September 19, 2017

From Key Skills to Useful Measures: A Review and Inventory

Written by Laura Lippman, Senior Technical Advisor, FHI360 and Independent Consultant

This post originally appeared on the Measuring SEL website. Reposted with permission.

Review and Inventory of Measures of “Soft” Skills

As the evidence base on the importance of social and emotional skills for fostering multiple positive outcomes grows, international youth development programs increasingly want to focus on developing and measuring those skills (which they tend to refer to as “soft skills” or “life skills,” as those terms are widely used by employers, international youth program funders and implementers, and youth themselves). But which skills to focus on? And how to measure them? To help these programs focus on the skills that are best bets for fostering success in the workplace, positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes, and reducing violent behavior, USAID funded a series of studies.

The first study systematically reviewed research and interviewed stakeholders to identify the top 5 key skills that foster workforce success Common terms and definitions for skills were developed from the varied terms and definitions in the literature in order to synthesize the strength of the research across fields. Then, using the same methodology and definitions, the second study, supported by USAID’s YouthPower action project, extended the review to the fields of sexual and reproductive health and violence prevention Happily, three skill groups received high levels of support across all three outcome areas, demonstrating their importance: Positive Self-Concept, Self-Control, and Higher Order Thinking Skills. Social skills were found to be critical across the two outcome domains of workforce success and violence prevention, while Communication skills were found to be critical in preventing violence and for positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Empathy and Goal orientation were among the top 5 skills needed to prevent violence and promote sexual and reproductive health, respectively (see diagram).

venn diagram of youthe employment factors

Once the key skills that would be the best bets across fields were identified, the third report in the series, also supported by USAID’s YouthPower Action, conducted a review of measures of these and the original 10 skills receiving the most support for fostering workforce success. We reviewed 300 instruments, both domestic and international, and also created an inventory of instruments that can be used by schools and programs searching for good measures of each skill or entire surveys: In order to make it into the inventory, the measures needed to have been validated with youth and to be free with open access. One useful feature of the inventory is that all the measures included are coded according to both the developer’s skill nomenclature, as well as the common skill terms we developed for this project to deal with the varied terminology across studies, so it is easy to search for measures by skills of interest to the program or school. We then scored the measures according to criteria of interest to youth development programs, including validity, reliability, evidence of use by international youth development programs, evidence of relationships with positive outcomes, and ease of administration. We identified ten instruments, both domestic and international, that met these criteria, and which measured all or most of the key skills identified in key skill reports (see the list of ten and how they scored on page 46 of the report). Some were school-based and have been used for group assessments, some were used for individual assessments, and some for program evaluations.

The field has much to do to meet the needs of international and domestic programs and schools. For example, the vast majority of measures in the inventory use student self-report, which are known to suffer from some forms of bias. In addition, most measures use response scales that are not refined enough to detect change over time, especially for short durations of many international programs. The validity and reliability of measures used in many settings is not consistently reported. Our common terminology and definitions of skills across studies, our synthesis of the research across fields to identify key skills, and our review of existing measures of these skills are offered as tools to build the evidence and the science of measurement of these key skills across fields.