at. It was concerned with assessing key competencies and was authored by Rob Denton, an electrotechnology lecturer at the former Torrens Valley TAFE in South Australia. It was entitled ‘Assessment of key competencies: the Torrens Valley TAFE approach’. Validated learner self-assessment was seen as a crucial component of the process, whereby learners assess their own competence in a particular generic skill. Validation by teachers then provides the quality assurance and formal recognition for the learner to prove their capabilities. It depended on a process of integral performance and explicit assessment and saw their assessment as the major ‘learning and development’ strategy. It also depended on sound approaches to learning design to enable these key competencies to be expressed and evaluated.

The value of the self-assessment process was explained as follows and a learner’s ability to effectively self-assess their performance:

  • raises awareness of the processes involved
  • identifies where they are at with a particular key competency
  • provides a pathway for improvement
  • establishes a framework of understanding to help them apply these skills in different contexts (that is, reinforcing transferability)
  • equips them with the confidence and ability to convincingly describe and discuss their skills to others, such as at a job interview (removing any doubt over the credibility of the certificate alone).

However, students need to be inducted carefully to get the maximum value from the process.

Worth a look maybe as Denton’s work was part of a larger publication entitled Generic skills in vocational education and training: research readings edited by Jennifer Gibb. Other chapters in this book are relevant too.