Kristin Taylor
April 19, 2017

Are We Asking the Right Question? Demystifying Non-Cognitive Development and its Role in Student Engagement

In higher education, we regularly ask questions to help inform what is needed to drive student success  The scope of these questions are often limited to the domain of what, how and why.

  • The question “what” engages the student in the exchange of knowledge. It’s either attempting to share knowledge (as in getting information in front of students) or gather information from them. It’s everywhere – it’s what we assess, measure and validate most as we form initial and ongoing relationships with our students.
  • Academic achievement is dependent on learning “How” to be a student; students need to acquire the requisite skill to negotiate the educational terrain. Faculty, staff and other resources are at the ready to teach students “how” to be students. We teach them how to use Blackboard, how to use APA formatting and how to fill out an FAFSA, just to name a few.
  • Why are you here? We have even become increasingly savvy in appreciating that success is contingent upon a student’s connection to their own personal “why”. When students connect in a meaningful way to their personal source of motivation, they tend to be more resilient in the face of ongoing obstacles. Including more conversations that engage students in their own why represents important progress.

The less obvious and less frequently asked question, however, is: Who? The question demands a moment of pause and self-reflection on the part of the student and is aimed at exploring who students know themselves to be as they undertake this new role as a student. Many students are motivated to improve their lives and see earning a certificate or degree as the necessary route forward. However, if students are unable to envision themselves as the agents of change in this unfamiliar undertaking, even the most compelling dream will not be enough to overcome a fragile sense of identity as a student.

Who we know ourselves to be is the bedrock of our beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes and consequently, drives all of our decisions. Our beliefs and attitudes are what inform our willingness to engage and shape our ability to practice resilience, self-advocacy, and self-efficacy, all of which represent the non-cognitive skills necessary along the educational journey. In other words, if you do not believe in yourself as a student, or are not on track to do so, it is a logical conclusion that you are less likely to be engaged, let alone graduate.

Asking a question that engenders self-reflection inspires non-cognitive development in a student. In fact, for many at-risk students, cognitive learning is only possible when it is preceded by a non-cognitive investment. Non-cognitive skills are often the greatest indicator for eventual success as a college student.

To bring this point to life, imagine there is a literal bump in the road. You observe three people trip over the bump and subsequently see three vastly different reactions. As a result of these different reactions, you gain an immediate snapshot into the non-cognitive process at play. One person trips, recovers and is immediately embarrassed, blaming herself for her awkward spill. The next person, responds with a series of expletives and promises to sue the parties responsible for such faulty paving. The last person, upon tripping, recovers and dramatically bows to those passing by, reveling in the great story this will later make. There are no real physical injuries, only indelible moments of either shame or anger for two people in particular. It’s safe to presume that the people who lean toward either shame or anger might be less resilient in the face of future challenges.

For students, there are seemingly endless proverbial bumps in the road along the path to success. It is in our grappling with challenges that we have the greatest likelihood of uncovering non-cognitive strengths, especially within a context of purposeful institutional support.

Awareness of one’s own process in relationship to life’s bumps in the road has the opportunity to become a transformative process for a student, and one that institutions can take the lead in supporting.

Including a non-cognitive approach to your institution’s strategy should include a student engagement platform that employs the below two critical levels of functionality – in addition to being a utility app for important student resources, understanding that resources are more likely to be engaged in when students feel understood;

1.) Curated content that allows students to pull content, rather than pushing it on them. A strategy that drives curated content to students in a tailored way that normalizes frustration, overwhelm and self-doubt. One way of accomplishing this is by sharing examples of other students with whom they identify having experiences of success, despite similar obstacles. This approach promotes a deeper sense of belonging and could be applied, for example, to military, first-generation, low-income, minority and non-traditional students. Social isolation is a direct threat to non-cognitive development, and online institutions especially need to proactively respond with a strategy that encourages connection. In this way, the question of who is activated in that students can have the direct experience of: “Who I am is reflected positively in those around me.”

2.) Ability to deliver digitized coaching. It delivers digitized coaching by examining the arc of a semester and understanding when disengagement is most likely to surface. An example of “digitized coaching” might be delivering the following push notification a week prior to midterms, when the rigors and demands of school become a reality, and weight of doubt tends to surface for many; “When you see others struggling, what hard-earned advice would you give them?”  Students are not expected to respond to the question in verbal or written form, but instead to simply hit the pause button in their own lives and reflect. In one well timed and thought provoking coaching question, institutions effectively communicate the following; they normalize struggle, they respectfully assume students have coped successfully in the past, and they provide necessary encouragement for students to step outside of themselves to gain a healthy perspective. Yes, a seemingly simple question, but one that embodies a strength-based, cognitive-behavioral component that demonstrates the power of inquiring into who a student is, by bolstering positive self-reflection in the midst of a burgeoning self-doubt that could threaten persistence.

ClearScholar is excited to be able to lead the student engagement industry by providing a strategy founded on the understanding that success is not possible without supporting non-cognitive development in students.