How can we assess life skills?

By Isobel Beveridge, Assessment Researcher

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Isobel Beveridge, Assessment ResearcherThe assessment of life skills has gathered increasing attention from researchers and a range of decision makers. In the first of a series of life skill assessment blogs, assessment experts at NFER introduce some of the ways that these skills can be assessed.

What are life skills and why are they assessed?

Across our life-span, skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking and resilience are important. They link to a range of academic and non-academic outcomes, such as school attendance, employability or life satisfaction and are crucial in facilitating life-long learning.

These kinds of skills are often known collectively as ‘life skills’, but other terms such as non-cognitive skills, 21st century skills, competencies or meta-skills also exist. The UNICEF Life Skills and Citizenship Education (LSCE) initiative defines life skills as ‘transferable skills that enable individuals to deal with everyday life, and to progress and succeed in school, work and societal life. They are comprised of skills, attitudes, values, behaviours and domain-based knowledge. They can be learnt throughout life though there are optimal ages when interventions targeting specific skills are most likely to be effective.’ (1)

Many national and international studies, for example Understanding Society (2) or PISA (3), now include measures to track learners’ competencies or wellbeing. Consequently, researchers have started to discuss how best to assess these emerging fields.

How are life skills commonly assessed?

Over the past years, NFER has worked on many life skills-related projects across a range of age groups and countries (see our spotlight page that showcases our work in this area). As part of a capacity-building exercise within NFER, we internally reviewed over 350 existing measures from published databases (such as EEF’s SPECTRUM database) to explore and interrogate how life skills are currently being assessed in terms of target participant age, measurement reliability and validity, and scoring methods.

In our work supporting UNICEF and the World Bank in collaboration with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and Roehampton University, we developed an assessment based on the LSCE framework for use in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. An essential preliminary stage in developing this and other life skills assessments involves rigorously reviewing a range of existing measures in relation to the research intent. You can find out more about this project here.

Our work in this area has led us to observe some commonalities across many existing measures, such as the widespread use of questionnaires which are designed for participants to complete themselves. These tools often utilise Likert-style scales where learners might rank their agreement to a variety of different statements on a scale from low to high (e.g. ranging from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’).

By administering assessment in this way, researchers can collect data directly from the learner rather than needing to interpret any observations. Self-report methods like questionnaires are also beneficial as they can be easily replicated and administered on a large scale. Often, they require a lower level of resource in terms of data collection, scoring and analysis, making them ideal for researchers to use in a variety of settings and contexts.

How is the assessment of life skills changing?

With increasing recognition of the importance of life skills both nationally and internationally, there is a need to develop a greater range of techniques for assessing them. While self-report methods are valuable, they are a reflection of the respondents’ perceptions of skills, rather than actual skills, and can be subject to limitations such as social desirability bias [i]. There is discussion about the merits of more innovative methods moving forward. For example, OECD are currently rethinking how social and emotional skills are assessed (4). They suggest that self-report techniques could be complemented with more direct and innovative assessment techniques. Methods such as eye-tracking and digitalised games and tasks could serve as promising new tools in this area.

At NFER, we have experience of creating assessments, including scenario-based tests and situational judgment tasks (SJTs), which are more direct tools for measuring life skills outcomes. While these assessments are also a form of self-report, they are designed to determine the strategies adopted by learners towards certain scenarios. For example, in our work with Australia’s Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), we developed online scenario-based tasks to assess young peoples’ critical and creative thinking in response to various stimuli. Comparatively, in behavioural-based assessments like SJTs, learners might indicate their most likely response when faced with a challenging classroom or workplace scenario.

Although these assessments require greater resource from both the developer and the learner, their format has the benefit of allowing a more authentic investigation of skills that require action and decision, over and above self-awareness and introspection. These more interactive tests potentially offer a good alternative to, or could be used in conjunction with, self-report methods.

The assessment of life skills has rightfully become an incredibly current and popular research focus, and as a result, a broad range of measurement techniques exist. In developing a skills measure, it is important for researchers and decision makers to consider that the methods chosen depend on the individual research aims. Both traditional self-report techniques and more varied behavioural assessment offer plenty of value and it will be exciting to see how assessment methods continue to evolve in this area.


  2. Understanding Society
  3. PISA
  4. OECD

NFER Links

  1. Life skills and wellbeing spotlight page
  2. International development case study - Life skills assessment development for UNICEF and The World Bank

[i] Social desirability bias is the tendency to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favourably by others.