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The Importance of Non-Cognitive Skills in Children and How They Are Measured

June 6, 2016 (First draft)

Prepared by Melissa Wells
Under the supervision of Professor Sonia Laszlo, Director, McGill Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID)


The importance of education in improving economic and social outcomes is widely known. Policy interventions aim to target factors supporting educational success as these act as essential contributions to social mobility for poorer individuals. The ability of developing countries to acquire the capacity for self-sustaining growth and development as well as individual success in life depends on more than just cognitive, hard skills that are traditionally measured by standardized achievement and intelligence tests. Rather, soft skills such as intrinsic motivation, self-control, aspirations, and self-confidence are valued in education, in the labour market, and in societal relationships (Heckman and Kautz 2012; Heckman et al 2006). Many studies within the educational psychology literature demonstrate that such non-cognitive skills play an important role in schooling performance of children and adolescents (Logan, Medford, & Hughes, 2011; Wolfe & Johnson, 1995; Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). Even more, decisions to invest in education and commit to schooling are jointly driven by cognitive biases (e.g. present bias, framing effects) and non-cognitive behaviours (Leaver, 2015). Differences in soft skills and accompanying psychic costs may account for the decision of many adolescents to not pursue further education, even if they would appear to financially benefit from additional schooling. Additionally, the predictive power of non-cognitive skills may exceed that of cognitive skills for many important outcomes (Borghans, Duckworth, Heckman, & ter Weel, 2008). Nevertheless, despite non-cognitive skills’ significant roles in education and later economic outcomes, economic analysis and education interventions have largely ignored their importance.

The aim of this literature review is to construct a better understanding of how non-cognitive skills influence the decision-making framework underlying choices to invest and advance in education. Non-cognitive skills play a critical role in facilitating human capital investments, especially in educational attainment. In turn, the knowledge of these causal mechanisms can be used to enhance interventions aimed at improving academic outcomes (specifically, literacy and reading) in youth in developing countries, which correspondingly influence wages and health in later life. Specifically, prevalence of low literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa impedes human capital formation, and as a result, interventions targeting non-cognitive skills may prove to be useful. However, there are currently few approaches to foster non-cognitive skills within the school and rural community context. In this way, substantial skill gaps exist around the world, especially in developing countries. Thus, it is evident that literature on the role of non-cognitive skills in education is lacking for two populations: young children and developing countries.

Intrinsic Motivation

Recently, economists studying the behavioural economics of education have reemphasized low intrinsic motivation as a factor resulting in underinvestment in schooling and lower academic achievements (Koch, Nafziger, & Nielsen, 2015; Jabbar, 2011). That being said, psychologists in the 1970s originally stressed the importance of this construct in respect to achieving outcomes and fostering welfare among individuals. Specifically, intrinsic motivation is the inherent drive to learn out of inherent interest, to overcome challenges, to extend one’s capabilities, and to explore novel environments (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This motivation is an essential component influencing cognitive and social development necessary for enhanced performance and overall wellbeing. Thus, providing opportunities for self-determination and access to novel learning challenges may enhance intrinsic motivation and feelings of autonomy. In accordance with Self-Determination Theory, Ryan and Deci suggest that a foundation built on satisfying an individual’s need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness will promote greater intrinsic motivation and mental health (2000). Similarly, environmental and instructional characteristics that meet students’ needs are more likely to further intrinsic motivation (Rjosk, Richter, Hochweber, Lüdtke, & Stanat, 2015). Consequently, this may result in greater educational outcomes as measured by literacy, grade advancement, and academic achievements. A large literature in psychology focuses on both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the context of schooling, as they are associated with learning and achievement outcomes. Educational theories have become increasingly more comprehensive by incorporating cognitive abilities, motivation, and the social context as key determinants of learning.

