Intra- and Interpersonal Competencies

Recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released results from its investigation, Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies. As an organization, the nonpartisan National Academies strives to influence public policy decisions related to science, engineering, and medicine. However, this study broadly examined student development and assessment across disciplines.

With support from the National Science Foundation, a committee examined whether certain competencies “contribute to persistence and success in higher education.” A 2012 study by the National Research Council had noted three domains of competence:

  • Intrapersonal competencies involve self-management and the ability to regulate one’s behavior and emotions to reach goals.
  • Interpersonal competencies involve expressing information to others as well as interpreting others’ messages and responding appropriately.
  • Cognitive competencies involve thinking, reasoning, and related skills.

That study identified intra- and interpersonal competencies “as significant for success in K-12 education, work, and life.” Now, the National Academies wanted to determine whether those domains also contributed to persistence and success in higher education.

 Intra- and Interpersonal CompetenciesThe committee charged with the research investigated the question in two parts. The first was an extensive, cross-disciplinary examination of the literature followed by two original data analyses. The second was a review of available assessments related to undergraduate persistence.

As part of its literature review, the committee was interested in clearly defining intra- and interpersonal competencies, determining linkages among them, and examining whether they could be enhanced through intervention to ultimately result in degree attainment. “Competencies” were described “broadly to include malleable attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and dispositions.”

“Based on the limited intervention studies conducted to date, the committee found promising evidence that the three competencies of sense of belonging, growth mindset, and utility values are related to college success and malleable in response to interventions,” the report indicated. Other competencies with more modest evidence were:

  • Behaviors related to conscientiousness
  • Academic self-efficacy
  • Intrinsic goals and interest
  • Prosocial goals and values
  • Positive future self

Additionally, “Based on the literature, the committee concluded that certain competencies develop and function differently for different groups and within different cultural and institutional contexts.” Therefore, they advocated for further study of how these competencies develop and relate to success among a variety of populations.

Researchers also were commissioned to analyze two additional data sets: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the Wabash Study of Liberal Arts Education. The first analysis investigated “the relationship between social skills and college graduation” and revealed “respondents with greater levels of social skills had significantly greater levels of completed schooling.” The second broke down the data to examine college success and competencies by gender, ethnicity, and first generation status. It found “no clear and consistent pattern in the findings” on how competencies relate to outcomes. Both analyses described conclusions as merely “suggestive” and called for more research in this area.

Next, the committee looked at the various instruments in use across higher education to assess intra- and interpersonal competencies. These ranged from institution-specific tools to the National Survey of Student Engagement to accreditation instruments. Purposes of the assessments included program admissions, identification of at-risk students, institutional improvement, governing board direction, and more. The committee discovered a range of evidence standards based on the stakes of using assessment data (i.e., more rigorous assessments for accountability measures that are binding and less rigorous when looking to establish a short-term intervention). The tools’ stakeholders influenced the chief goals of each instrument as well.

“Noting that various professional and legal standards apply to assessing these competencies, the committee concluded that most current assessments of the eight identified competencies are uneven in quality, providing only limited evidence to date that they meet professional standards of reliability, validity, and fairness,” the report explained.

The researchers continued: “[Given that] the state of measurement of most of these competencies is still markedly underdeveloped … much theoretical and conceptual work remains to be done before statistical analysis is undertaken to explore potential areas of overlap between competencies identified as college outcomes and predictors of college persistence.”

This research project served to review a wealth of cross-disciplinary evidence about intra- and interpersonal competencies and their connection to success and persistence in college. However, given the disparate nature of studies and assessments, there remain many gaps in which additional investigation is merited. The committee closed its report with 13 recommendations for next steps. Few focus narrowly on the National Academies’ science, technology, math, and education mission. Instead, many provide guidance that those in other fields, such as unions and activities, can use to further what is known about how students develop competencies and how those gains are assessed. Examples include researching how specific competencies relate to success at community colleges or how the context in which assessments are completed influences the results. Those with an interest in conducting research on assessment practice could benefit from reviewing the report and undertaking a project based on one or more of the recommendations.


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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