The myth that school is meant to nurture only our cognitive selves has long been disproven. With our understanding that school is a place to prepare our children for life, and life success depends on triumphs that extend way beyond the academic, a shared embrace of the non-cognitive alongside the cognitive has become an acceptable norm in formal educational systems. Things like attitudes, dispositions and mindsets are focal points of conversations in many teachers’ rooms, educational conferences and faculty meetings. Research from the likes of Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, and Dan Pink have brought traits like grit, curiosity, mindfulness, positivity, and confidence to the forefront of our educational endeavors. And specifically in Jewish schools, where we are united in our aim to prepare bnei and bnos Torah who are “mentchen” and instilled with proper middos and ruchniyus values, it is encouraging to know that so many of our Jewish educational systems are mindfully creating climates that foster and develop children’s whole selves.
Yet while instruction may focus on the multifaceted dimensions of self, we still seem to be in the Dark Ages when it comes to assessments. Assessments in most schools and classrooms are centered purely on cognitive demands and inquire only about academic outputs. This seems to be axiomatic – we value both but measure only one? Assessments serve as an opportunity to gauge individual and collective accomplishments, to measure growth, to identify follow-up goals and to offer options for improvement; these are all perfect conditions and descriptors for what we might want to know about our students’ attitudes, middos, and mindsets. Why not assess those? In this paper I seek to address the need for non-cognitive assessments. I’d like to highlight the value of assessing the non-cognitive, offer suggestions for these types of assessments and dispel what I believe are misunderstandings related to non-cognitive dimensions.
Assessments are more than numbers that communicate levels of understanding. Assessments, and the questions we choose to ask on them, communicate our values vis a vis distinct topics or goals. The questions we ask are a way of conveying to the students that I believe this is important for you to know. Consider those classes in the schools of our own childhood that had no assessments associated with them. We saw those subjects as a fun and secondary part of our education, and we probably didn’t prioritize the learning or feel the content therein was much valued by the school. Similarly, if I teach a unit in Jewish History, and my students know that my test will consist entirely of dates and what happened on those dates, their learning and attention during instruction will center primarily on dates, and not, for example, the significance of historical events to life today, even if I include that significance in my lesson planning! The test conveys to students what is important to the teacher and their learning will mirror that. If we would make it a habit to measure students’ feelings towards a topic, their confidence in learning, or their views towards a particular hashkafa, we’d be communicating to them that these are areas we care about. Students’ inclination to be attuned and mindful of these aspects of life will naturally be enhanced.
In addition, as educators, recognizing that we’re going to measure these important dimensions will impact how and what we teach. If we know of an essay topic or question that’s forthcoming on a test, we pay special attention to how we teach that particular content in class and how we ensure students’ understanding of it. We emphasize, repeat and review – perhaps even subconsciously – that which we know we’ll hold our students accountable for, both because we want our students to perform well and because we want their performance to make us look good. If we have plans to distribute pre-designed instruments that measure things like students’ love towards learning, perceived spiritual growth, and goal orientation, our efforts at imbuing the above will be much more focused and deliberate, and arguably much more effective.
Note that there are multiple ways of assessing non-cognitive domains. There is literature on assessment through observation – both formal and informal – and there are book chapters and articles that offer pointers on how to evaluate attitudes and mindsets in both natural and controlled settings. There are protocols and checklists. There are also discussion starters and ways of convening small groups to glean insights into students’ feelings, with guidance on how to make decisions thereof. I invite the readers to consider these as serious options, and share some resources for accessing this literature, but here would like also to highlight the value of the written assessment – most often in the form of a questionnaire or survey – as a useful indicator of goals met. A written inventory, when constructed wisely and with precision, can offer a treasure trove of data and be an effective starting point for discovery and evaluation.
The design of any non-cognitive survey begins with the question that informs all of our life decisions, and certainly all classroom assessments: What are my goals? What are the core beliefs, feelings, attitudes, or mindsets that I am aiming to develop within my students this unit, this year, or in this subject? And then, what statements can I develop that might reflect students’ attainment of that goal? Statements on non-cognitive goals inquire about how students feel and think; they delve into their wants, interests and perceptions, and not their content knowledge. Likert-style questions, where students are asked to respond on a given continuum (such as on a scale of 1-5, from not at all to entirely, absolutely disagree to absolutely agree, etc.) are generally the most effective and oft-recommended means of transferring non-cognitive goals to written statements, but open-ended questions (ex. “If someone were to stop you on the street and ask…”) and multiple-choice questions (ex. “Suggest the best answer that reflects how you feel about…”) are also viable question formats.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to detail all recommendations for survey design, I will share a few considerations. The first is that young children are capable of sharing their feelings as well, though in an age-appropriate way. The means for asking and sharing responses will differ. One suggestion is for students to circle faces that range from happy to sad in response to how they feel, rather than indicate through a number or words. On any non-cognitive inventory, each non-cognitive goal should be measured with a few statements, and not just one statement, to ensure reliability and accuracy in student responses.