Given the importance of incentives in economics, there is a large literature that focuses on the design and effects of extrinsic rewards on behaviour within the educational context. Specifically, extrinsic rewards come in the form of monetary incentives or non-monetary incentives such as grades, status, and approval. While extrinsic incentives work well in increasing attendance and enrolment, the results are mixed when quantifying the effect on long-term effort and achievement (Angrist, Bettinger, & Kremer, 2006; Koch, Nafziger, & Nielsen, 2015). Conversely, in a longitudinal assessment of children in elementary school higher levels of intrinsic motivation were increasingly associated to greater achievement, whereas a negative relationship developed between extrinsic motivation and child’s performance by the end of elementary school (Lemos & Verissimo, 2014). These authors utilize an adapted version of Harter’s Scale of Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Orientation in the Classroom in which the children report on a 5-point Likert scale the extent that both intrinsic and extrinsic intentions independently account for their observed academic behaviour (Harter, 1981). In this way, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation exist as two separate constructs. Further, another study suggested that a primarily intrinsic profile of learning (high intrinsic motivation, low extrinsic motivation) was the strongest predictor of academic achievement (Corpus & Wormington, 2014). Primarily intrinsic individuals also displayed an array of other adaptive non-cognitive tendencies (e.g. self-control). Even more, children with a primarily intrinsic profile outperformed their peers who exhibited a primarily extrinsic or high quality profile (high intrinsic motivation, high extrinsic motivation). Taken together, these results support the importance of early fostering of intrinsic motivation.

While intrinsic motivation enables later academic success, extrinsic rewards can undermine or crowd out intrinsic motivations. Specifically, monetary incentives may alter how tasks and educational assessments are perceived by students. The act of offering incentives for improved academic performance may be recognized by the student that the goal is too challenging (may be unattainable), the task is not attractive, or that one is not able to achieve with current levels of intrinsic motivation and accordingly needs the additional bribe; thus, all of these psychological signals act to lower current intrinsic motivation (Gneezy, Meier, & Rey-Biel, 2011). In this case, the resulting negative psychological response may counteract the price effect and eliminate the desired behaviour. A meta-analysis concluded that tangible rewards had a significant negative effect on intrinsic motivation (especially for self-reported interesting tasks), and this effect was present for individuals ranging from preschool to post-secondary level (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). The authors suggest that the mechanism through which this negative long term effect occurs is by diminishing self-regulation, as extrinsic incentives weaken individual’s own ability to motivate and control themselves. Therefore, educational interventions and policies need to exercise caution when designing incentive schemes.

As literacy is the backbone of further educational attainments, the relationship between increased intrinsic motivation and increased reading ability is of importance. As reading requires interest and perseverance, motivation for reading is an essential input to students’ reading achievement and academic success. Initially, the literature proposed that cognitive skills such as verbal abilities and phonological decoding skills were the sole contributors to reading comprehension levels. However, later findings have demonstrated both motivational levels and cognitive abilities predict reading comprehension and academic achievements (Guthrie et al., 2006; Taboada, Tonks, Wigfield, & Guthrie, 2009; Pressley & Harris, 2006). After examining the independent role of both motivation (including perceived control and self-efficacy) and cognitive variables (including background knowledge and inquisitive nature) on current and growth in reading comprehension, findings suggest that each make a significant contribution despite statistical controls (Taboada, Tonks, Wigfield, & Guthrie, 2009). Thus, the authors credit intrinsic motivation as the energizer that engages student’s cognitive processes and contributes to greater levels of success; for those with low literacy skills, this energizer may provide the necessary impetus for growth in reading comprehension. Intuitively, students that embody high levels on intrinsic motivation for reading will be more dedicated to reading, and thus, will lead to a greater understanding of the text. Further, interventions targeting low ability readers that aim to increase reading motivation are important for developing and improving reading comprehension skills (Logan, Medford, & Hughes, 2011). Children aged 9-11 were assessed using the Motivation for Reading Questionnaire (MRQ) and various verbal IQ, phonological decoding, and reading comprehension tests. Verbal aptitudes accounted for majority of the variance in the high-ability reading group, whereas phonological decoding ability and intrinsic reading motivation accounted for more variance in the low ability reading group (Logan, Medford, & Hughes, 2011). Specifically, children with low reading ability are limited by their underdeveloped word recognition skills, heavily relying on phonological decoding of individual words to understand the passage. Therefore, intrinsic motivation is needed to persevere with the difficulties accompanying reading, to overcome frustrations for poor readers, and to invest more effort into reading. Notably, Unrau & Schlackman (2006) suggest that three factors are involved in the decision to invest time and effort into reading: subjective norms, attitudes towards reading, and goal of reading. Students’ intrinsic motivation was assessed using the MRQ. While there was a positive correlation between intrinsic motivation and reading achievement for both Hispanic and Asian adolescents, extrinsic motivation had a negative effect on comprehension. Guthrie et al. (2004) conducted a three-month field experiment with third graders to assess the effects of various instructional frameworks and strategies on reading outcomes. The findings suggest that interventions that integrate strategy teaching and motivation support (e.g. Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction) result in higher levels of reading strategies, self-reported (through the MRQ) and teacher reported reading motivation, and reading comprehension. Thus, the study highlights the importance of fostering reading engagement and motivation through methods that provide interesting, age-appropriate content options and control to students as well as applied collaborative activities. To summarize, there is ample evidence linking intrinsic motivation to reading performance and academic achievement.

