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Top 5 Questions Guiding Marty West's Character Research

September 17, 2015
Harvard professor shares insights on researching students' non-cognitive skills

Test scores and other traditional measures of student success are important indicators, but they don’t tell a complete story. Other skills, known as “character skills” or “non-cognitive skills,” are also essential elements of student success in school, college, and careers.

The Walton Family Foundation is working with Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to learn more about these skills. He has formed the Boston Charter Research Collaborative — which partners high-performing Boston charter schools with researchers from MIT and Harvard — to research new measures of non-cognitive skills and to develop strategies schools and families can use to help develop these skills.

The Collaborative is starting by gathering information about everything from students’ character self-assessments and test scores to demographic information and detailed data on their behavior in school.

“By pulling all of this information together into a single warehouse, we’re hopeful we will be better able to track growth in character and have the infrastructure in place to identify effective school practices in improving character skills,” he explained.

Dr. West shared with us the top five questions guiding his research into the emerging field of non-cognitive skills:

  1. Which non-cognitive skills matter most for students’ success in school and college?
  2. How do student and teacher ratings of non-cognitive skills change over the course of schooling? Can they be used to track students’ character growth and schools’ success in supporting it?
  3. How do student and teacher ratings of non-cognitive skills relate to behavioral measures such as homework completion, attendance, disciplinary incidents, and attrition? Can they be used to identify students at risk of academic challenges and therefore in need of additional support?
  4. How do the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) systems, widely used in high-performing charter schools, affect the development of non-cognitive skills?
  5. Can interventions targeting non-cognitive skills, such as mindfulness and executive function, improve these skills and academic performance when implemented at scale in school settings?
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