March 26th, 2018

The Importance of Non-Cognitive Factors

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non-cognitive factors

The last few years have brought an explosion of interest in the role of non-cognitive factors in education, those behaviors outside of course content that make a real difference in student success. Educational researchers have begun to examine the ways in which colleges and universities can encourage students to develop the attitudes, habits of mind, and behaviors that enhance their classroom performance and raise their grades, and ultimately result in higher student retention and graduation rates.

Research has demonstrated that these are promising frameworks for helping low-income college students build success. Watson and Cohen (2011) found that low-income, first-generation college students are aided by presentations in which panelists stress the realities of difficulty in college, but are also able to relate a message that this adjustment is short-lived and not unique to the student. This intervention helped students frame a new mind-set about the adjustment to college, and helped the students in the control group achieve higher GPAs and improved health outcomes.

Researchers have shown that factors outside the classroom and outside the material in the textbook can make or break student success. Key interventions include:

  • Helping students develop their grit, their ability to take on difficult, frustrating tasks and stick with them until they are successfully completed.
  • Helping students have a growth mind-set about their abilities—being able to understand that they can improve their abilities in an area through work, even if they have not been successful in that area in the past.
  • Helping students reframe failure as a learning experience rather than a label. When students are taking a class and not experiencing success, they can then learn from their experience to change their study strategy.
  • Giving students an owners’ manual for their brain. Most students reach college without much self-knowledge about how they learn or the basics of how the brain takes the information gleaned in a lecture or textbook and turns that raw material into mastery.

However, if students are expected to learn all of these concepts as they enter the university, academic leaders need to know them first. To help build this knowledge base, EMU’s Division of Academic and Student Affairs hosted a retreat on non-cognitive factors in education, inviting academic leaders from across the university to learn more about the topic. The Division is a rich assembly of leaders, ranging from academic department heads to admissions/financial aid professionals to the university’s health care personnel and student affairs leadership.

The topics for the retreat came from work being done in grant-funded K-12 after-school programming at EMU. The Bright Futures afterschool programs had developed a curriculum framework for using the concepts of grit and growth mind-set with their students in grades K-12, and Provost Kim Schatzel had been struck by the usefulness of the concept and its application to the university level.

The day was structured to help bring a diverse group of leaders to the topic. It started with attendees doing the Grit-S, a short survey to measure perseverance. Participants filled it out twice—once for themselves and once for students they worked with. After a discussion of this, Prof. Barbara Oakley provided an overview of non-cognitive factors in education based on her Coursera class Learning How to Learn. Next, a panel of practitioners from EMU talked about how concepts such as grit and growth mind-set were used in early college programs, out-of-school time K-12 programs, programming for student veterans, and programs for young men of color. A recent graduate of EMU also talked about the role of grit in both his career as a student and his work as a tutor for Upward Bound. Finally, all participants had a “grit challenge”—building towers out of pasta and duct tape, topped with a marshmallow.

Participant evaluation showed that academic leaders found this an important topic to address (84% reported that the retreat met or exceeded expectations), and that information on the topic was needed, particularly the keynote by Dr. Oakley (92% reported positively). However, the practitioner panel and activities were found less useful by participants in the retreat (54% and 15% approval respectively). Participants reported they wanted more information on the subject (55%), but participants also felt the information needed to be more focused on their own roles as leaders.

Written feedback from the retreat showed that while participants were engaged with the topic, they struggled with how to implement these ideas in their daily practice as supervisors and leaders. One participant noted, “Lots of good ideas about learning and grit. Feeling good about applying to my own personal/professional work,” and another wrote, “It helped me to think more deeply about learning, and I want to explore the topic more.” However, as those in the group participating were in leadership and supervision positions, some felt the topic either was more important to get to faculty, or needed to be recast more explicitly in terms of leadership. One participant wrote, “Good topics we need to bring to faculty and lecturers.” Another wrote, “Important topics, but not focused in on work as leaders.”

This work on non-cognitive factors generated the following lessons learned:

  • Topics as complex as non-cognitive factors need to be part of a longer conversation. Participants expressed interest in more programming on the topic, including bringing back the main speaker for further events, which could include faculty and students.
  • Leaders need to be able to see the immediate applications to their day-to-day roles of what they are learning. While topics such as grit and growth mind-set can be applied to both teaching and supervisory situations, programming is needed to help leaders make these connections and see the relevance of non-cognitive factors such as supervision and evaluation of personnel.
  • Although a single speaker can generate interest, continued programming and practice would be needed for people to feel comfortable using these concepts and then to implement them in their department and offices. People need time and practice to process concepts such as grit and growth mind-set—the learning in the field is iterative.
  • Building preknowledge on the subject can build interest and knowledge. Participants were sent information on Dr. Oakley’s Coursera in advance of the program, as well as some TED Talks on topics such as grit and growth mind-set.

Learning about non-cognitive factors is not a one-time experience. To address this, we provided participants with a list of resources, ranging from books to TED talks, to build more understanding of the issue. Because Dr. Oakley’s class on learning how to learn is offered on demand, several leaders were able to enroll and continue learning about non-cognitive factors. For those seeking more depth, we provided resources for learning about non-cognitive factors through books, videos, and online courses. To follow up on this work, EMU Bright Futures is planning a day-long conference next summer on how leaders can build a workplace that encourages development of non-cognitive factors.

Russ Olwell is director, Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities, and professor of history. Lynn Malinoff is director of the EMU Bright Futures program. Debra Kellen is coordinator of New Initiatives for the EMU Bright Futures program. All are from Eastern Michigan University.