There are challenges in measuring non-cognitive factors but they are not insurmountable


Non-cognitive factors is a catch-all term for factors such as motivation, grit, self-regulation, social skills, emotional intelligence – in short, mental constructs that we think contribute to student success, and which are attractive to employers. Yes you need literacy, numeracy ICT, and other cognitive skills too,  which are tested. But a rounded education amounts to much more than a grasp of cognitive skills, a  fact that escapes rather too many politicians, if not employers and admissions tutors.

Looking at, and acknowledging the importance of, non-cognitive factors in education  and in everyday school life is the new zeitgeist .There is plenty of data to show that researchers are on to something quite  important here.   But Professor Dan Willingham  poses on his blog  a pretty fundamental question about non-cognitive factors – is there  anything here   that educators are likely to be able to use in the next few years? Or are we going to be defeated by the measurement problem ? The short answer to this is that there are challenges and problems but they are probably not insurmountable. According to Willingham ‘the measurement problem in non-cognitive factors shouldn’t be overstated’.

There is for example a shared core construct on self-regulated learning* (Sitzman & Ely, 2011), Their review examines the current state of research on ‘self-regulated learning’ and gaps in the field’s understanding of how adults regulate their learning of work-related knowledge and skills. Goal level, persistence, effort, and self-efficacy were the self-regulation constructs with the strongest effects on learning. Together these constructs accounted for 17% of the variance in learning, after controlling for cognitive ability and pretraining knowledge. And Angela Duckworth (Duckworth & Quinn, 2009) has made headway in developing a standard measure of grit. The Grit Scale   measures trait-level perseverance and passion for long-term goals. (so  ‘grit’ is distinguished from self-control by its emphasis on the pursuit of a long-term goal). Duckworth, as a doctoral student, sought some way to make sense of the qualities that go beyond IQ: “People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.” She named this quality “grit” and then  came up with this quite straightforward  Grit Scale for measuring it. It’s deceptively simple, only takes a few minutes to fill out, (see links below) and relies on the usually notoriously unreliable method of self-reporting. But when she tested it, she found that it was powerfully predictive of success. She tested it, for example, on college students and found that those who scored high on the Grit Scale had higher Grade Point Averages ,even if they initially had lower college tests. She tested it on West Point cadets too, and it turned out to be the most accurate predictor of who finished the gruelling course.



Self-regulated learning is the process of taking control of and evaluating one’s own learning and behaviour. It can be used to describe learning that is guided by metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking), strategic action (planning, monitoring, and evaluating personal progress against a standard), and crucially motivation to learn.



Dan Willingham’s Science and education blog 22 Jan 2013

Duckworth, A.L, & Quinn, P.D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit-S).  Journal of Personality Assessment, 91, 166-174.

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.

Sitzmann, T, & Ely, K. (2011). A meta-analysis of self-regulated learning in work-related training and educational attainment: What we know and where we need to go. Psychological Bulletin, 137,  421-442.

Duckworths Short Grit Scale



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