The Increasing Importance of Noncognitive Competencies: Opportunities for Credentialing Assessment
We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction. —Bill Gates
In 2017, an I.C.E. task force issued a white paper on noncognitive assessment, providing a primer on noncognitive constructs, measures, underlying research and potential applications in credentialing programs (Weiner, Stobinski, Friedman & Gray, 2017). Since that time, the assessment industry has continued to express interest in this topic via presentations at various conferences, including the I.C.E. Exchange, and some licensing examinations are increasing their focus on noncognitive competencies (e.g., medical, nursing and lawyer exams). Yet, the use of noncognitive assessment in credentialing is not widespread. A number of trends suggest that this is likely to change, raising opportunities for credentialing programs.
Changing Work and Work Requirements
The nature of work has been changing with advances in technology and the digitalization and automation of tasks and processes (Muro et al, 2017). Occupations in virtually every industry sector have been affected — architecture, finance, health care, human resources, manufacturing and marketing, to name a few. These trends were accelerated by the pandemic and its cascading effects on the economy, jobs and the now-common virtual or hybrid workplace.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) projects that by 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal —WEF "Future of Jobs" report, Oct. 2020.
Occupational requirements are being impacted by these changes in work, such that the knowledge, skills, abilities (KSAs) and competencies needed for successful performance are shifting in their relative importance. While job knowledge and manual skills are foundational for competent professional practice, the relative importance of noncognitive competencies is increasing. Noncognitive competencies (aka behavioral or soft skills) are moving to the forefront in discussions of the future of work and required competencies, beyond cognitive (Koenig, 2011; Pellegrino, 2012; Bughin et al, 2017; Alonso et al, 2021). Establishing relationships, collaborating with teams, creativity and adaptability are even more important in a changing, technology-based work environment.
Equity and Diversity
Another trend that is fueling the focus on noncognitive assessment is the use of alternative measures to supplement cognitively focused exams (e.g., aptitude, knowledge) to foster equity and diversity. Because cognitively loaded assessments tend to manifest subgroup differences and noncognitive measures less so (Sacket et al, 2001; Ployhart & Holtz, 2008), organizations are evaluating their assessment programs, revisiting competency models and, in some cases, realigning the composition of their assessments. The potential for a more comprehensive assessment strategy to benefit programs has been discussed for decades in the employment context (Sackett et al, 2001) and is becoming more prominent in education and credentialing.
Use Cases for Noncognitive Assessment
The assessment of noncognitive competencies may take place at different times in the credentialing lifecycle as part of pre-credentialing preparation, the credentialing examination or post-credentialing maintenance of certification. Examples of the first two applications are described below.1
- The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers credentials for Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) and Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP). These credentials are based on the SHRM Body of Competency and KnowledgeTM model, which includes cognitive and behavioral (noncognitive) competencies needed to perform effectively. Both the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP utilize situational judgment items (SJIs) to assess a range of behavioral competencies, including communication, relationship management, critical evaluation, leadership and navigation. Noncognitive themes including conflict resolution, problem solving, critical observation and decision-making are key components for every SJI, allowing each examinee to demonstrate the appropriate action required for a specific workplace scenario. The SJIs comprise 40% of the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP exams. In this example, behavioral competencies are assessed as part of high stakes examinations.
- The Competency and Credentialing Institute (CCI) launched a new credential, Certified Foundational Perioperative Nurse (CFPN), in 2021, which targets perioperative nurses early in their career as they finish their orientation to the operating room. The CFPN is comprised of four components, including a noncognitive assessment called the 16pf® — a long-established psychometric assessment of personality designed to measure 16 personality factors that are relevant to effective behavior in a wide range of life activities (Cattel, 1980; PSI, 2019). The personality factors map onto competencies in a report that is provided to CFPN candidates to provide insight into personal strengths and opportunities for development in entering a career in perioperative nursing (scores are not used in decision-making). The remaining components of the CFPN include a knowledge-based test (KBT); a self-assessment of perioperative nursing competency using the Perceived Perioperative Competence Scale-Revised (PPCS-R) survey instrument and a reflective learning exercise using the reports and results from the KBT, PPCS-R and the 16pf. A digital badge is issued for each component and a final digital badge is issued for the CFPN credential.
Opportunities for Credentialing
The above trends point to several implications for credentialing programs. First, is with respect to the KSAs and competencies that are important for professional practice. The evolution of work and the workplace suggests that job/practice analyses, role delineation studies and competency models will identify noncognitive competencies as increasingly important. Second, the design and composition of credentialing exams are expected to align with this changing mix of competencies, as are education and training programs.2 And third, as noncognitive competencies receive increased emphasis, opportunities to enhance equity and diversity in exam programs may be explored.
Existing testing approaches are available today to assess noncognitive competencies, such as situational judgment questions, self-report measures and simulations. The first two offer advantages of scalability in delivery and reliability in scoring, making them practical to use. Simulations offer an authentic means for candidates to demonstrate behavioral competencies and technology-based simulations promise to address the concerns of scalability and cost.
As we have seen in the two example use cases, noncognitive assessments may play a role as an experiential/developmental assessment in preparation for a credential, or may be incorporated into the credentialing exam. In addition, noncognitive assessments and associated learning and development activities may be used post-credential for purposes of continuing education and maintenance of certification.
Credentialing organizations have the opportunity to enhance their learning and assessment programs to assure that candidates are well prepared to handle the rapidly evolving world of work, which increasingly calls for noncognitive competencies and “soft skills.”
Alonso, A., Simintzi, E., College, A., & Weiner, J.A. (2021). Navigating Change in Work: Economic, I-O, and Global Staffing Perspectives. Annual SIOP conference, March 2021 (virtual).
Cattell, R. B. (1980). Personality and learning theory: A systems theory of maturation and structured learning, Vol. 2. New York, NY: Springer.
Gates, W., Myhrvold, N. & Rinearson, P. (1996). The road ahead. Viking press.
Koenig, J. (2011). Assessing 21st century skills: Summary of a workshop. Washington DC: National Research Council.
Bughin, J., Hazan, E., Lund, S., Dahlström, P., Wiesinger, A., & Subramaniam, A. (2018). Skill Shift: Automation and the Future of the Workforce. McKinsey Global Institute
Muro, M., Sifan, L., Whiton, J. & Kulkarni, S. (2017). Digitalization and the American Workforce. Washington DC: Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program.
Pellegrino, J., & Hilton, M. (2012). Education for life and work developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington DC: National Research Council.
Ployhart R.E., & Holtz B.C. (2008). The diversity-validity dilemma: Strategies for reducing racioethnic and sex subgroup differences and adverse impact in selection. Personnel Psychology, 61, 153–172
PSI Services LLC (2019). 16pf® Technical Manual: Sixth Edition.
Sackett, P. R., Schmitt, N., Ellingson, J.E., Kabin, M.B., (2001), High-Stakes Testing in Employment, Credentialing, and Higher Education. Prospects in a Post Affirmative Action World. American Psychologist 2001 pp. 302-318.
Weiner, J.A., Stobinski, J., Friedman, C., & Gray, G. (2017). I.C.E. Taskforce Report: Assessing Noncognitive Competence. Washington DC: I.C.E.
1. Thanks to Alexander Alonso, PhD, for the SHRM case study, and James Stobinski, PhD, for the CCI case study.
2. The frequency of updates to job/practice analyses may need to be revisited to accommodate the increasing pace of change.