“Soft” vs. “Hard” Skills: Which Create a Stronger Foundation?

As teachers, should we focus on our students’ understanding of course content, or on our students’ development of foundational academic skills?

Do they benefit more from learning history (or chemistry or spelling or flute), or from developing the self-discipline (grit, focus, executive skills) to get the work — any work — done?

I’ve found a recent study that explores this question. It stands out for the rigor of its methodology, and the tough-mindedness of its conclusions.

Here’s the setup:

Daunting Problems; Clever Solutions

Researchers struggle to answer these questions because student choice can complicate the data.

When college students choose courses and professors, when they opt out of one section and opt into another, we can’t tell if the professor’s quality or the students’ preferences led to particular research results.

How to solve this problem? We find a school where students get no choices.

They must take the same courses.

They can’t change sections.

Students start the year randomly distributed, and they stay randomly distributed.

Where shall we find such a school? Here’s a possibility: the United States Naval Academy. All students take the same courses. They can’t switch. They can’t drop. Sir, yes sir!

Even better: several USNA courses are sequential. We can ask this question: how does the student’s performance in the first semester affect his/her performance in the second semester?

Do some 1st semester teachers prepare their students especially well — or especially badly — for the 2nd semester?

We can even fold in extra data. The website Rate My Professors lets students grade professors on many qualities — including the difficulty of the course, and their overall rating. Perhaps those data can inform our understanding of teacher effectiveness.

Provocative Conclusions

A research team has followed this logic and recently published their conclusions.

In their findings:

Easygoing teachers — who don’t demand lots of work, who don’t communicate high standards, who routinely give lots of high grades — harm their students. 

How so? Their students — quite consistently — do badly on subsequent courses in the field.

In other words: if I have an easygoing teacher for Calculus I, I’m likely to do badly in Calculus II — compared to my identical twin brother who had a different teacher.

On the other hand, tough-minded teachers — who insist on deadlines, who require extra work, who remain stingy with high grades — benefit their students.

How so? These students — like my identical twin — do better in subsequent courses than I do.

This research team calls such executive function topics — getting work done, even if it’s dull; prioritizing; metacognition — “soft skills.” In their analysis, professors who are tough minded about these soft skills ultimately help their students learn more.

More Provocative Still

This logic certainly makes sense; we’re not shocked that students learn more when we insist that they work hard, focus, and set high standards.

Of course, professors who DON’T insist that their students work hard get lots of student compliments (on average). We teachers know that — all things being equal — students are happier when they get less work. Their RateMyProfessor scores average higher than those of their tough-minded peers.

In turn, colleges notice student popularity ratings. School leaders feel good when students praise particular teachers. They give them awards and promotions and citations. Why wouldn’t they? After all, those highly-praised professors give the college a good reputation.

In other words: according to this research team, colleges are tempted to honor and promote teachers who get high student ratings — even though those very professors harm their students’ long term learning, and thereby diminish the quality of the academic program.

That’s a scathing claim indeed.


Like everything I write about here, this finding comes with caveats.

First: although these students were randomly assigned once they got to the Naval Academy, admission to that Academy is very challenging indeed. (Google tells me that 8.3% of their applicants get in.)

So, a tough-minded approach might benefit this extremely narrow part of the population — who, let’s be honest, signed up for a rigorous academic program, rigorously delivered.

However, that finding doesn’t necessarily mean that this approach works for younger students, or a broader swath of the population, or students who didn’t apply for such demanding treatment.

It might. But, this study by itself shouldn’t persuade us to change our work dramatically. (Unless we work in a similar academic setting.)

Second: this report’s authors define “soft” and “hard” in a very specific way (see their page 3).

Your school might use these terms quite differently, so their claims might not apply directly to your terminology.

Equally important, the strategies they use to distinguish between “tough-minded” and “easy-going” professors require lots of intricate parsing.

I myself don’t have the stats skills to interrogate their process; I can imagine a more expert reading asking sharp questions about their methods.


In many parts of life, short-term challenges lead to long-term benefits.

We might not like exercise, but it helps us as we get older.

We might like bacon and ice cream, but leeks and salmon keep us fitter.

This research report suggests that we help our students in the long run by maintaining tough-minded high standards right now.

Doing so might not make us popular. Our administrative leaders don’t always recognize our wisdom. But if our students learn more, their strong “soft-skills” foundation really does help them thrive.

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