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For decades, standardized test scores, GPAs, and graduation ranks have been the gold standard in college admissions and hiring. But in recent years, there's been a shift to consider not just these hard numbers but also the more nuanced factors known as noncognitive measures that give a glimpse into who you are as a person and how likely you are to succeed, regardless of your knowledge level. Schools like Boston College and Tufts University and employers like Google want to know more than your test scores: they want to know about your personality and potential for achievement.
What Are Noncognitive Skills?
Noncognitive skills are awkwardly named, but they're not a foreign concept. You're probably already familiar with them, as they're more commonly known as soft skills or social skills. They're grit, drive, and social intelligence — everything that makes us succeed but can't be tested on the SAT. Noncognitive skills demonstrate that you can be persistent, solve problems effectively, work well and communicate with others, and show integrity. They can help you succeed in school, work, and life, even if you weren't the "smartest" kid in your class. Demonstration of these skills can be a great indicator of future success, both in academics and in the workplace, and that's why they're increasingly becoming valued in academia and the workplace.
Why Are Noncognitive Skills So Important?
Your fast facts, including your GPA and SAT scores, are just a part of the story. Sure, earning top marks in high school or college is a good indicator that you're smart and willing to work hard for your achievements, but can you do well when presented with the varying challenges of college or the workplace? Individuals with a strong foundation of noncognitive skills are much more likely to persevere. On the flip side, students who are intimidated by the SAT may excel when it comes to teamwork, problem solving, and communication, and noncognitive assessments seek to reveal these skills, as well as the potential of the students who possess them. These measures are increasingly being used to identify students that have the best potential to stick through to graduation and high achievement.
Researchers believe that noncognitive skills have a major role in determining academic and long-term achievement. James Heckman, a world leader in the study of human capital policy, insists that promoting noncognitive skills is incredibly effective for supporting long-term success, noting, "Numerous instances can be cited of people with high IQs who fail to achieve success in life because they lacked self-discipline and of people with low IQs who succeeded by virtue of persistence, reliability, and self-discipline." Certain students may have a great deal of intelligence, but without the drive to follow through and use it, they can fail despite being gifted. Further, Harvard researchers emphasize the neuroscientific connection between emotional thought and knowledge: in order to apply school knowledge in real life, we need an "emotional rudder" that guides our judgement and action. Having knowledge is simply not enough. We also have to know how to use it.
Ultimately, employers have determined that noncognitive skills are valuable. A 2008 survey from the Education Testing Service indicates that nearly all employers rate skills like oral communications, collaboration, professionalism, problem-solving, and social responsibility as "very important." It's clear that the demand for these skills is there, and in some cases, it's actually higher than the demand for mastery of math and science, subjects that are commonly considered to be among the most important for 21st century education.
Do Test Scores Really Matter?
In a word, yes. Test scores do still count. A full 78% of schools consider test scores to be very important. They offer a simple way to measure achievement and potential. But — and this is what's important — they're not the only factor in decision-making now. Schools and employers care more about character, demonstrated achievement, meeting challenges, and showing consistent growth.
Although test scores are still very important for the most part, some schools are going test-optional. In 2011, DePaul University became the largest private university to make standardized test scores optional, allowing applicants to instead answer short essay questions designed to reveal noncognitive traits. Wake Forest University has also dropped its test score requirement, allowing applicants to participate in personal interviews instead.
For high-achieving students and applicants, noncognitive skills assessments may not make a huge difference, especially in non-competitive situations. But for borderline cases, such as students with a below-average GPA or job applicants who lack sufficient experience, noncognitive measures can help demonstrate their potential for success and put them over the edge. At Northeastern University, noncognitive assessment is used to identify candidates for the Torch Scholars Program, which admits students who show potential but wouldn't otherwise qualify for admission based on their GPA and test scores. President of the College Board David Coleman suggests that noncognitive assessments are most useful for evaluating applicants with high grades and low test scores, or low grades and high test scores, but the same is not true for students who demonstrate high/high or low/low.
In addition to test scores, schools and employers are now looking more closely at transcripts, essays, and interview questions. These allow them to explore a better view of the entire student. They're looking for students who rose to the challenge of AP-level courses, built teamwork skills in extracurricular activities, and consistently improved their grades, among other factors.
