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On the Use of the Big Five Model as a SEL Assessment Framework

The following content is reprinted with permission from CASEL.

By Dana Murano, Jason Way, Cristina Anguiano-Carrasco, Kate E. Walton, and Jeremy Burrus

Most researchers agree that social and emotional skills are a) important, b) can be improved through systematic programming, and c) must somehow be organized and assessed. The belief that these skills must be organized and assessed emphasizes the need for a social and emotional skills framework, of which there are myriad. An ongoing debate concerns whether or not the Big Five personality framework is an appropriate framework through which to organize social and emotional skills. The Big Five factors include conscientiousness (work ethic; organization), agreeableness (kindness; empathy), emotional stability (composure; flexibility), openness (curiosity; analytical thinking), and extraversion (sociability; assertiveness).

Advantages of using the Big Five

The field of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is rife with “jingle” and “jangle” fallacies. Oftentimes the same word is used to describe different skills or different terms are used to describe the same skill. This creates confusion and an inability for efficient communication among SEL professionals. One solution to this problem would be to organize these skills using the Big Five. The Big Five framework can be seen as a kind of “Rosetta Stone”, a well-established taxonomy to which essentially all social and emotional skills can be crosswalked. Whereas one assessment may measure “grit”, another “persistence”, and yet another “organization”, use of the Big Five framework enables us to recognize that all of these skills fall under the Big Five conscientiousness factor. Figure 1 demonstrates how various social and emotional skills can be organized through the lens of the Big Five.

Using this taxonomy as a framework is desirable because the Big Five factors are backed by decades of empirical support, show consistent relationships with desirable outcomes such as success at school and in the workforce, and are cross-culturally universal. Moreover, there is evidence that skills within these factors are malleable to change both across the lifespan and via deliberate intervention. Organizing social and emotional skills into these five “buckets” gives us a parsimonious, yet comprehensive, way of conceptualizing different social and emotional skills and capturing validity evidence. Because of these advantages, large-scale studies like the OCED’s Study on Social and Emotional Skills use this model as their assessment framework.

Figure 1: Example Social and Emotional Skills Organized Under the Big Five Factors


Is the goal of using the Big Five to make all students “the same”?

One concern that is often expressed is that by using the Big Five as an assessment framework, we are essentially trying to make all students’ personalities the same. Although these social and emotional skills can be categorized within a broader taxonomy of personality, social and emotional skills differ from personality traits in that they are context-dependent, include knowledge and attitudes, and can be behaviorally based. A recent studyshows that behaviorally based social and emotional skills predicted long-term outcomes such as college success over and above broader personality factors. We can teach students contextualized skills that fall under the broader skill of conscientiousness, such as the ability to manage time, stay organized, and be persistent in school-related tasks without attempting to alter their personalities. Indeed, educators try to teach these skills to students every day.

The movement toward universal SEL programming also does not suggest that we are trying to homogenize all students in terms of their personalities. What we want is to ensure that all students have the opportunity to develop each of the social and emotional skills that they need in order to be successful. All students can benefit from being able to work well in teams, persevere, be resilient, demonstrate optimism, communicate effectively, and be curious, lifelong learners. Evidence shows that developing social and emotional skills leads to a multitude of positive outcomes, including increased positive attitudes toward school and improved academic performance, as well as a 1:11 cost/benefit rate of return to society. We also know that of all skills valued by employers, half of these are social and emotional in nature. While we maintain the goal of equipping all students with the social and emotional skills they need to succeed, we recognize that some students will excel in different areas than others.

In summary, social and emotional skills are contextualized, behaviorally based skills that can be organized using the empirically supported and cross-culturally validated taxonomy of the Big Five. The goal of SEL is neither to change students’ personalities nor to make students more alike. Rather, SEL aims to provide all students with the skills they need to succeed in school, in the workplace, and in life.

To read more blog posts about social and emotional learning, click here


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