What are hard and soft skills?

Adapted from this academic paper, the literature distinguishes between two types of learned skills – cognitive (or hard skills) and non-cognitive (called socioemotional skills or soft skills).

Students Need Both Sets of Skills

The below is adapted from this academic paper.

Both types of skills are influenced by young people’s experience in and outside of school, and, as discussed in subsequent sections, both contribute to life success.

Conceptually, they are distinct skills sets, and individuals that are strong in one set (or subset) of skills may not necessarily be strong in the other.

For example, individuals may have strong “people” skills without having particularly strong academic skills, or they may be academically gifted but have weak “life” skills. However, in practice the two types of skills can, and often do, interact with and complement each other.

The impact of various soft skills on success at school and in life.

The Below is a set of Resources and Links to multiple studies.

A large Chicago study of 150,000 students shows soft skills lead to higher grades, fewer absences, fewer disciplinary problems, higher graduation, and higher college attendance.

Education researchers are trying to come up with different ways to measure success. One of them, economist Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University, has zeroed in on soft skills, which include traits like empathy and perseverance, and found that if you were to set up a competition between schools that raise test scores and schools that foster soft skills, the soft skills schools would win.

In a large study of more than 150,000 students in all 133 of Chicago’s public high schools, Jackson has calculated that schools that build social-emotional qualities such as the ability to resolve conflicts and the motivation to work hard are getting even better short-term and long-term results for students than schools that only boost test scores. The schools that develop soft skills produced students with higher grades, fewer absences and fewer disciplinary problems and arrests in high school. Later, the students who attended these high schools graduated and went to college in higher rates.

Study: Boosting soft skills is better than raising test scores

It may even be better to focus on soft skills over hard skills

“You could actually do a lot more good by focusing on schools that promote social-emotional development as opposed to focusing on schools that raise test scores.”

Kirabo Jackson

And they found that the students’ self-reported answers had a significant correlation with school grades and attendance in ninth grade. The students who went to the high schools that were good at developing soft skills also had fewer disciplinary incidents.

For the older students in the study, the ones who entered ninth grade between 2011 and 2014, researchers saw that students who attended these soft-skills high schools had fewer arrests throughout their high school years and graduated from high school in greater numbers. After high school, these students attended college, both two-year and four-year institutions, in higher numbers and persisted in college in higher rates. It’s too early to see college graduation rates for these students.

To check their findings, the researchers compared siblings who attended different high schools, and the ones who attended schools that were better at boosting soft skills had better outcomes.

Soft Skills are highly correlated with future educational attainment as well as success in broader life

Studies by researchers in the United States have found that non-cognitive skills like responsibility, perseverance (or grit), the ability to get along with others, self-control, and motivation are highly correlated with future educational levels (attainment) as well as success in broader life – including higher income and employment, better health outcomes, and avoidance of criminal behaviors.2 Recent studies by the World Bank (Valerio, et al., 2014; World Bank, 2014) and the OECD (Miyamoto, et al., 2015) find similar positive associations between soft skills and life outcomes outside the United States as well.

Adapted from this Academic Paper

Soft skills drive outcomes we care about

It also indicates that increases in students’ soft skills matter for the educational outcomes that we care about like better grades and college attendance.

“If you ask me which makes a bigger impact on persistence, I’d say the noncognitive skills—unequivocally,” said Jeff Nelson, a co-founder and the chief executive officer of OneGoal, which focuses on college completion.

Soft skills positively affect academic performance and school completion

  • Students’ motivation, effort, and self-regulated learning all positively affect academic performance, as do self-sufficiency and academic self-concept.
  • A positive relationship exists between cooperation and school completion, peer acceptance, and occupational status.
  • Students’ social, emotional, and physical needs must be met in order to optimize learning, just as employees need advanced communication and interpersonal skills to advance.
  • Technological advances and globalization bring about new work demands, including the ability to prioritize, plan, and think critically.
  • Because students better analyze, self-regulate, and recognize others’ perspectives as they transition to adolescence, schools must develop soft skills in grades pre-K–12.

Why Soft Skills Matter in School

Employers find critical soft skills lacking in graduates

At the same time, there is a growing concern that young people are not adequately prepared with these critical soft skills. In surveys over the past decade, employers consistently note the high value they place on skills like working well with others, communicating effectively, and a having a strong work ethic, while at the same time lamenting the lack of these skills in the young people they hire. For example, a 2015 study for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that less than 40% of the 400 employers surveyed believed recent college graduates were well-prepared in skills critical for workplace success – including soft skills such as written and oral communication, teamwork, and ethical decision-making (Hart Research Associates, 2015)

Why Soft Skills Matter in School

Soft skills matter to academic, professional and personal success

Academic tenacity. Perseverance toward long-term goals. Emotional intelligence. These kinds of habits, mindsets, and non-technical skills are integral to academic, professional, and personal success

Skills For Success by Melissa Tooley and Laura Bornfreund

‘Soft Skills’ Pushed as Part of College Readiness

To make it in college, students need to be up for the academic rigor. But that’s not all. They also must be able to manage their own time, get along with roommates, and deal with setbacks. Resiliency and grit, along with the ability to communicate and advocate, are all crucial life skills. Yet, experts say, many teenagers lack them, and that’s hurting college-completion rates.


“If you ask me which makes a bigger impact on persistence, I’d say the noncognitive skills—unequivocally,” said Jeff Nelson, a co-founder and the chief executive officer of OneGoal, which focuses on college completion.