With intrinsic motivation being an important aspect involved in promoting growth of reading comprehension and literacy, several studies have revealed specific strategies that may be applied to children in developing countries. In designing early reading interventions and strategies, there must be an emphasis on the role motivation plays in literacy acquisition. These strategies may be especially pertinent in the context of rural education in developing countries. Laszlo (2013) points out that despite international efforts to increase education indicators globally, there exists a disparity between rural and urban education figures. Additionally, there exists cross-cultural differences mediating the effect of intrinsic motivation. For example, the positive correlation between intrinsic motivation and reading achievement was stronger for Asian middle school students than for Hispanic middle school students (Unrau & Schlackman 2006). Even more, there is a declining trend in intrinsic reading motivation as children mature and progress through school (Harter, 1981; Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997; Unrau & Schlackman, 2006). In accordance with self-determination theory, one study analyzes strategies used by teachers and tutors to encourage fifth-grade students’ inherent reading motivation (De Naeghel, Keer, & Vanderlinde, 2014). Strategies shown successful in fostering intrinsic motivation include reading aloud, providing structure through attainable challenges and positive feedback, offering autonomy support, and being involved within the students’ learning process. In this respect, teachers and other role models can easily implement these teaching tactics to encourage autonomous reading motivation. Similarly, Bates et al. (2016) investigate the effects of the Reading Recovery program (an early literacy intervention) on struggling first-graders’ reading motivation and literacy achievement. The authors used a recent measure of intrinsic motivation, Me and My Reading Profile (MMRP), developed for young children in kindergarten through second grade (Marinak, Malloy, Gambrell, & Mazzoni, 2015). The MMRP was designed to be age appropriate and consider the developmental needs of young students in mind; thus, there were only twenty questions (evaluating self-concept, awareness of the value of reading and literacy out loud), the response scale only consisted of three options and each question was paired with an animal symbol. The literacy intervention involves students meeting one-on-one with qualified teachers daily for a period of 3-5 months in order to develop a basis of reading and writing approaches. The authors conclude there is a bidirectional, interdependent relationship between reading motivation and achievement levels (i.e. achievement mediates treatment effect on motivation and likewise, motivation mediates treatment effect on achievement). This conclusion supports Morgan and Fuchs’s (2007) finding that reading proficiency and motivation correlate, and thus, successful interventions should aim to target both aspects. The means by which this correlation takes place is simple: young children who have an innate interest in reading read more often resulting in a greater proficiency, whereas poor readers never foster an interest in reading resulting in less time spent reading and lower proficiency. Over time, the gap between good readers and poor readers will widen.


