A Rosetta Stone for Noncognitive Skills

A child smiles in front of a school building.

Research has shown that noncognitive skills are as important for academic performance as are cognitive abilities, and that these traits positively predict performance, behavior, and satisfaction in work life. In the context of fairly recent studies showing that personality can change over a lifespan, research suggests that noncognitive factors could and should play a more pivotal role in educational policy and practice than hitherto realized.

These types of outcomes, however, are rarely intentionally inculcated through primary and secondary education teaching and learning. As a result, such skills are often fostered through informal means — as a byproduct of good teaching or good parenting — or through non-formal programs, including extracurricular activities and programs organized by community-based organizations. This means that some students benefit from the opportunity to develop these skills, while others do not. In fact, they are as important predictors of success in school and careers as academic abilities, and thus essential for all students.

What are noncognitive skills?

A commitment to developing character, social, and emotional skills, and 21st-century competencies can be found in the mission statements of many schools across the globe, and in education policy statements worldwide. In addition to delivering academic learning, schools and systems proclaim their commitment to developing students as life-long learners, skillful collaborators, moral individuals, confident and persistent problem-solvers, organized and conscientious leaders, innovative thinkers, and much more. Many of these so-called noncognitive skills — such as curiosity, cultural competence, collaboration, and leadership — are included in the concept of global competence.

The list below names almost 50 of these skills, and it isn’t exhaustive.

Assertiveness, Adaptability, Cheerfulness, Collaboration, Collegiality, Communications, Confidence, Coping with Stress, Creativity, Cultural Competence, Curiosity, Dependability, Determination, Effortful Control, Enthusiasm, Entrepreneurialism, Ethical Behavior, Fairness, Friendliness, Generosity, Grit, Growth Mindset, Honesty, Imagination, Innovation, Integrity, Kindness, Leadership, Liveliness, Moderation, Optimism, Organization, Patience, Persistence, Planning, Professionalism, Punctuality, Resilience, Responsibility, Self-Consciousness, Self-Esteem, Self-Regulation, Sociability, Teamwork, Time Management, Tolerance, Trustworthiness, Work Ethic

It is no simple task for educators to narrow down this list, prioritize what is most important, and develop these skills in young people. It is easy to understand the challenge: they are all good things, at least in moderation, and their instruction is not self-evident. What is needed is an evidence-based framework to help primary and secondary education policymakers and educators make sense of the myriad skills beyond academics that are critical for 21st-century success, along with strategies and approaches to effectively teach and reliably assess these skills.

Making sense of noncognitive skills

In A Rosetta Stone for Noncognitive Skills, a paper published by Asia Society and Professional Examination Service, co-authors Richard D. Roberts, Jonathan E. Martin, and Gabriel Olaru put forward one such framework: the Big Five personality factors. These factors, the authors write, can act as a Rosetta Stone to "translate" the various concepts and terms used among and between researchers and practitioners, economists and businesspeople, and policymakers in education systems in different countries. Interpreting critical noncognitive educational outcomes through the lens of the Big Five tethers them to the hundreds—thousands even—of psychological research studies conducted in the past two decades. The conclusion of this research is clear and compelling: these noncognitive traits matter.

A Rosetta Stone for Noncognitive Skills describes the Big Five factors, how they were determined, and how they have been demonstrated to be universal across different ages and consistent across different countries and cultures. It concludes by reviewing many of the approaches to assessment of these skills, and the related challenges and solutions.

Download the paper.