Help adolescent learners achieve more by focusing on ‘soft’ learning skills

iStock_000012608964XSmallMost adolescent students who excel do so as a result of a combination of “hard” and “soft” skills, or cognitive and non-cognitive factors. The student with exceptional problem-solving skills and adequate study habits excels in math, but so does the student who has average problem-solving skills and is exceptionally motivated and disciplined.

A new study from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research says that schools should pay more attention to noncognitive factors such as motivation, time management and self-regulation to help adolescent students achieve more.

A greater focus on non-cognitive factors also would reduce racial, ethnic and gender disparities in school performance among adolescents, the report says.

“If indeed noncognitive factors are malleable and are critical to academic performance, a key task for educators becomes the intentional development of these skills, traits, strategies, and attitudes in conjunction with the development of content knowledge and academic skills,” the study says.

Five categories of noncognitive factors have the greatest impact on academic performance in adolescent students:

  • academic behaviors
  • academic perseverance
  • academic mindsets
  • learning strategies
  • social skills

The report describes the 5 categories and makes recommendations for how teachers can help students cultivate these behaviors.

Academic behaviors

Academic behaviors are commonly associated with being a ‘good student’. These behaviors include attending class, having necessary supplies and materials, paying attention, participating in activities and discussions and studying and completing homework. Academic behaviorshelp students to develop and demonstrate their content knowledge and academic skills. They can influence teacher perception of student effort, resulting in a favorable teacher-student relationship that improves academic performance.

What teachers can do:

  • Provide clear and explicit directions and expectations for assignments
  • Require students to write assignments in planners
  • Set up procedures for students to collect missed work when they are absent
  • Assist students in studying for tests.

Academic perseverance

Academic perseverance is the ability to complete assignments in an engaged, focused, consistent and timely manner even in the face of distractions, obstacles or level of challenge. In simple terms, it is the difference between doing the minimal amount of work to pass a class and putting in long hours required to master the material and excel.

Academic perseverance is defined by four major behaviors:

  • grit or tenacity
  • delayed gratification
  • self-discipline
  • self-control

Academic tenacity is the ability to focus on long-term goals and to move through challenges by completing short-term tasks to reach these goals. Gritty individuals often express sentiments such as, ‘I am a hard worker‘, ‘Setbacks don’t discourage me‘ and ‘I have achieved a goal that took years of work.’ Delayed gratification, self-discipine and self-control all describe an ability to avoid short-term temptations (such as watching TV) to prioritize higher pursuits.

What teachers can do:

  • Provide instruction that supports success
  • Give students strategies to make tasks easier
  • Teach impulse control and persistence

Academic mindsets

Academic mindsets are the attitudes and beliefs that a student has towards academic work. Positive academic mindsets motivate students to remain persistent in the face of challenges.

There are four academic mindsets that research has shown contribute to academic performance:

‘I belong in this academic community.’ Students who feel as though they belong in school perceive themselves to be more competent, have higher levels of intrinsic motivation, are willing to adopt established norms and values and have higher levels of academic performance.

‘My ability and competence grow with my effort.’ When students feel competent they are more motivated, persistent and more likely to have behaviors that support higher academic achievement.

‘I can succeed at this.’ Students’ self-efficacy beliefs and the perception that they can do something successfully make them more apt to persevere with a task and to bounce back when they face adversity.

‘This work has value for me.’ Students are the most motivated to learn when they are interested in the material they are learning.

What teachers can do:

  • Give students writing prompts that connect the learning task with the student’s personal life
  • Set attainable levels of academic challenge and communicate high teacher expectations
  • Be supportive
  • Create choices for students in academic work
  • Provide clear learning goals and assessments
  • Give students the opportunity to participate in learning activities
  • Require students to interact and collaborate with each other when learning new material
  • Offer tutoring or mentoring

Learning strategies

Learning strategies help students to monitor their own learning, determine how effectively they are completing a task and adjust their efforts accordingly. When students use learning strategies that make it possible for them to organize or synthesize material (rather than just reviewing it), they are more likely to break through to deep understanding. Students are more able to transfer learning strategies across content areas when the strategies are first introduced and used in specific contexts.

What teachers can do:

  • Provide clear instructions and expectations when assigning tasks
  • Teack students how to use self-evaluation checklists and how to self-question to monitor comprehension
  • Have students maintain detailed time logs such as reading logs or homework logs
  • Ask students to create if-then statements, e.g. “If I encounter this obstacle then I will take these steps”
  • Help students set personal learning goals with time in class to review and reflect on goal progress,
  • Encourage them to seek assistance from teachers, mentors, counselors or other students
  • Have them visualize the successful completion of work

Social skills

Social skills such as cooperation, assertion, responsible decision-making, empathy, self-control, self-awareness, social awareness and relationship skills all impact academic performance. Students with positive social skills are more engaged in learning.  A well-managed classroom contributes to the development of individual students’ development of social skills as do activities that build a sense of school community.

What teachers can do:

  • Teach problem-solving skills training, coping skills and stress management
  • Show students how to replace aggression with empathy
  • Offer skill develoment training by highly qualified professionals, which is more likely to create change through step-by-step approaches that involve students in skill development over extended periods of time
  • Create opportunities for role-playing and cooperative learning exercises

Support for Adolescent Transitions

Adolescents face many challenges as they transition through the personal and academic changes that middle and high school bring. They are required to consider multiple dimensions of problem solving and develop more sophisticated ways of processing information. Creating an environment that nurtures non-cognitive factors is critical in bringing about successful student academic performance.

Students are more likely to engage and persist in tasks across all content areas when teachers present tasks in ways that make success attainable, provide useful and frequent feedback on their work and give students support and tools to be successful. To take on new academic demands successfully, students need to feel that their classroom is a positive and safe environment that provides support for academic success.

“Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review,” by Camille A. Farrington et al. (2012) The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)