Non Cognitive Skills

non cognitive skillsThere may be no greater misnomer in the worlds of education or psychology than “non-cognitive skills.” First, no term is generally useful if it defines what it represents by what it does not represent. Imagine if bicycles were renamed “non-internal combustion motorcycles,” or some such. It is, unquestionably better to define something by what it is than what it isn’t.

And of course, the problem here is the fact that “cognitive” means “of or relating to cognition,” which for laymen means that it is related to the process most of us call “thinking.” Cognition, narrowly defined, is the process by which our brains transform, reduce, elaborate, store, recover, and use information.

Yes, in other words, it means “thinking.”

Now the problem with “non-cognitive skills” is that by given their name, they seem to have no connection with mental processes. They must be physical things, you would think, given that name.

But you’d be wrong.

Non-cognitive skills consist of any number of academic behaviors, mindsets, and attitudes, learning strategies, and social skills that can have a profound effect on the way human beings learn and their success. Today, we’ll explore them and maybe help to refute the negative and false impression that comes with the name “non-cognitive skills.”

What are Non-Cognitive Skills?

For the most part, when we say “non-cognitive skills” we mean things like study skills, attendance, work habits, time management skills, organizational skills, strategies and behaviors for seeking help, metacognitive strategies, problem solving skills, and critical thinking skills.

There are several great courses on some of these topics, designed to sharpen your skills. One, called “Critical Thinking and Problem Solving” is essential for anyone planning on going to school of any kind beyond the 9th grade, and particularly for those planning to attend college.

Now do those things seem “non-cognitive” to you? The brain is involved in all of these things, by our reckoning. In fact, the word “metacognitive” itself is an indicator of what’s happening here. “Metacognition,” as such, refers to the process of thinking about thinking, in which an individual learns and understands how he or she thinks. If you know how you think and how you learn, you are better equipped. Really, all of the things under the “non-cognitive skills” umbrella might be better off under the umbrella of metacognition. Perhaps, then, “metacognitive skills” might be a better name? You decide once you’ve read through what we have to say.

Either way, “metacognitive skills” is a better name than the other alternative suggested by educators and psychologists, “soft skills.” It’s insulting and odd, and we need to eliminate it from the lexicon.


Wait—attendance isn’t a skill, is it? You go to school when you’re well and you don’t when you’re sick, isn’t that right? Well, if you’ve ever been a teacher you know that most of the time, when a student isn’t in school it has nothing to do with illness. Being present in the classroom is generally a choice that a student makes. Even in school, students can actively cut classes, or passively miss classes by going to the nurse’s office.

Okay, it’s clear that attendance isn’t as simple a factor as one might think, but really? A skill?

Well, consider this: if a student is in class, he or she learns more, performs better in the class and on exams, and is better prepared for whatever comes after. If a student is not in class, none of that happens, or at least the process is negatively potentiated. Coming to class, on time and prepared, every day? That’s a skill in my book, since it’s a choice the student makes that has to do with improving his or her education. ‘Nuff said.

Study Skills

Students need to understand how they learn and what helps and hinders that process so that they can take steps to correct for problems and maximize their own effectiveness. In other words, they need to learn how to learn and develop their study skills. It generally begins with organization. If a student cannot find what he or she needs because of a messy binder, things won’t go well. Students need to figure out what they need to get the job done, and make sure they have those things when then need them. Writing instruments, an organized binder and notebooks with plenty of paper, and a planner on which to plot tonight’s homework assignments and long-term projects—all these are essentials for organization. Cultivating the habits to use these things correctly is driven by metacognition.

The term “study skills” also includes note taking. Every student should have a method for note taking. Students need to know “what matters” in a lecture, presentation, or when reading so that they can take notes in the first place, and then must have a simple, intuitive system for recording it that is easy to access later. The Cornell Notes system almost always works for many, as it can easily be adapted for any purpose, but any method that is effective for the student should be retained. Having a note taking method and using it consistently may even be more important than which one is used.

And of course, “study skills” incorporates the practice of study itself, in which students read material on their own and absorb the information contained in textbooks and other materials. Taking notes while reading, in an organized way, is essential, as are having the right amount of light, a comfortable place that is relaxing but stimulating, and controlling any other environmental factors that influence how well and smoothly the brain can do its job. There’s a great blog post by Tania Ochoa on “Effective Study Habits” that goes into more detail on this  topic.

Time Management

Time management, too, is a key skill for any student. In terms of the big picture, students need to develop the discipline to use a planner and the skills to prioritize tasks so that deadlines are met and the work is done as well as it can be. No one who goes away to college without good time management skills comes home with a diploma, unless a miracle happens.

For the average student at any level, effective time management is the key to keeping it all together, and may be the greatest hurdle for those with ADHD or who are on the autism spectrum. It is, however, something that can be taught and learned, rather than an innate ability that one does or does not possess.  Effective time management is an ongoing process, but once learned shows immediate results in overall attitude towards the educational process and in lowering student stress levels. A great online course that covers this is called “Time Management” and teaches tips, tricks, skills, hacks, and secrets for effectively managing time. Another great online course gets right to the heart of time management, and it’s called “Bending Time.” Check them both out if this area is one in which you need improvement.

Work Habits

A student’s work habits are also of great importance. These include the frequency and methods of student reading and writing, how students interact with teachers, and especially how students collaborate with others. In other words, student work habits are the attitudes and practices that govern the doing of the work, rather than the work itself. Confused? Don’t be. Think of it this way: if you study a little bit every night for the big test coming up, will you do better than your friend who is up until 5 a.m. the night before the test, cramming? It’s a no-brainer, really, but these are definite skills that relate directly to time management in some ways and to study skills in others.

And of course, collaboration and interaction with teachers can lead directly to how someone functions in the workplace, with coworkers and supervisors, after graduation.

Critical Thinking

If there is anything more essential for success in school than critical thinking, we challenge you to name it. And yet, it is not often taught. Even in these days when critical thinking is ostensibly embedded into the Common Core, most students are lacking in this area. Critical thinking empowers students to think for themselves, to solve problems and create solutions. Critical thinking is the key to avoiding mistakes and prediction potential pitfalls. In other words, critical thinking is the very last thing that should fall under the umbrella of “non-cognitive skills,” and yet here we are.

Critical thinking is perhaps the most metacognitive of all of what we’re hoping everyone will start calling the “metacognitive skills.” Effective critical thinkers don’t waste time, because they think before they do, and use logic and real-world experience to make predictions and evaluate possible outcomes. Critical thinkers aren’t taken in by rhetoric and always remain conscious of what they are doing and how they are doing it. In other words, they think, always, about how and what they are thinking. And if that isn’t “metacognition,” we’re not sure what is. There is a great online course on “Critical Thinking” that might be just the ticket if you want to sharpen your skills a bit.

Summing Up

Hopefully, you now understand that the skills we’ve covered today are more than “non-cognitive,” and in fact that they are so relevant to cognition that they deserve the name “metacognitive skills,” and that they are under no circumstances “soft.” At the very least, you should have a better idea of how essential these skills are for student success, and just maybe, you’re thinking a bit more about how you learn, along with what you learn.