How Learning Non-Cognitive Skills Can Help Improve Your Grades

How Learning Non-Cognitive Skills Can Help Improve Your Grades

For years, most people assumed that how well you did in high school correlated directly with how smart you were. But today, many educators and psychologists have realized that intelligence alone doesn’t guarantee academic success. Instead, studies have shown that having the right attitudes, habits and study skills is just as important as intelligence when it comes to getting good grades.

According to a 2012 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, grades don’t only reflect how well students understand the content in their classes; grades also measure a host of non-cognitive abilities such as study skills, attendance, work habits, time management, problem solving skills and the ability to ask for help.

Researchers have also found that a student’s grade point average is a much better predictor of college performance and life outcomes than standardized test scores are. And since good executive functioning is crucial to keeping up your GPA, it’s likely to have a positive effect on your success beyond high school too, as much as or more so than raw intelligence.

“It’s one thing to be smart and be able to test well, but nowadays every study seems to point to the fact that non-cognitive skills — things like working smarter not harder and attacking problems efficiently — are just as important,” says Stephen Weber, director of Educational Endeavors.

Unfortunately, most schools don’t teach these kind of executive functioning skills. That’s why, for the last 10 years, we’ve been offering a course called the Ideal Student Workshop, which teaches students how to learn more effectively and offers lots of practical strategies that can help them succeed.

The Back to the Classroom Workshop (formerly the Ideal Student Workshop) is a three-day course designed for rising 8th, 9th or 10th graders. Given that these students are preparing for the transition to high school or just went through that transition, they benefit from learning how to manage the bigger workloads, increased independence and greater demands on their time from extracurricular activities in high school.

The course has three main areas of focus: developing strong character traits, such as being able to advocate for yourself, having a growth mindset, and having a sense of purpose; teaching effective learning strategies such as how to take better notes, how to prepare for exams, how to annotate, and how to read critically; and encouraging students to develop good habits, such as having good organization and time management skills, understanding the importance of doing their homework and participating in class.

Each day of the workshop includes lectures, videos, handouts, self-assessments, and written work. But what really makes the program stand out are all of the interactive games and experiential learning activities that makes the learning come alive.

For example, Erin Bosack Garcia, who co-wrote the curriculum for Back to the Classroom, says one of the games the students play involves looking at a group of household objects on a table for 30 seconds and then trying to remember everything you can about them. Next, the students are allowed to bring their notebooks with them to re-examine the objects and write down more details. And then finally they’re asked to pair up with another student to write down even more details before playing a game to see which team captured everything most accurately.

The purpose of the game is to teach the importance of revisiting your notes, adding information to your notes and swapping notes with a classmate to fill in anything you missed. By discovering the value of these strategies in the fun and competitive context of a game, students are more likely to remember and use them when they’re back in an academic setting.

Other examples of games include Hack-a-Pack, where students compete with classmates to organize a messy backpack in a limited amount of time, and The Situation, where students have mock conversations with teachers to practice self-advocacy skills.

“They’re playing and competing, which they always enjoy,” Garcia says. “When you’re motivated by the desire to win or the desire to solve a challenging problem in front of you, you’re primed to learn and discover new skills, so the lesson is more likely to stick.”

Weber agrees. “We put the ‘fun’ in executive functioning,” he jokes. You can view a student directed video of some of the fun and games HERE.

Garcia says even students who did well in middle school can benefit from Back to the Classroom.

“One of the biggest differences between middle school and high school is the amount of hand-holding students get,” she says. “In middle school, teachers might give you time in class to do your homework or they might not take points off when homework is late. The teacher may even follow up with you about missing assignments. In high school, that’s not the case.”

Plus, unlike in the suburbs where middle schools and high schools within a district can work together to make sure their 8th grade curriculum connects seamlessly with expectations for freshmen, the educational landscape in Chicago makes this kind of coordination much more difficult. Students from a given middle school may go on to attend any number of neighborhood, magnet, or selective enrollment high schools, each with a different set of course offerings and expectations. This makes it harder for students to know what to expect from their new school, and the transition can be a little rocky.

This summer, the Back to the Classroom Workshop will be offered August 4 through August 6 remotely.