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Soft skills can be hard to measure

By Pamela Larson Nippolt

If you, like me, evaluate and study youth programs, you should know about a new resource for measuring soft skills outcomes. Soft skills -- communication, relationships and collaboration, critical thinking and decision making, and initiative and self-direction -- can be hard to measure. Youth programs can help young people to acquire these skills, which are important for working and participating in civic life.

The Forum for Youth Investment has published a reviewed report of eight tools to do this. "From soft skills to hard data" reviews eight tools that are both practical and rigorous - offering something for evaluators and program practitioners alike.

The report cites the 2010 Preparing Students for College and Careers policy report that "according to teachers, parents, students and Fortune 1000 executives, the critical components of being college- and career-ready focus more on higher-order thinking and performance skills than knowledge of challenging content."

In my opinion, the concise review of eight measurement tools does four things very well;
  1. it names outcomes that frame the niche of programs designed to build youth learning in community,
  2. it calls on those programs to align their activities with outcomes - an underdeveloped "muscle" of the youth development field,
  3. it lays out the measures in an easy-to-understand guide with details about reliability, validity, and costs associated with the use of the eight measures,
  4. it issues a call to action to advance the field by designing practical studies that are also technically sound, and by improving and advancing the measurement of soft skills.
Have you read the report? Have you used any of these tools? What is your opinion?

-- Pamela Larson Nippolt, former evaluation and research specialist

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Pam,
    This is good. I have a question. I have a glance on these tools. It looks like that these tools mostly focus on social skills. Do they mention any great tool to assess problem solving or critical thinking skills in the document? Thanks.

  2. Hui Hui - Four of the scales do assess "problem solving" of "problem solving confidence" but none of the scales assess the construct "critical thinking." While these constructs seem very different just by title, we could all benefit (at least I could) by having a clearer distinction between critical thinking and perhaps the "bigger bucket" of skills related to problem solving.
    At any rate, the four that assess problem solving dedicate a very small group of items to problem solving (3 - 8) and typically rely on self reported skill level. The Survey of Afterschool Youth Outcomes, designed by NIOST, is a collection of measures that are completed by youth workers, classroom teachers, and students. This triangulation of ratings of problem solving seems to be the most thorough measurement of problem solving in the collection.
    I have not yet come across a measure for critical thinking and plan to pay close attention to how this construct is measured and conceptualized in the nonformal education arena.
    Hui Hui and others - How do you view the constructs of critical thinking and problem solving as similar and/or different from each other?

  3. I haven't spent much time learning about the tools or research associated with soft skills. I think we can all agree on the value and impact that they can have. For me what stands out from your four point is point #2-the outcomes. I truly value being intentional and how it can lead to your achieving your outcome.
    If you want to develop soft skills like communication, relationships and collaboration, critical thinking and decision making, and initiative and self-direction...IT IS IMPORTANT to state it clearly. Having that as a goal will shape how the learning experience is planned and implemented. This process can lead to success in achieving your goal.
    Why do you think this process is an "underdeveloped muscle"?

  4. Mark - I really like how you point out the importance of setting goals within programs that connect the program experience to the skills that we want to help young people develop. I use the phrase "underdeveloped muscle" because youth program staff are faced with a lot of competing interests when they design activities or curricula within programs - and connecting these to outcomes is just one of the competing interests. There are many other forces fighting for program staff attention as they decide which activities to deliver - local agendas, history of the program, time constraints, resource constraints - and this muscle is not always the one that is activated.
    Another important factor in why this process is underdeveloped has to do with organizations' leaders' and funders' expectations. The connection to outcomes has got to be valued and expected by those who help us set our work plans and those who provide the resources to carry them out. This also means setting aside the time and staff needed for the outcome measurement activities! Now, let's do some bicep curls......!

  5. I think that goals associated with soft skills would be a great behind-the-scenes item. I reflect back when I was directly coordinating programs, it would have been difficult to promote a learning experience focused on relationships and collaboration. Combined with with a goal of teaching engineering skills through experiential learning, focused on collaborative building, we would have a program that is easy to market, and effective in multiple ways.
    Do you agree? Do you think that a goal of soft skills should be the primary goal or one of the goals?

  6. Pam Larson NippoltMarch 1, 2013 at 12:39 AM

    I do agree Mark. While most agree that soft skills are so important to a successful life, they are not typically thought of as primary outcomes for a youth program. On the flip side of the coin, youth programs will often claim that soft skills are being developed with no hard data.
    It is tempting to use a "we know it when we see it" approach to soft skills but then it is very difficult to add up evidence to back up this claim.
    We are also challenged by measurement of soft skills as we make choices about who is the best "informant" about a young person's abilities or progress in these areas. Is it the young person him or herself? Is it the adult leader? Is it the young person's parent? Is it the evaluator? Often we decide it is a little bit of all of these perspective, which leaves us back at square one as we realize that we can't possibly collect all of that evidence and continue to offer high quality programs! We are in need of meaningful, credible measures of soft skills that are feasible for programs. The collection reviewed by the Forum on Youth Investment is one step in the right direction.