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At SREE, Researcher Calls for Better Measures of Student Competencies


Modern careers require more multifaceted competency, but education researchers still have few ways to identify, measure, and improve noncognitive and even some cognitive skills, according to James Pellegrino, co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago, in a conference keynote speech given Saturday in Washington.

In his address to the Society for Research in Education Effectiveness, Pellegrino argued researchers must develop better ways to measure the interactions among different types of student competencies, including:

  • Cognitive, including not just academic knowledge but also creativity;
  • Intrapersonal, including intellectual openness, work ethic, and positive self-value; and
  • Interpersonal, including teamwork, collaboration, and leadership

Noncognitive skills are frequently cited by employers as necessary, but "when you look for evidence of importance, it's very hard to find, for a number of reasons," Pellegrino said. Studies often use overlapping and broad terms for similar skills, which can make it difficult to parse out exactly what is being measured.

Pellegrino pointed to the popular notion of "grit" as an example; it has been variously defined as tenacity, persistence, engagement, autonomy, motivation, self-discipline, and conscientiousness—all aspects which might be measured slightly differently.

Developing a consensus around the definition of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills could make it easier to identify interventions that improve those skills in different studies. Moreover, better measuring tools are needed; most studies of noncognitive skills rely on self-reporting or observation surveys from parents or teachers, all of which can be subject to bias.

Pellegrino praised emerging research that analyzes students' online activities: "Students are doing work online; we can measure all kinds of behaviors related to students taking on challenging tasks in mathematics," he said. "If we really believe our theories and principles, translating them into design is very important," he said.

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