Peer-Tested Approaches to Teaching and Assessing Soft Skills

Women in Higher Education
Student Success

Article Summary

  • Modeling is one of the most effective methods of teaching and supporting soft skills in the classroom.|When assessing soft skills, begin with the end in mind: “Developing appropriate assessments requires being very clear from the outset about what you are looking for—and how you will know it if you see it.”
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The topic of soft skills continues to be top of mind—and for good reason. We previously shared that our own recent study with Morning Consult found soft skills such as teamwork, leadership, detail orientation and communication are what employers seek most in candidates.

Simply put, soft skills are essential for a student’s career success. But, as an instructor, how do you ensure you’re dedicating enough instruction time to building soft skills? And, just as important, how do you assess those skills to make sure a student is prepared post-graduation?

Good news: we’ve compiled a list of approaches both for teaching soft skills and assessing them. Keep reading for our peer-tested tips.

Soft Skills Teaching Techniques

Start with “Modeling”

Our previous blog post focused primarily on the act of modeling and its effect on imparting soft skills in students. According to Renee Rawcliffe, an adjunct professor for Simmons College in Boston, “there’s something in social work we call the ‘parallel process.’ The work we do in class should empower students to grow within their own practice. Approaching the classwork with curiosity, humility and bravery is one way in which I engage with my students.”

Approach your course with the same type of qualities and traits you’d want your students to demonstrate outside the classroom and in their own careers.

As professor Mary King of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley can attest to, don’t be afraid to reconnect with the passion that got you started in academia. “[My students] loved that I was passionate about what I was teaching, and that trickled into their learning because if they saw that I really enjoyed it and cared about what I brought to my lectures, then they were more willing to receive it.”

Think Beyond the Classroom

Bringing real-world, relevant context into your course not only helps students better connect with concepts, it can also build soft skills. One way to do this is to think outside the classroom, as demonstrated by Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.

The school created an incentivized program that encourages students to learn and practice skills outside the classroom, then reflect on those skills at the end of the semester. Of the program, Reinhardt president Kina Mallard says, “the idea is for students to recognize real-life scenarios in which they have used those soft skills, such as conflict resolution, mediation and listening, and to then highlight that on their resumes or in job interviews.”

Personalize Your Feedback

Whether in-person or through digital learning tools, from an instructor or from a peer, there’s power in personalized feedback. As an instructor, you’re able to pinpoint the moment a student begins to struggle to communicate or misunderstand a concept. Plus, by giving—or receiving—personalized feedback, students build those ever-important soft skills like respect, professionalism and how to effectively communicate orally or in writing.

Embrace a Cross-Disciplinary Approach

By approaching your own course with the courses of your fellow instructors in mind, students gain and exercise a variety of cross-disciplinary skills. One example listed in Education Glossary: with project-based learning, the process of completing a research project typically requires a student to use various skills and technologies, and possibly collaborate with their peers. Taking initiative, thinking creatively and processing information are all skills students build and utilize when connections are made across courses and disciplines.

Assessing Soft Skills

While it can be easy to identify soft skills, assessing them is a murkier, lesser-discussed process. How do you test and “grade” a student on their cultural intelligence? Or on how they employ empathy?

Luckily, there are a couple approaches you can take to better ensure your students are coming away with the soft skills they need to succeed.

Foster Collaboration with Group Projects

The ability to collaborate with colleagues is an important soft skill for graduates to possess. Engaging students in group projects is one way to not only help develop soft skills such as collaboration, teamwork and empathy, but also provide a bit of structure when it comes to assessing them.

Group students strategically and with diversity in mind, whether it’s students of various ages, levels of understanding or other factors.

Joey Bryant, adjunct faculty trainer at Forsyth Technical Community College, groups students strategically and with diversity in mind, whether it’s students of various ages, levels of understanding or other factors. By doing so, she gives students the ability to negotiate and develop interpersonal and social skills. Even better: these group projects engage students and encourage the use of soft skills as they collaborate to complete projects.

Consider Assessment Types

As always, it’s important to keep in mind that the type of assessment matters—whether you’re testing a student on course-specific concepts or on the more esoteric, tough-to-test soft skills.

To start with an analytic style of assessing soft skills, Dr. Drew C. Appleby of the American Psychological Association suggests a more qualitative approach. During his time as a professor, he analyzed where his students successfully demonstrated—or failed to demonstrate—specific soft skills and compared them using a system or rubric that listed out attributes a “successful student” and an “unsuccessful student” would possess.

For example, on the topic of motivation, a successful student would possess the soft skills of self-discipline and enthusiasm, while an unsuccessful student would exhibit a weak work ethic. “It made sense for me to help my students become aware that the soft skills that can help them succeed in college will be those they need to enter and thrive in the workplace after they graduate,” says Drew.

Another strategy is to have students self-measure their skills. Created by MacArthur winner Angela Duckworth, the Grit Scale lets students self-reflect and honestly weigh in on how they perceive themselves. The score reflects how passionate or persevering a student is—both characteristics employers look for in potential hires.

No matter which assessment type you choose, “it begins with the end in mind,” says Cathrael Kazin, managing partner at Volta Learning Group. “Developing appropriate assessments requires being very clear from the outset about what you are looking for—and how you will know it if you see it.”

Want even more on the topic of soft skills?
You’re in luck: check out the research we conducted with Morning Consult for more on the ins and outs of soft skills—and their importance in today’s workforce.