Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success

Tim Kautz, James J. Heckman, Ron Diris, Bas ter Weel, Lex Borghans

NBER Working Paper No. 20749
Issued in December 2014
NBER Program(s):   CH   ED

This paper reviews the recent literature on measuring and boosting cognitive and noncognitive skills. The literature establishes that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills|personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. Their predictive power rivals that of cognitive skills. Reliable measures of character have been developed. All measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task. In order to reliably estimate skills from tasks, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills when measuring any particular skill. Character is a skill, not a trait. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle. Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments. Skill development is a dynamic process, in which the early years lay the foundation for successful investment in later years. High-quality early childhood and elementary school programs improve character skills in a lasting and cost-effective way. Many of them beneficially affect later-life outcomes without improving cognition. There are fewer long-term evaluations of adolescent interventions, but workplace-based programs that teach character skills are promising. The common feature of successful interventions across all stages of the life cycle through adulthood is that they promote attachment and provide a secure base for exploration and learning for the child. Successful interventions emulate the mentoring environments offered by successful families.

You may purchase this paper on-line in .pdf format from ($5) for electronic delivery.

Information about Free Papers

You should expect a free download if you are a subscriber, a corporate associate of the NBER, a journalist, an employee of the U.S. federal government with a ".GOV" domain name, or a resident of nearly any developing country or transition economy.

If you usually get free papers at work/university but do not at home, you can either connect to your work VPN or proxy (if any) or elect to have a link to the paper emailed to your work email address below. The email address must be connected to a subscribing college, university, or other subscribing institution. Gmail and other free email addresses will not have access.


This paper was revised on April 3, 2015

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20749

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded these:
Heckman, Stixrud, and UrzĂșa w12006 The Effects of Cognitive and Noncognitive Abilities on Labor Market Outcomes and Social Behavior
Prada and UrzĂșa w20752 One Size does not Fit All: Multiple Dimensions of Ability, College Attendance and Wages
Eichengreen, , and Panizza Currency Mismatches, Debt Intolerance, and the Original Sin: Why They Are Not the Same and Why It Matters
Fang, Gu, and Zhou w20317 The Gradients of Power: Evidence from the Chinese Housing Market
Card and Krueger w5708 School Resources and Student Outcomes: An Overview of the Literature and New Evidence from North and South Carolina
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us