What are non-cognitive skills?

The term non-cognitive skills has become increasingly prevalent within education over the past few years. But what do we actually mean by non-cognitive, how do these skills differ from cognitive ones and is any aspect of learning truly non-cognitive anyway?

The roots of non-cognitive skills lie in the writings of sociologists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis and their 1976 exploration of education in America (Bowles & Gintis, 1976). Bowles and Gintis use the phrase as a kind of catch all to distinguish factors other than those measured by cognitive tests such as literacy and numeracy. The specific set of skills viewed as non-cognitive, however, depends largely upon the field of study. In psychology, these attributes are viewed through the lens of personality theory, most prominently the traits that make up the Big 5 model of personality. In education, however, emphasis is placed on those skills believed to be related to academic success.

The educationalist view of non-cognitive skills, therefore, is somewhat wider than that of the psychologist and includes such things as academic behaviour, perseverance, mindset, learning strategies and social skills. These skills represent both affective and behavioural aspects of learning, such as the physical act of actually attending school, and adhering to the rules, self-discipline, sense of belonging, metacognitive strategies, goal setting and interpersonal skills. We can also include aspects of resilience and ‘grit’ as well as traits like conscientiousness and perseverance. These skills largely develop differently to those viewed as cognitive. While non-cognitive skills develop over the lifespan (for example, people become better at paying attention and avoiding distractions, while conscientiousness, a personality trait, expands from childhood and peaks in our 50s and 60s), cognitive factors, such as IQ, peak in late adolescence before gradually declining (Borghans, Duckworth, Heckman, & ter Weel, 2008).

This means that non-cognitive skills underpin the cognitive ones but can also be measured independently of them. Students with stronger non-cognitive skills have been shown to demonstrate higher academic achievement throughout schooling (Gabrieli, Ansel, & Krachman, 2015), most likely due to the increase in attention, focus and planning. Academic behaviours such as regular attendance, completing homework and participation are all linked to higher levels of achievement, reinforcing the view that non-cognitive skills are highly influential on academic outcomes (Farrington et al., 2012). Therefore, well developed non-cognitive skills promote the development of cognitive skills.

No skill is truly non-cognitive

Both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of learning are challenging in their own right. In cognitive terms we may, for example, refer to the pressure (or load) placed upon limited mental resources, particularly memory. These cognitive aspects of learning have been encapsulated within a model known as Cognitive Load Theory (Sweller, 1988) and advanced in recent years through Load Reduction Instruction (Martin & Evans, 2018), a process by which students learn in a manner that places less strain on cognitive processes. Through these interrelated theories, it becomes possible to employ both cognitive and non-cognitive techniques to decrease the burden or, quite literally, to lighten the load. Indeed, the process may further cast doubt on the strict cognitive–non-cognitive dichotomy as a whole as well as debates surrounding so-called progressive versus traditionalist modes of teaching (Martin & Evans, 2018, p. 204).

It has been argued that this distinction also creates a false dichotomy between so-called ‘hard’ cognitive abilities and psychosocial or ‘soft’ skills. Few aspects of human behaviour are devoid of cognition so it might be preferable to use other terms to better describe them. There is also an obvious relationship between non-cognitive skills and executive function, although the latter combines elements of both non-cognitive (for example, goal setting) and cognitive (working memory capacity). But even the ability to focus our attention is a cognitive process even though we might often think of this as being related non-cognitive skills. This is one reason why sticking strictly to a cognitive/non-cognitive dichotomy can often get us tangled up in knots. We can also see that higher order functions (or executive function) combines both aspects of so-called cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

Executive function: Bridging the cognitive and the non-cognitive

The ability to plan and set goals is generally believed to represent a higher order cognitive function. Executive function is an umbrella term that includes a number of these types of ability. As well as planning and goal setting, executive function is concerned with a number of other factors, including a persons ability to analyse their own progress, inhibit actions that might lead them away from their goal and check whether or not they are on the right track, as Jonathan explained in Psychology in the Classroom. Robert Logie of the University of Edinburgh summarises executive function as including any cognitive abilities that involve the control of other, simpler, abilities (Logie, 2016). 

While the intricacies of executive function remain marginally contentious, there is a general consensus that it includes a group of three specific skills that allow people to manage thoughts, actions and emotions to achieve what they have set out to do. These skills are related to working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control (see figure below).

Main Components of Executive Function

The first of these skills (working memory) relates to the ability to keep information in our minds and use it in some way. Working memory is short-term memory, so it won’t last very long and the amount of information we can store is limited. But working memory is essential for learning because it represents the present. For example, when we carry out mental arithmetic, we are taking information from our long-term memory and placing it into working memory. We then manipulate the information (add, subject, multiply and so on) in order to reach an answer. This is also where the instructions we are given verbally are dealt with. If, for example, I were to ask you to read this sentence again, put your finger on the tip of you nose and then stand up, this sequence will have been held in your working memory until the actions have been completed. 

It’s easy to see how the capacity to store more information in working memory would benefit learning, but also how individuals with deficits of working memory might be significantly disadvantaged. This is why it’s useful to break information down into small chunks or stages, as it reduces the amount of information our cognitive system needs to deal with at any one time. 

Cognitive flexibility (or flexible thinking) is the ability to think about something in more than one way. We might, for example, try to analyse a passage from a text from alternative viewpoints or even try and think of alternative uses for an everyday object (a technique used in research to test divergent thinking). Such thinking could then be employed when we reach an academic impasse and have to carefully and thoughtfully negotiate our way through it. 

The third skill (inhibitory control) relates to our ability to ignore distractions and resist temptation and includes emotion regulation, the ability to use emotional states effectively and appropriately (such as remaining calm in potentially stressful situations). Emotion regulation also plays a role in what is termed hot executive control or hot cognition, that is, those actions that include high emotional states, such as test anxiety. There is also an element of self-control here, that is, our ability to forego small rewards now in favour of bigger rewards later. The aim is to reach our ultimate goal and we do this by pursuing smaller goals on the way, yet we may well encounter distractions between these sub-goals – the shiny things, the Sirens whose job it is to waylay us.

In the classroom, students with higher levels of inhibitory control will be the ones who raise their hands without calling out, patiently wait their turn and remain relatively calm when faced with tests and high stakes exams. They will still get nervous, but this nervousness can be seen as more positive than negative – the student is able to control the anxiety, rather than letting it control them.

These three primary skills then promote a number of secondary skills, including attention, staying focussed on tasks and self-monitoring (keeping track of what we are doing). This also implies that certain skills are beneficial to several outcomes, including academic attainment and the ability to adapt to setbacks, remain focussed on the task in hand and set realistic and achievable goals. 

We, therefore need to be cautious when using terms such a cognitive and non-cognitive as often we end prioritising one over the other and neglecting their combined importance. This is not to say that the distinction isn’t useful, it certainly can be, just as long as we remain mindful that cognitions plays a role in all behaviours, not only those specifically related to memory – cognitive psychology, after all, encompasses much more than just memory.

This article is adapted from Becoming Buoyant: Helping Teachers and Students Cope with the Day to Day. Available to pre-order now.

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