The development of mindsets and attitudes takes time so we wouldn’t want to assess the students too often. One to three times a year is likely sufficient, with variations in how and when these assessments are distributed. For example, a middle school Chumash teacher I know distributed a confidence inventory to her students at the start of the school year to gauge their perceived comfort and enjoyment in reading and translating Chumash text. She distributed the same inventory at the end of the school year and shared both outcomes as an opportunity for students and teacher to examine their growth and feel gratified by their extraordinary successes. The results of the beginning-of-year-assessment also helped inform the targeted goals. This teacher, for example, found that many of her students reported feelings of inadequacy and discomfort when reading pesukim out loud, in front of their peers. She was therefore mindful of planning instructional activities that would reduce these anxieties in the classroom.
Non-cognitive assessments can be a school-wide endeavor or an individual teacher’s initiative. At the school level, the opportunity to open conversations across grade levels about “big picture” goals – to look at and track change over the course of a few years, to target the multi-dimensional aspects of a child, and to feel complacent in knowing that maximum efforts were put into graduating students who are well-rounded and well-grounded – sounds very exciting to me and I hope to others as well.
It’s also admittedly scary. What if we fall short of our goals? What if students’ reports are negative despite all our best efforts? There are two extremely critical considerations in light of this concern. First, that non-cognitive growth and outcomes are often largely out of our control. There are so many aspects of our inner beings that are shaped by our innate personalities, and by our peers, families and outside influences.
The second understanding feeds into the first and lies at the heart of what assessments are and are not. Assessments are not instruments for blame, where outcomes necessarily indicate a party’s “fault” (the teachers? parents? technology?). Assessments are also not mere evaluative tools where we assign a final score and then move on (sadly, that’s how assessments are used in too many classrooms). Rather, assessments are valuable decision-making tools that allow us to make those decisions in the most precise way possible. If large numbers of students reported poorly on their interest in continuing their learning of a subject, for example, the first question educators should ask is, Now what? How should we interpret this finding? What might this say about our students and/or our instruction and/or society? How can we use these results to inform our future practice? The same is true of the converse. If the mean finding on an assessment points to the high value students place on effort and hard work, schools would be asking the same questions: Now what? What should we do with these findings and how can they inform how we move forward in our educational practices? Even with the understanding that non-cognitive outcomes are not entirely in our control, educators are still evaluating what they could and should do and where to go from there.
When I discuss non-cognitive assessments with my own graduate students, or when I work with teachers on identifying goals and measures that target the affective domain, I’m met with genuine inquiry. Here, I share with you two questions that often surface in conversations with educators and that you may have already been thinking of as you’ve been reading this:
How can I grade students on their feelings or attitudes? I have no control over those?
This is my favorite question as it comes with a pivotal misunderstanding. Assessments don’t equal grading. Grading is the least important outcome of any assessment, be it cognitive or non-cognitive. The gains of any assessment are to be had by interpreting findings and using the data to make changes for the individual, for groups of students, or for the collective whole, and by evaluating and changing our own instructional practices. While we assign numbers to questions and categories on non-cognitive inventories – to determine means and make comparisons – we are certainly not giving grades to students. On most non-cognitive assessments, in fact, it is recommended that students don’t include their names at all. While anonymity won’t give us access to individual students’ feelings or attitudes, it will provide us with data on the class as a whole and with sufficient information to guide and inform instruction.
Won’t students report dishonestly on this kind of assessment?
That’s true, but many students are indeed honest. Non-cognitive assessments give us a “snapshot” of where our students are holding and can’t provide exact measurements of feelings, but they are exponentially better than the no-data-at-all alternative. Educational experts suggest discarding the few “outliers” in non-cognitive written assessments, so that the one or two students who responded in the very worst way and the very best way (either intentionally or unintentionally) are not included in mean calculations. There are also a number of recommended practices for encouraging honest responses on non-cognitive inventories, some as detailed as ensuring anonymous collection and enough physical space in the classroom, and others as grandiose as building a school-wide culture of respect.
Our schools wonderfully and mindfully incorporate educational opportunities and initiatives that transcend the academic. We agree that healthy, growth-oriented attitudes, values, dispositions and mindsets are what encourage our pursuit of knowledge later in life and what shape us into the adults we become. What are the outcomes of our efforts? What are our students actually feeling and thinking?
Utilizing formal tools and practices to analyze and track students’ non-cognitive growth will help us validate our good work, scrutinize our practices, crystallize our values, and grow as educators.
Dr. Laya Salomon is Associate Professor at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University and Director of Azrieli’s PELE Fellowship Master’s Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Main, R. G (1992). Integrating the Affective Domain into the Instructional Design Process. http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a249287.pdf
McMillan, J.H. (2017). Classroom assessment: Principles and practice for effective instruction. (7th ed). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Miller, M. (2005). Teaching and Learning in Affective Domain. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. https://learn-u.com/lesson/2g-teaching-and-learning-in-affective-domain/
Popham, J (May 2009). Assessing student affect. Educational Leadership. ASCD