Noncognitive or Performance Character Skills in Adult and Transitional Education


How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough is about an important set of skills that Tough, and a slew of researchers whose work he describes, believe that students need in addition to academic or cognitive skills. In no particular order, here’s a list of some of the main ones described in Tough’s book:

  • optimism — believing that you can achieve (able to simultaneously concentrate on your goal while simultaneously concentrating on how to overcome the obstacles in the way)
  • curiosity
  • zest – engaged and fully participating in learning
  • gratitude — the habit of verbally appreciating it when someone helps you
  • social intelligence — the “ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations)
  • self control
  • perseverance
  • diligence
  • grit — the ability to pursue a goal, stick to it, overcome obstacles in the path of meeting that goal
  • volition — not just motivation (i.e. “I really want to finish a college degree.”) but also the will to make it happen, to break the goal down into steps, and one by one and over time to overcome the obstacles to accomplish those steps. (Maybe this is the same as grit with optimism and perseverance.)

Tough describes “volition” based on the impressive research on performance character (not moral character but things like self-control and willpower) of Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. Duckworth’s premise is that “[performance] character is at least as important as intellect” to help chronically low-performing but intelligent students. She is interested in issues like metacognitive strategies to teach people to maximize self-control. Duckworth separates out “motivation” (wanting something — even wanting it a lot, or more than anything) from “volition” (willpower, self control, and grit strategies). She says both motivation and volition are needed.

Duckworth has worked with schools, including KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools that serve very low-income children, to help them develop tools to evaluate performance character strengths like self-control, grit, social intelligence, zest, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. She has helped them use these assessments in the schools with students, their parents, and teachers who review them together, like a performance character report card.  She has also helped teachers who want to teach these performance character strengths. Tough writes, “But Angela Duckworth believes that thinking and talking about character isn’t enough, especially for adolescents. It’s one thing to know abstractly that you need to improve your grit or your zest or your self-control. It’s another thing to actually have the tools to do so. This is the flip side of the distinction Duckworth draws between motivation and volition, or willpower.” Tough continues, “Duckworth is now trying to help young people develop those volitional tools…”(Tough, page 92.)

I wonder if this kind of research also applies to adult learners. I think, for example, of workshops offered by the Canyon Ranch Institute and other health literacy organizations to help motivated low-income adults to learn and practice strategies to change their health-related (nutrition and exercise for example) behaviors. I think of many adult learners whom I know, some of whom I have taught, who have had to learn volitional skills to match their high degree of motivation to pass the GED test, make their dream a reality.

Here’s another set of noncognitive skills (Tough, p 161) that are needed to prepare for college. They come from Chicago researcher Melissa Roderick who works with the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research. She thinks thee following five “academic noncognitive skills” are critical:

  • Study skills
  • Work habits
  • Time management
  • Help-seeking behavior, and
  • Social/academic problem-solving skills

At least three of these: study skills, work habits and time-management, are common adult education transition program, work-readiness, or workplace “soft skills” that may be addressed in the adult literacy education field. Perhaps many adult education teachers also address social/academic problem-solving skills, depending on how that’s defined. I am intrigued, however, by “help-seeking behavior.” Do we need to pay more attention to that?

I have a colleague (let’s call him James) who was a top-performing GED student but who went on to college to find that he had neither the academic skills, nor knowledge of how a post-secondary environment functions, that he needed to succeed. He was highly motivated, and on his own he developed some successful volition skills/strategies that eventually enabled him to earn a B.A. with high honors. One key strategy he developed was how to use office hours.

Knowing How to Use Office Hours

Research at Portland State University several years ago had interesting findings on the perceptions of first-year, first-generation (i.e. first one in their family to attend college) students about how the university worked. From a survey researchers learned that nearly all the first generation students had heard of office hours and correctly understood them to mean when the instructor or professor was available to meet with students in her/his office. The researchers also learned, however, that almost no one had actually used office hours. To find out why not, they met with a sample of the respondents. There were many reasons given for not using office hours, but the main one….. before you read further, guess what it might be, then scroll down to the last paragraph to read what it was.

Back to James: he had developed a strategy. He immediately went to each of his instructors during their office hours. He told them that he was concerned that he didn’t understand the material, what was expected of him, or how to meet the expectations. He said he knew that he was failing and that he desperately wanted to succeed. He said he was prepared to work hard, but didn’t know how to do this effectively in a college environment.

It turned out that this was a brilliant strategy. Every instructor understood that he was an underprepared student who cared about success, and that he was motivated but needed help. Instead of suspecting that he was a slacker, they now understood that with some extra effort on their part and his, he believed he would be a serious student who could really benefit from what they had to teach.

And now, what the first generation college students thought about office hours……

The students didn’t go to instructors’ office hours, they said, because they didn’t think they were in trouble. This meant they didn’t think they had done anything wrong, as in high school when someone was “sent to the office” or when someone was in “academic trouble.” Their frame of experience, not surprisingly for first generation college students, was how their high school had worked. They had not explicitly been taught how a university works, and they didn’t understand how office hours might help them.

Teaching noncognitive help seeking skills like how to use office hours, or how to get other help from a teacher, would be useful for all adult learners, whether in adult basic, secondary, transitional or higher education.

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