What You Can Expect from Noncognitive Assessments
Noncognitive assessments are typically conducted through self-evaluations, short essays, situational judgment tests, or interviews. You may also be measured by outside input including teacher ratings and letters of recommendation. A popular assessment tool is the Educational Testing Service's Person Potential Index, which offers a standardized rating of a graduate school applicant's potential for success in factors including creativity, resilience, communication, organization, teamwork, and integrity. The ACT's ENGAGE is designed to improve retention rates and predict GPAs with 108 questions measuring motivation, skills, social engagement, and self-discipline. Questions found in noncognitive assessments or interviews may include:
- Describe a goal you have set for yourself and how you plan to accomplish it. (DePaul University)
- How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school? (DePaul University)
- Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you took to address it. (Oregon State University's Insight Resume)
- Describe an experience facing or witnessing discrimination and how you responded. (Oregon State University's Insight Resume)
- Yes or no: If I were offered a good job, I would leave college. (University of Utah)
- The human narrative is replete with memorable characters like America’s Paul Revere, ancient Greece’s Perseus or the Fox Spirits of East Asia. Imagine one of humanity’s storied figures is alive and working in the world today. Why does Joan of Arc have a desk job? Would Shiva be a general or a diplomat? Is Chewbacca trapped in a zoo? In short, connect your chosen figure to the contemporary world and imagine the life he/she/it might lead. (Tufts University)
- Explain a database in three sentences to your eight-year-old nephew. (Google, many more questions and answers here)
How to Improve Your Own Skill Set
Compared to noncognitive assessments, acing the SAT is a piece of cake. It's something you can work hard and study for. There's no end to the test prep options available for standardized testing. But when it comes to noncognitive measures, the only way to improve your test score is to improve your character:
- Take on challenges, including difficult courses or leadership positions. Follow opportunities, such as pilot programs or lifelong learning resources.
- Push through difficult situations. Schools greatly admire students who demonstrate resilience and grit, who find ways to rise above less-than-optimal conditions to achieve.
- Join extracurricular activities. Social and team activities can help you develop social intelligence skills that are valuable in today's learning environment and workplace. Teamwork, collaboration, and communication can all be fine-tuned in these activities.
- Set measurable, positive goals and follow through on them. Every achievement, even a small one, is an achievement that demonstrates your ability to stick with it.
- Become a decent person. Show fairness to others, be trustworthy, and understand how to handle social situations.
The Future of Noncognitive Skills
Noncognitive skills are typically those that can't be easily measured. This, of course, presents a problem for admissions officers sorting through potentially tens of thousands of applications. It takes a lot of manpower to go through essays and letters of recommendation, and even further time and effort to design and conduct noncognitive assessments and interviews.
Noncognitive measures aren't just time-consuming, they're a whole new ball game, and with this new field comes a lack of consistency and even occasional failure. Oregon State University's "Insight Resume" has been considered one of the leading resources in college admissions noncognitive measurement, as it effectively identified students with the highest potential for graduation in the incoming class of 2004. But as it failed to reproduce the same spot-on identification in subsequent classes, the system was scaled back to have a smaller influence on admissions decisions.
Schools are still working out how they can best measure noncognitive skills, and though the field is still developing, there's already the potential for coaching. Noncognitive assessments are still, ultimately, tests, and as Educational Testing Service senior research director Patrick Kyllonen notes, where tests go, test prep will follow.
There's still a long way to go when it comes to widespread implementation of noncognitive measures. Although schools and employers are increasingly turning to noncognitive assessments as a supplement to cognitive measures, few organizations employ them as more than a novelty, still largely relying on cognitive assessments for decisions. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, believes that we need to change the incentive structure of school policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top in order to provide teachers, schools, and school systems the incentives they need to teach noncognitive skills that have a long term impact. This is the first step in breaking down barriers that will allow for more organizations to effectively teach and utilize noncognitive skills.
Since its inception in 2005, YouTube has become a global phenomenon. Last year, the site reported an average of 4 billion views per day, nearly four times the prime-time audience for all three major U.S. television networks combined. That's a lot of video watching, and not all of it has been concentrated on classics like "Charlie Bit My Finger" (now with more than half a billion views, the most of any user-submitted video) and funny videos of cats. There's also a significant market out there for videos focusing on education, an audience that YouTube itself has worked to cater to over the past few years. These changes have helped bring the Google-owned video site into the forefront of educational technology, and with the popularity of its educational content rising at a rapid clip, it's unlikely to lose that status anytime soon. To commemorate YouTube's committment to delivering educational content, here's a quick look back at some of the pivotal moment in the site's history that have made it such an educational powerhouse today.
- February 2005: YouTube is launched.
It's hard to believe that it's been almost a decade since the video-sharing site debuted. It was so successful in its first two years that it drew the attention of Google, who purchased the site in November of 2006 for a whopping $1.65 billion.
- November 2005, MIT creates an account on YouTube.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that MIT was one of the first colleges to get on board with YouTube, as the school has been at the leading edge of online education for nearly a decade. While it was a few years before the school really got into posting loads of videos and online content, today some of its oldest offerings highlight the famous MIT OpenCourseWare program and feature superstar professor Walter Lewin.