The ability to exercise self-control in life is often correlated with better outcomes. Specifically, investment decisions related to education are primarily driven by the interaction of such non-cognitive behaviours and cognitive biases (Leaver, 2015). Classic economic theory accepts that individuals maintain a consistent time preference; however, a large body of work in psychology theory and behavioural economics supports the idea that individuals who face intertemporal trade-offs display time inconsistent preferences (particularly, present bias). As investment decisions necessitate individuals to make trade-offs between immediate gratification and future returns, individuals must exert considerable self-control in order to realize future rewards. Even more, the importance of early investment in education is critical because it is time sensitive (young children benefit the most from educational investments as this maximizes their returns, while individuals do not benefit from delaying investments). That being said, Avery & Hoxby (2004) note that around one third of students are underinvesting in their education and display a strong present bias. Further, initial exertions of self-control as a young child affect future ability to practice self-control. For example, studies on delay of gratification show that an increased ability in exercising self-restraint at four years of age (i.e. small reward now vs. large reward a bit later) predicted higher academic and social functioning in late adolescence (Mischel & Mischel, 1983). Adolescents who had waited longer for the reward of the marshmallows as preschoolers were more likely to obtain higher educational and career achievements (e.g. score higher on the SAT) and more likely to be rated as having a greater ability to organize, to cope with stress and frustration, and to respond to reason (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989).

Several studies have highlighted the association between increased self-control and academic success. Wolfe & Johnson (1995) found that self-control is the key personality variable explaining 9% of the variance in collage GPA; even more, self-control (also defined and measured as organization, conscientiousness, control, and self-efficacy on various scales) predicts GPA more robustly than SAT scores. Similarly, Duckworth and Seligman (2005) demonstrated that self-discipline measured by multiple sources (self-report, parent/teacher-report, monetary choice questionnaires) in the fall predicted final grades, school attendance, SAT scores, and selection into an impressive high school program. Even more, in a replication study that included a delay of gratification task and a study habits questionnaire, self-control predicted final GPA regardless of controlling for IQ and initial GPA. Low levels of self control and poor self-regulation contributes to underachievement in school through increased procrastination, decreased ability to sustain effort or persevere after failure, and unable to set and reach optimal goals.

Additionally, economists investigating low income populations in India and Ethiopia demonstrate that poverty exhausts cognitive control and individuals plagued with financial scarcity display more impatient behaviour (Spears, 2011; Hoel, Schwab, & Hoddinott, 2016). Notably, the literature suggests a causal effect of poverty on decision making and behavioural outcomes. For example, Spears (2011) established this causal effect both in a randomized lab experiment and a field experiment: poorer participants undergoing difficult economic decision-making demonstrated less behavioural control as measured by the handgrip and Stroop tasks. Similarly, recent findings suggest that low income students in Ethiopia are vulnerable to a self-control draining effect, which results in present bias towards immediate rewards and satisfaction. Taken together with Spears (2011), these results support the importance of interventions that strengthen self-control through behavioural nudges.


Bandura (1993) observed that learning ability and personal accomplishment requires not only cognitive skills, but also a strong sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem to use skills effectively. A greater sense of perceived self-efficacy increases cognitive information processing and effort, persistence, and memory performance. Even more, students with high efficacy demonstrate increased self-directed learning and set more challenging goals for themselves. Koch, Nafziger, & Nielsen (2015) highlight the role of self-confidence in increasing students’ belief that their effort and ability will lead to rewarding outcomes and success, which consequently boosts their motivation to study. Benabou and Tirole (2002) developed a theoretical model revealing the importance of an optimistic self-image and self-confidence in productive behaviour and educational decision-making. Confidence in abilities and effort allows students to persevere more with difficult tasks and pursue more ambitious goals. With regard to reading ability, Collins, Onwuegbuzie, & Jiao (2011) show that African American postgraduate students who display greater quantities of perceived academic competence and self-worth have the highest proficiency in reading comprehension. Given this bidirectional relationship between self-confidence and reading skill, interventions designed to improve reading comprehension may result in higher levels of self-confidence and may counteract negative effects associated with self-control problems (Koch, Nafziger, & Nielsen, 2015).

