Friday, 1 August 2014

Non-cognitive attributes and educational outcomes

Research is accruing on something that teachers probably already knew…. that non-cognitive attributes (e.g., student confidence, motivation, personality, resilience) are significant predictors of a range of educational outcomes.  Indeed, there is an excellent (and very accessible) review of this topic within a recent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) publication (

This review considers a range of non-cognitive attributes (termed ‘skills’) - namely self-perceptions, motivation, perseverance, self-control, metacognitive strategies, social competencies, resilience/coping and creativity.  The review very helpfully provides definitions of these terms, existing measurement tools to examine these attributes and correlational and causal evidence between these attributes and educational outcomes.  Furthermore, the extent to which each non-cognitive attribute is malleable (i.e., may respond to intervention) is discussed.

However, despite what seems to be increasing recognition of the importance of non-cognitive attributes, there is still, in my opinion, greater time and attention spent on studying aspects of cognition (i.e., language, memory etc) amongst psychology researchers in the UK.  This could be for a number of reasons.  From my experience as a researcher, I know that non-cognitive skills are often underestimated and are regarded (by some) as less worthy of attention than aspects of cognition.  However, they are also arguably harder to define and measure than aspects of cognition (at least at present) and this poses difficulties for conducting high quality research.  Of course, one could argue that we cannot define or measure motivation, resilience or confidence etc.  As a psychologist, I appreciate the complexity of these attributes, but I also believe that we have to develop high quality measurement tools if we want to better understand the role non-cognitive attributes play in children and young people’s lives. 

If we are genuinely interested in supporting students to achieve their potential (i.e., educational and personal success), researchers need to invest more time and effort studying non-cognitive attributes.  My research has developed in this way; from beginning my research career as someone solely interested in the cognitive skills associated with reading development, I now consider the relative importance of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

While understanding the relationship between non-cognitive attributes, educational and personal success is important, equally important are studies identifying home, school and community environments conducive to fostering positive attributes (e.g., motivation, perseverance), and effective interventions for those students who may be in need of support. 

However, we need more research from the UK.  While the EEF review is helpful and relatively comprehensive for teachers, it did highlight to me (from my familiarity with this field), the lack of research studies from the UK.  We need to understand the role and importance of these attributes as children proceed through the UK’s education system(s).


Morrison Gutman, L., & Schoon, I.  (2013).  The impact of non-cognitive skills on outcomes for young people.  Education Endowment Foundation/Cabinet Office.


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