Education Wednesday: Cultivating Non-Cognitive Skills

Success in education and life requires two sets of skills: cognitive skills that make up our knowledge and ability to learn, as well as non-cognitive skills that help us communicate what we know. Within schools, as we work to prepare more students for college and careers, the priority is too often focused on reinforcing academic performance linked to cognitive skills. However, a growing number of studies find that non-cognitive skills are the true underpinnings of success, yet are greatly lacking.


What are non-cognitive skills?

For students, non-cognitive skills are the vital “soft skills”, such as positive self-concept, verbal/non-verbal communication and grit, a new buzzword meaning perseverance and passion for long-term goals. These skills reinforce academic achievement. For example, students who demonstrate resilience to stick with subjects they struggle in are twice as likely to attend college than students who give up. Additionally, non-cognitive skills are directly linked to overall behavior and are thought to shape the mindset for learning.

Focusing on non-cognitive skills can greatly benefit students. These traits are the tools they need to manage rigorous academic study and overcome challenges in life. Additionally, teaching non-cognitive skills raises the accountability of students in their own education by helping them become active agents in learning.

Experts now argue non-cognitive skills can be developed both through deliberate learning and through practice or experience. These tips will help you foster non-cognitive skills at home, in schools, and within the community:

4 Ways to Cultivate Non-cognitive skills

  1. Parent involvement: Interaction with parents is particularly important as kids copy the behavior, traits, and actions they see adults displa such as time management and problem solving. Much as I discuss in Education Wednesdays: 2 More College “Conversations” to Have with Yunior, modeling the expectations you set for kids will help them develop non-cognitive skills which complement academic readiness. 

  2. School Culture: Participating in an environment of learning that promotes shared purpose, accountability, and long-term goals--such as attending college--are external factors that help facilitate the development of non-cognitive skills.  School culture not only contributes to a child's desire to learn, but also reinforces cognitive lessons within classrooms.

  3. Diverse exposure: Extracurricular activities such as athletics, student government, and drama clubs give students more opportunities to develop non-cognitive skills. Participating in community service or experiencing new cultures through travel can also provide meaningful exposure for students to gain a better understanding of the world and build valuable character and skills.

  4. Applied learning: Interactive learning models where students solve real problems with hands-on instruction provide excellent opportunities for students to boost cognitive skills at the same time as non-cognitive skills. Schools such as High Tech High and the Applied Learning Academy challenge students to work through problems independently, create innovative solutions, and build character along the way.

Instilling foundational character, as well as honing non-cognitive skills, is a vital component of college and career readiness that cannot be missed. Modeling grit as parents, placing students in engaging environments, and providing exposure to new experiences are all great ways to foster valuable non-cognitive skills that will serve them well in academics, career, and life. First Lady Michelle Obama sums it up when she says,

“It is not your circumstance that defines your future — it’s your attitude.  It’s your commitment.”


An education policy wonk at the Georgia Center of Opportunity, Aundrea Gregg holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Planning from the London School Of Economics and a Bachelor’s in Classical Civilizations and Political Science from Howard University. She also is a nail painting enthusiast and writer living in Atlanta, GA. Connect with Aundrea on Twitter or Google+.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

How do you keep your non-cognitive skills sharp?