Findings have suggested that many non-cognitive skills such as self-esteem and intrinsic motivation are associated. Greater self-confidence delivers the driving force behind motivation to study and the belief that increased effort translates into increased productivity and success. Martins (2010) offers empirical evidence and analyzes the effects of the EPIS program in Portugal, which aims to reduce grade retention and drop-out rates by enhancing the non-cognitive skills (specifically, self-esteem, motivation, and self-control) of 13-to-15-year-old students. The intervention was shown to be successful and cost effective, resulting in a decrease in grade retention by around 10 percentage points. On the other hand, Holmlund & Silva (2014) note that an intervention (xl club program) in English secondary schools focused on fostering the non-cognitive skills of delinquent students and poor achievers resulted in no significant increases in test scores. However, Browne & Evans (2007) suggest that the program did have a positive impact on enhancing self-reported motivation and self-confidence, as it was successful in increasing rates of attendance. Thus, literature on the effectiveness of interventions targeting non-cognitive skills on educational outcomes and cognitive measures is mixed.

Booth & Gerard (2011) analyzed the relationships between self-esteem, academic success, and gender for 11 to 12-year-olds in the US and England. In both contexts, self-esteem measured in the fall were positively correlated with end of the year academic achievement; however, findings were more robust for British students as the relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement slowly declines for American students throughout the year (excluding math). The authors suggest that cultural differences create individual differences observed. Notably, students in the Cleveland sample displayed overly optimistic perceptions of academic skills as well as gender-stereotyped behaviour. Comparably, Trautwein, Ludtke, Koller, & Baumert (2006) analyzed the relationships and reciprocal effects between self-confidence, achievement, and academic self-concept for students from East and West Germany. The authors used an adapted version of the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale, domain specific self-concept questions, and achievement tests and grades to conclude that the influence of self-esteem on academic outcomes is facilitated by domain specific self-concepts. In other words, of importance are feelings of competence and self-appraisal of abilities in specific academic areas such as literacy and mathematics in enhancing global self-esteem and subsequent achievements.

Baron & Cobb-Clark (2010) examine the relationship between youngster’s sense of control over their lives (i.e. locus of control) and subsequent investments in education. Notably, students with an internal locus of control who perceive their efforts as paying off in the long run are more likely to finish secondary school than those who believe that outcomes are a result of external factors. While students with a disadvantaged background display poorer educational outcomes, the findings suggest that there is no significant relationship between a young person’s sense of control and family’s economic circumstances (i.e. having a lower socioeconomic status does not imply an external locus of control). Even more, Ross & Broh (2000) contend that self-concept consists of two constructs that are positively correlated: sense of personal control and self-esteem. However, the authors argue that having a strong sense of self is significantly correlated with high grades and test scores, whereas self-esteem is not. Therefore, findings of the bi-directional nature of self-esteem and academic outcomes are not consistent across studies.

Aspirations and Attitudes

Aspirations provide a guiding force and provide direction, allowing children to strive for greater achievements. Educational aspirations are influenced by various factors, including socioeconomic status, gender, culture and family backgrounds. In fact, aspirations of youth are often higher than expectations, and despite declining expectations with age, aspirations remain high (MacBrayne, 1987). Further, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and neighbourhoods generally have lower aspirations; thus there exists a gap in aspirations between lower SES and upper SES students as well as a gap between aspirations and expectations (Tuttle, 1981; Elliott III, 2008). After a large-scale study in South Africa, Cosser (2015) concludes that socio-economic status is a strong determinant academic achievement and completion of higher education. Notably, lower income students pursue less rigorous diploma programs and have higher drop-out rates. Conversely, other authors believe that youth aspire too high given the context of poverty and availability of jobs (Wellings, 1982). Using data from the Young Lives Cohort Study in Ethiopia Tafere (2015) suggests that students maintain high educational aspirations (e.g. “If you could study as long as you would like, what level of formal education would you like to complete?”); however, there is a clear disparity between young children living in urban and rural areas seeking a university degree. Even more, the findings from the study suggest that achievements and educational attainments have an effect on aspirations, either by lowering aspirations for underachievers or motivating aspirations for successful students.