- November 2006: Salman Khan begins posting tutoring videos to YouTube.
Salman Khan originally created his YouTube feed to tutor his niece in math, but it has grown by leaps and bounds since then, becoming the eponymous academy in 2010. Today, The Khan Academy's videos have nearly 230 million views and are among the best-known and widely used educational content on YouTube.
- June 2007: Vsauce's YouTube channel uploads its first video.
Vsauce is one of the most popular educational channels on YouTube, with more than 280 million views to date. It's popular perhaps because it makes science more accessible to the average person, answering questions like "What's the most dangerous place on Earth?" and "Why do we have two nostrils?" in fun but still educational videos on the channel.
- Fall 2007: The first course college course on YouTube is delivered.
Media studies professor Alexandra Juhasz was the first to teach a course about YouTube. It was called "Learning from YouTube" and helped students to better understand how YouTube could affect education, especially in the classroom.
- October 2007: The first YouTube channels for universities are launched.
In late 2007, YouTube struck deals with several major universities to create dedicated channels from which to distribute their own content. The first university to get on board? UC Berkeley, which launched its channel with more than 300 hours of videotaped course content and events. It was quickly followed by USC.
- November 2007: The Last Lecture garners more than a million hits.
Professor Randy Pausch's inspiring lecture about how to achieve childhood dreams was a nationwide sensation, spawning a book and numerous reports throughout the media. A recording of it also saw incredible popularity on YouTube, scoring well over a million views within the first month. Today, it has 15.5 million hits and counting.
- April 2008, YouTube is awarded a Peabody Award.
In mid-2008, YouTube earned a Peabody Award for being a "a 'Speakers' Corner' that both embodies and promotes democracy." The award, created to recognize outstanding achievement in electronic media, was one of the first signs that YouTube's content was seeing rapid diversification.
- Fall 2008: Stanford professors offer free courses via YouTube. In 2008, some of Stanford's leading professors decided to offer lectures free of charge through YouTube, along with the accompanying class materials. Among those professors were Andrew Ng and Sebastian Thrun, who have since gone on to start their own online education companies, Coursera and Udacity, after experimenting with more applied versions of their early YouTube experiments with online education.
- March 2009: YouTube EDU launches.
Early 2009 marked one of YouTube's most monumental changes in becoming a more education-friendly site. Initially starting as a pet project of YouTube employees who wanted to highlight great educational content from college, universities, and educators, YouTube EDU has grown to include videos on nearly every educational topic imaginable.
- November 2010: Vi Hart begins posting videos of math class doodles.
Doodling may not sound educational, but it is the way Vi Hart does it. Soon after this mathemuscian began posting her videos they went viral and her channel now has nearly 33 million views. In the year since, she has teamed up with Khan Academy to create even more great educational content, much of it popular with middle and high school girls.
- January 2011: Crash Course begins offering lessons on biology and world history.
Great animation and smart humor have made this educational channel one of YouTube's most popular. The channel earned 275,000 views within days of launching, and today boasts more than 22 million. Those early videos remain among the most popular on the site, however, exploring the Agricultural Revolution and World War I to millions of viewers.
- February 2011: YouTube announces twice the number of views of educational content.
Between 2010 and 2011, views of the educational videos on YouTube doubled. Oddly enough, it may be the rest of the world spurring on this trend: 80% of the views came from outside the U.S.
- March 2011: TedEd creates a YouTube channel.
TED lectures have been incredibly popular with educators, but this new channel is geared specifically towards helping spread new ideas about education, technology, and a wide range of academic topics. It's proven to be a popular spin off, garnering almost 15 million views in the past two years. Even better, many of the videos are modifications of TED's most popular lectures that allow them to be more easily used the classroom.
- June 2011: MinutePhysics starts offering physics videos on YouTube. Minute Physics is currently one of YouTube's most widely viewed educational channels. It has only been around for few years but has already managed to draw in nearly 70 million views. Videos on MinutePhysics, created by Henry Reich, explain physics concepts and ideas through simple black and white drawings. The most popular video on the channel, with 3.5 million views, explains what you should do to avoid getting soaked when caught in a rainstorm.
- September 2011: YouTube Teachers channel launched. Teachers who want to better understand how to use YouTube in the classroom now only need to head to YouTube.com/Teachers. The channel offers help with everything from organizing videos, to using them in class, to helping struggling students. Even better, teachers can sign up to be part of the YouTube Teachers Community, a mailing list that allows to them to easily share ideas and best practices.
