Rethinking the Notion of 'Noncognitive'
A name can matter a lot. When social science researchers wanted to make a distinction between how students approached different aspects of the learning process, they coined the somewhat awkward term "noncognitive" to distinguish attitudes, beliefs, and attributes from content knowledge, which they labeled "cognitive." They applied their newly minted term to identify everything that was not, in their view, grounded in, or directly derived from, rational thought. This distinction reflected the idea that one type of thinking formed the basis of knowing and recalling information, and that the other originated in beliefs, attitudes, and feelings.
Perhaps it's time to move beyond our current overly cautious approach to measuring elements of the learning process that extend beyond content knowledge. Perhaps it's time to think of noncognitive dimensions of learning as forms of thinking, rather than as a process that does not involve cognition.
Are we not observing a higher form of thinking when we see students persist with difficult tasks, such as overcoming frustration; setting and achieving goals; seeking help; working with others; and developing, managing, and perceiving their sense of self-efficacy? Are these qualities not at least as important as knowing how well students recall information about the year in which the Civil War began, or how to factor a polynomial? Might what we observe when we look for noncognitive factors be a more complex form of cognition—a result of executive functioning by the brain as it monitors and adjusts to circumstances to accomplish specific aims and objectives? In other words, might these behaviors be manifestations not of feelings, but of metacognition—the mind's ability to reflect on how effectively it is handling the learning process as...
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