4 factors to consider in teacher candidates

Holden and Kitchen (2006) said “because teacher education programs have low rates of attrition, failure, and withdrawal (Childs & Ferguson, 2015; Kosnik, Brown, & Beck, 2005), admissions practices are often viewed as the only systematic opportunity to select candidates who are suitable to the program and the profession (Dore et al., 2009).” Current practice uses one or more tools to evaluate applicants’ cognitive and non-cognitive abilities for teachers’ education programs. These can include:

  • Grade Point Average (GPA) measuring academic ability
  • Personal statements exploring relevant experiences and motivation to teach
  • Letters of recommendation from referees chosen by the applicant
  • University level coursework in specialized subjects for high school teachers
  • Extracurricular activities

However, each of these tools alone only show one half of the bigger picture. Together they are a jigsaw, revealing only part of who an applicant is.

Cognitive vs. non-cognitive abilities

Cognitive abilities generally refer to an applicant’s knowledge, intelligence, and motor-functions, whereas, personality, temperament, and attitudes are a reflection of non-cognitive abilities. 

teacher candidates cognitive vs non-cognitive abilities

Admission officers of large teachers’ education programs face several challenges when reviewing applicants. They often face a high number of applications for a limited number of spaces making it difficult to narrow down to who to admit to the program. They have to contend with time consuming and unstandardized non-cognitive measures with limited resources. Holden and Kitchen (2016) found they hold the responsibility of acting as the gatekeepers to the profession; once an applicant enters a program, they will (almost always) stand in front of a class of students. There is tremendous pressure on programs to select applicants well-suited to the profession.  With all that in mind, there are more considerations to take into account when evaluating applicants for teachers’ education programs.

Factors not always accounted for

1. Limits of cognitive measures

GPA is the most common cognitive measure used to assess teacher candidates for education programs. However, it only represents their knowledge of the subject matter. Smith and Pratt (1996) found a weak relation between GPA and performance within the program. 

Professional practice and research has found positive outcomes in the classroom tend to go beyond book smarts. Thus, non-cognitive abilities need consideration when evaluating applicants.

2. How bias creeps in

Reference letters

Reference letters hold very little value due to their low reliability rating and contribution to bias in admissions. Laman and Reeves (1983) found all 147 US programs they surveyed required letters of recommendations, despite knowing applicants choose the referees leading to them being favorable to the applicant. 

The letters are over-dependent on the referee’s own biases and writing ability, therefore have as much to do with the referee as the applicant. One study evaluated letters for applicants with comparable academic qualifications. They found underrepresented male applicants’ letters had included positive words but not used for underrepresented female applicants. Thus, they don’t always reveal the best applicants and have a reputation for being heavily gamed.

Do extracurricular activities measure suitability?

Teachers’ education programs tend to evaluate an applicant’s suitability for the profession based on their extracurricular involvement. Dr. Kelly Dore notes, “while schools have traditionally paid a lot of attention to extracurricular activities, it’s known to put underprivileged candidates at a disadvantage.”

Kleese and D’Onofrio (1994) found many barriers to student participation, including:

  • Family or work relationships
  • Being unable to afford equipment or other expenses (e.g. transport)
  • Lack of interest or alienation from the school

Personal statements 

Personal statements hold an equal level of low reliability, in part due to the help received to write them. Research has found there is no “strong correlation with other personal and professional predictors”. They also require a great amount of time and energy from both applicants and admission officers. 

They also found evaluators of personal statements hold bias regarding gender and the presentation, handwritten or typed. Yet in Ontario, the majority of teacher education programs use personal statements when evaluating applicants.

Despite all the disadvantages of these tools, teachers’ education programs continue to use them during the admissions process in the hopes of being able to assess applicants’ cognitive abilities, non-cognitive abilities, and suitability for the profession. However, there are better ways to evaluate your applicants.

How to evaluate non-cognitive attributes

Admission officers hold their own biases even if they don’t realize it. There are, however, things you can do to reduce bias in admissions, such as regular training, identifying selection tools and processes unfavorable to minority groups, and replacing them with new tools and resources.

Admission officers for teacher education programs can use insight from other fields. Research from Patterson et al. (2016) found the use of structured interviews, assessment centers, and Situational Judgment Tests (SJTs) to be the most effective and fairer than more traditional measures, such as GPA and reference letters. Fortunately, standardized and reliable SJTs, such as Casper, are widely available and require little effort from admission officers. 

3. Applicant motivation

It is important to consider the applicant’s motivation for the teaching profession during the selection process. Research has found applicants tend to fake their reports in personal statements regarding their motivation to join the profession and may be prone to admission officers’ biases

Motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is undertaking an activity for the satisfaction it brings rather than for a secondary consequence, such as salary and job security. Extrinsic motivation is undertaking an activity for a gain of:

  • Status
  • Money
  • Social pressure
  • Fear of judgment 

Research shows behavior is the effect of motivation. Applicants with intrinsic motivation have more interest, excitement, and confidence. This leads to enhanced performance, persistence, creativity, self-esteem, and wellbeing due to good feedback.

Jacobowitz (1994) concluded the interview process wasn’t sufficient to determine whether applicants possessed the desired attributes or to assess their ability. 

Whereas SJTs, like Casper, assess motivation, make the applicant pool more manageable, and are more effective for evaluating applicants compared to more traditional measures mentioned above. Standardized, non-cognitive assessments help you with effective screening of hundreds of applicants to identify those with an intrinsic motivation to be educators.

With a defined mission statement, you will attract the right kind of applicants, helping the evaluation process before it has even started. Focusing on the program’s mission during the applicant evaluation process will help evaluate their attributes. The program’s mission should remain central when evaluating applicants to guide you to make the right decision on whether they align with the program. 

4. Prioritize holistic review

Your admissions team doesn’t have unlimited resources but should still prioritize holistic review. Evidence-based SJTs like Casper need less time and effort and produce better-informed decisions than traditional and unreliable tools mentioned above. 

Casper is widely used across many countries around the world and is highly accessible. Programs receive one score per applicant to use at any time during the decision-making process and saves an abundance of time. The scores are reliable and have predictive validity in many fields, including teachers’ education programs. Monash University used Casper scores and reduced the share of pre-service teachers receiving notices of concern (0.8%) compared to previous years without Casper (10%).


The Ontario College of Teachers states the ethical standards for the teaching profession are care, respect, trust, and integrity, all of which are non-cognitive skills.

A paycheck, or the promise of one, has never been enough to retain staff. The right motivation for pursuing a profession like teaching helps towards the success of applicants. It is important to use evidence-supported, valid, and reliable tools to measure non-cognitive skills alongside measures for cognitive skills. Otherwise, you could end up with a group of good test takers that don’t align with your program’s mission. Therefore, holistic review needs prioritizing to produce more well-rounded applicants.

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