Aspirations are often combined with goal setting behaviour. Lent & Souverijn (2015) conducted a randomized field experiment to examine the effects of goal setting on academic functioning. Notably, setting a specific goal acts as a commitment device and a reference point for future achievement. The authors suggest that the key to increased student performance is setting a challenging, yet attainable goal as those in the goal treatment perform significantly better than those in the control or raise goal treatment groups. Thus, pushing students to raise goals higher may in fact be demotivating and result in reduced performance outcomes. Likewise, Morisano, Hirch, Peterson, Pihl, & Shore (2010) examine the effects of a goal-setting intervention on university students struggling academically. Findings suggest that the program may be a quick and cost-effective way to improve academic performance.

Goodman & Gregg (2010) suggest that policy interventions should target child’s own aspirations for education as well as the family’s aspirations in order to reduce the growing educational achievement gaps between children growing up in poorer families compared to those from wealthier families. Cummings and colleagues (2012) synthesize the results of several interventions (mentoring, volunteering and peer education, extra-curricular, parent participation, and changing attitudes) on educational attainment. Overall, while findings were varied, some programs proved to have an impact on both attitudes and educational attainment; however, indication of directionality was missing. Specifically, the interventions showing potential targeted mentoring, extra-curricular activities, and parent participation.

Henry, Mashburn, & Konold (2007) examines the relationship between first grade student’s self-reported attitudes towards school, teachers’ appraisals of student’s attitudes, and achievement levels. The authors developed a new measure called the Children’s Attitudes Toward School (CATS), which is sensitive to the needs of young children. Specifically, the response scale includes four positively skewed response categories accompanied by corresponding facial expressions because the literature suggests that children may struggle to differentiate between too many categories. The authors conclude that children’s attitudes toward school were not associated with their academic outcomes.

As this literature review has outlined, there has been an increasing focus on assessment of children’s educational outcomes, aspirations, and cognitive/non-cognitive skills for human capital production; however, Matafwali & Serpell (2014) note that there are cross-cultural concerns for existing measures. Thus, the level of functioning and skill attainment may be biased for children from developing countries as instruments are often validated among Western societies. Literature has demonstrated that existing Western tests to non-Western contexts influences the outcomes measured and acts as a source of disadvantage (Greenfield, 1997; Rosselli & Ardila, 2003). Further, Matafwali & Serpell (2014) discuss the validity and cultural relativity of two child measurement instruments: Zambia Child Assessment Tool (ZamCAT) and Panga Munthu Test. Recent studies conclude that there is evidence of improved literacy when new educational technology is introduced in developing countries. For example, the use of GraphoGame by grade one students in Zambia produced significant improvements in literacy performance of students exposed to it directly or indirectly (i.e. teacher alone played the game) compared to the control group (Ojanen et al., 2015). However, children from rural and lower income families have less access to ICT (both in and out of school), creating a digital divide and exacerbating educational divides. Specifically, some express concerns over the disparities in access of ICT-based learning opportunities; thus, mobile and tablet learning has the potential to improve educational quality in a broad sense by providing rural children with the opportunity to improve literacy and foster knowledge creation (Rubagiza, Were, & Sutherland, 2011). Even more, the emphasis should be on meaningful use of ICTs, rather than following a strict curriculum of ICT skills training as children benefit from a sense of autonomy in learning and ownership of technology skills. Therefore, while more literature is needed to assess the impacts of interventions targeting children’s non-cognitive skills on educational outcomes, it appears to be a promising avenue to pursue.