- October 2011: YouTube gets another popular educational addition: SciShow: Students or teachers hoping to learn about science can head to this great YouTube channel. Featuring videos that range in topic from explaining overpopulation to documenting the Mars rover landing, SciShow has garnered nearly 36 million views in just over a year.
- December 2011: YouTube for Schools launches.
While YouTube may have already been a great educational tool by late 2011, it was often blocked on most K-12 campuses do to other potentially offensive or distracting content on the site. To solve this problem and to make YouTube's educational content more accessible to teachers, developers created a new tool that allowed teachers to bypass the ban most schools had on the site by creating a setting that limits access to only educational materials.
- May 2012: AsapScience creates its own channel.
AsapScience may be relatively new to YouTube but it's quickly becoming a visitor favorite. In less than a year, it's raked in more than 23 million views of its fun and educational content. Among AsapScience's most popular videos are "Amazing Facts to Blow Your Mind," "The Science of Orgasms," and "The Scientific Power of Naps."
- September 2012: YouTube teams with Khan Academy to train and promote new content creators.
Due to the rise in popularity of YouTube's educational channels in recent years, the site decided to work to create even more high quality, unique content for viewers. Ten rising stars were chosen, with each earning additional support and funding for their YouTube channel. Among them are some names we've already mentioned, like AsapScience, as well as those who are still building their online following like KemushiChan.
- October 2012: YouTube reaches a record-breaking 1,000 educational channels.
While you can still find a myriad of silly, funny, or just plain stupid videos on YouTube, evidence of just how far the site has come in supporting content of greater substance happened just last year when the site reached a milestone with its educational content. In early October (appropriately on World Teachers' Day), Google announced that visitors to the site could now choose from more than 1,000 educational channels, teaching everything from algebra to art history.
- October 2012: The first YouTube Education Summit is held.
Educators, tech gurus, and marketers came together this past fall to discuss ways to expand and more fully develop YouTube's EDU portal. It was the first get together of it's kind and featured big names in YouTube content like Sal Khan and big names in education, like Sesame Street Workshop, alike.
As an online student, it's easy to feel isolated and a little left out. After all, while students on campus are socializing in the dorms and going to football games, you're miles away and physically disconnected from what's happening on campus. Many schools recognize the need to offer additional support and outreach to online students, providing special perks and online services. These schools do a particularly good job of making online students feel welcome and taken care of.
Texas Woman's University has lots of fun on-campus events that online students may miss out on seeing in person. But the school takes great care to make sure that online students can still take part in the action, offering live streaming, podcasts, and connections through social media. Plus, online students get access to Epsilon Omega Epsilon, an honor society reserved exclusively for online students.
On campus, students at Liberty University enjoy the benefits of a Flames Pass, which offers access to activities and services on and off-campus. Now, Liberty online students can get one too, with free ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, special student rates and discounts, public transit, and campus recreation.
The University of Minnesota has created a "Digital Campus" that offers access to online student resources. Digital Campus students can find technology tools, free email, a graduation planner, plus student services including academic advising, tutoring, and career planning. Unique resources include an online learning assessment and learning style inventory designed to help online students determine the best method of learning for their individual needs.
Ball State University has an extensive online orientation for new students, including a step-by-step getting-started guide, live webinar, and how-to videos for accessing online courses. Plus, online students get access to The Writing Center, which offers remote support and feedback for writing projects and presentation through tutoring sessions, email, and IM.
At Santa Fe College, online students are encouraged to become a part of the community. Many student organizations maintain an online presence so that members can participate online. The college provides an Evening Services Office for students who need services after the college's standard office hours, too. And online students get access to great resources like online health services and information, equipment loans, free financial literacy learning, and carpool registration.
Florida State University's Office of Distance Learning does a great job of making things clear and easy for online students. On their site, you'll find listings of degree programs and courses, frequently asked questions, and information about accessing resources as an online student. FSU online students can take advantage of the career resource center, IT services, technology training, and a virtual computer lab with remote access to campus computer lab software. Additionally, FSU offers specialized librarians who work exclusively with distance students for reference and research assistance, as well as subject specialists and research guides.
Like Florida State University online students, UNC-Greensboro online health sciences students enjoy special perks at the online library. These students enjoy a dedicated library tutor to help via phone, email, or IM. If they're in need of a book, they can use their student ID to check out books from a library at another school, or, have library books shipped to them at no cost. Students can also search for e-books on health topics to use online.
Drexel University makes sure that its online students get access to services much like on-campus students do. Online students have access to instructors, academic advisers, and other educational services, as well as online electronic resources and specific library services for distance learners. They can schedule on-on-one appointments with tutors in the Drexel Writing Center and take advantage of the services offered by the Stainbright Career Development Center, making it easy to study and succeed as an online student at Drexel.