Soft Skills Pushed as Part of College Readiness

Soft Skills have a key development time in young adulthood

…soft skills continue to develop throughout a person’s lifetime, with key opportunities in middle school and high school (Bassi, et al., 2012a, citing Borghans, et al., 2008; Cunha, et al., 2005). The reason is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex (which controls “executive functions” like self-control, abstract reasoning, time management, and other key soft skills) continues to develop well into young adulthood (Tough, 2012)

Adapted from this Academic Paper

Soft skills really help disadvantaged students close the gap

Non-cognitive skills may help disadvantaged students close the gap with more advantaged peers – While all individuals need to develop appropriate soft skills in order to successfully engage with the people around them and face new challenges, some research suggests that soft skills may be particularly important in helping poor and minority students overcome disadvantages. (Miyamoto, et al., 2015; Tough, 2012). Several interventions that seek to help disadvantaged youth develop stronger soft skills have yielded promising initial results. For example, participants in programs such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) which serves primarily low-income minority students in middle school and high school in the United States and the MASS project targeting soft skills in at-risk youth in Europe have improved both students’ educational attainment – participants stay in school longer – and key character skills such as motivation and work ethic (Tough, 2012; Kechagias, et al., 2011). In addition, Santos and Primi’s work in Brazil suggests that soft skills related to locus of control and openness to new experiences – while associated with better academic performance among study participants overall – may have stronger effects on poor children’s learning

Adapted from this Academic Paper

Recent International Studies on Soft Skills and their Importance

Desconectados (Inter-American Development Bank).

Based on household and employer surveys11 in Chile and Argentina in 2008 and 2010, this book was one of the first to look systematically at soft skills in Latin America. Specifically, it sought to analyze the connections between schooling and young people’s preparedness (cognitive and non-cognitive) for the world of work. Researchers questioned more than 6,000
individuals ages 25-30 (nearly 4,500 in Chile and 1,600 in Argentina) regarding their labor and education history and measured participants’ cognitive abilities using a series of eight representative analogies. Soft skills were assessed based on individuals’ self-reported agreement or disagreement with a series of statements on how they approached different tasks, their ability to develop and achieve objectives, and their relationships with others. To determine how those skills matched with labor market demands, researchers also surveyed 1,200 firms in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil on the employment opportunities available for high school graduates in their firms including the sector-specific, cognitive, and soft skills
required (and the relative importance of each), the ease or difficulty in finding workers with these skills and their strategies for filling workers’ skills gaps.

STEP Skills Measurement (World Bank).

Also designed to analyze relationships between skills, education, and the labor market, the World Bank’s STEP Skills Measurement Project uses household and employer surveys to measure the supply and demand for a broad range of cognitive and non-cognitive skills in middle and low income countries. Researchers survey a representative sample of urban adults ages 15-64, regardless of employment status, with respect to their cognitive, socio-emotional and job relevant skills. Cognitive skills are measured via a short reading assessment and indirectly through questions about the use of reading, writing and math skills at work. Respondents are also asked about their qualifications and training, and job-specific skills. To measure soft skills – including the Big Five, grit, decision-making style, perceived hostile intent from others, risk-taking and time preferences – participants are asked to assess
how well given statements apply to them on a 4 point-scale from “almost never” to “almost always”. The employer survey covers diverse geographic areas and economic sectors, including jobs in both the formal and informal sector, asking parallel questions about required job skills, as well as productivity, hiring, compensation, and training practices. So far, STEP surveys have been implemented in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Colombia, Georgia, Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Macedonia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Vietnam and Yunnan Province in China.

SENNA (Ayrton Senna Institute – Brazil).

The Social and Emotional or Non-cognitive Nationwide Assessment (SENNA) measures the socio-emotional competencies of 5th, 10th, and 12th graders in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with an eye to informing policy decisions and pedagogical practices. Specifically, researchers wanted to know how much difference in academic performance could be attributed to soft skills, individual characteristics (race, sex, age), family environment and attitudes of children and parents. Developed by the Ayrton Senna Institute in cooperation with the OECD and the State of Rio de Janeiro Secretariat of Education, the 40-minute, self-administered survey was initially given to 24,000+ students from across state and included questions on Big Five skills, students’ beliefs about locus of control (belief that success is a result of one’s own efforts), and background information. Researchers also had access to the same students’ scores on state tests of Portuguese and math in the same year to compare soft skills with academic success. In addition to the student survey, project staff also developed a “roadmap” for socio-emotional evaluation designed to provide teachers more specific examples of critical soft skills, how they might see them in the classroom, and guidance on how to use their observations to provide immediate and ongoing feedback to students.

Skills for Social Progress (OECD).

This report provides a synthesis of OECD empirical work on soft skills including the types of skills that are most relevant to future outcomes, how such skills are developed and in what context, how member and partner countries are currently measuring and promoting social and emotional skills, and recommendations for future work. The report is based on a comprehensive review of existing literature, countries’ polices and practices, and findings from longitudinal studies in nine OECD countries (Belgium, Canada, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, US). Measuring and Assessing Soft Skills Project (Europe). Spearheaded by Angus College in Scotland and carried out in collaboration with partners in Greece, Sweden, Romania and the Netherlands, this project seeks to intentionally develop soft skills in disadvantaged and disaffected youth via face-to-face programs, in order to improve social inclusion and help them find jobs. The initial methodology developed in Scotland showed promising results in terms of lower dropout and higher continuation of studies or employment, and project implementers wanted to test its validity in other contexts. Researchers developed training manuals and assessment tools for instructors/tutors and employers, along with teaching materials and student packets translated into partner languages. They also included employer consultations to strengthen collaboration and skills matching. The project focuses primarily on vocational education and training in line with the European Reference Framework. The framework defines several key competencies needed for personal development, work, citizenship and employment including: communication in mother tongue and foreign language; math, science and technology skills; digital competence; learning strategies (including persistence); social and civic competencies; initiative and entrepreneurship; and cultural awareness and expression.

Adapted from this Academic Paper