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frameworks of noncognitive skills

When it comes to defining the noncognitive space, there are many frameworks that can provide organization, terminology, and even ways of thinking. These are just a few of the most prominent examples, emphasizing those that are relevant to higher education.

The "Big Five" Model of Personality (Goldberg, 1990)

The major advantage of the Big Five model of personality is its stability. After decades of competing and overlapping theories, Goldberg's work captured human behavior in five dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (also known as "emotional stability"). Some (e.g., Kyllonen, 2013) have even argued that it was the success of the Big Five model that allowed broader research into noncognitive skills. Poropat (2009) is an excellent example of such work, relating Big Five factors to success across the educational life span, including higher education. 

*One important editorial note here: Distinguishing between the terms "personality" and "noncognitive" is a bit of a complex issue. Indeed, personality research informs a great deal of what is done in the noncognitive realm. Personally, I've always felt that we avoid using the term "personality" because people often (and erroneously; see Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006) assume that personality is fixed and cannot, or should not, be changed by educational interventions. Nevertheless, I've elected to include it here because of its persistent (even if often unmentioned) influence on research, including many of the frameworks listed below.

Markle, Olivera-Aguilar et al. (2013)

In a framework specifically designed to identify factors related to academic success and retention in higher education, this model uses four general skills: academic skills, commitment, self-management, and social support. Each general skill has underlying subskills - ten in total - that are distinct behaviors, skills, and dispositions. The model is also supported by a multi-institutional longitudinal study relation to both GPA and retention.

Robbins et al. (2004)

In the early 2000's, work by Steve Robbins and his colleagues at ACT was, in my opinion, some of the best academic research applying noncognitive skills to higher education. Their models, which have been operationalized in several ways over the years, tend to focus on an array of skills, such as self-efficacy, study skills ("academic-related skills"), institutional commitment, and social support. I would also recommend the Robbins et al. (2009) study, which looks at the potential intervening effects of institutional actions on noncognitive skills.

National Research Council (2008, 2010, 2011, 2012)

In a series of workshops and accompanying reports, the NRC convened an esteemed panel to bring substance to the conversation of "21st Century Skills." Perhaps the most compelling thing about the NRC's framework is that it avoids the term "noncognitive" by instead distinguishing constructs as cognitive (e.g., critical thinking, creativity), intrapersonal (e.g., self-efficacy, organization, perseverance), and interpersonal (e.g., cultural sensitivity, teamwork/collaboration).

Frameworks of Complex, Integrative Skills

The NRC work begins to pull away from frameworks that explicitly outline noncognitive factors to those that look at a broader frame of student learning, often integrating cognitive and noncognitive domains. In some cases, areas such as communication have both cognitive and noncognitive components. This is an issue about which I've written repeatedly over the years (Markle, Brenneman et al., 2013; Oliveri & Markle, 2017), and would recommend the following for those interested in such expanded frameworks: 

  • Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) - Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U, 2011)

  • Frameworks for Learning and Development Outcomes (The "CAS Standards") - The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (Strayhorn, 2006)

  • The Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) - The Lumina Foundation (Adelman et al., 2014)

  • The Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S; 2012a,b)


  • Adelman, C., Ewell, P., Gaston, P., & Schneider, C. G. (2014). The degree qualifications profile. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation.

  • Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. (2012a). Our global team. Retrieved from

  • Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. (2012b). Timeline. Retrieved from

  • Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2011). The LEAP vision for learning: Outcomes, practices, impact, and employers’ views. Washington, DC: Author.

  • Goldberg, L. R. (1990). An alternative description of personality: the big-five factor structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(6), 1216.

  • Kyllonen, P. C. (2013). Soft Skills for the Workplace. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 45(6), 16-23.

  • Markle, R., Brenneman, M., Jackson, T., Burrus, J., & Robbins, S. (2013). Synthesizing frameworks of higher education student learning outcomes. ETS Research Report Series, 2013(2), i-37.

  • Markle, R.E., Olivera-Aguilar, M., Jackson, T., Noeth, R., & Robbins, S. (2013). Examining evidence of reliability, validity, and fairness for the SuccessNavigator assessment. (ETS RR–13-12). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

  • National Research Council. (2008). Research on future skills demands: A workshop summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

  • National Research Council. (2010). Exploring the intersection of science education and 21st century skills: A workshop summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

  • National Research Council. (2011). Assessing 21st century skills: Summary of a workshop. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

  • National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

  • Oliveri, M. E., & Markle, R. (2017). Continuing a Culture of Evidence: Expanding Skills in Higher Education. ETS Research Report Series, 2017(1), 1-8.

  • Poropat. A.E. (2009). A meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 322-338.

  • Roberts, B. W., Walton, K. E., & Viechtbauer, W. (2006). Patterns of mean-level change in personality traits across the life course: a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132(1), 1.

  • Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 261-288.

  • Robbins, S. B., Oh, I. S., Le, H., & Button, C. (2009). Intervention effects on college performance and retention as mediated by motivational, emotional, and social control factors: Integrated meta-analytic path analyses. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1163.

  • Strayhorn, T. L. (2006). Frameworks for assessing learning and development outcomes. Washington, DC: Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.

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