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

By: Dana Murano, Jason Way, Cristina Anguiano-Carrasco, Kate E. Walton, and Jeremy Burrus; Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning, ACT, Inc.

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 study shows 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.

What do you think of using the Big Five to organize social and emotional skills?


Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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  1. I appreciate the authors putting forth the debate about using the Big Five Model as an SEL assessment framework and wonder if they or others can point to research that discusses the relations between the Big Five model and students’ learning. Some of us, like me, working in the SEL field may not be familiar with the utility of the Big Five model as a tool that aides understanding of how to promote learning of new skills. If a goal of SEL assessment is to promote learning of SEL competencies and related skills, what is the evidence that the Big Five model might facilitate this process?

  2. Very interesting connections here, one piece that is important with SEL is that the skills need to be teachable, measurable, and malleable. I wonder about the malleability of some of the skills within the Big 5, such as items within Extraversion and Agreeableness. I’d love to see some research/resources related to those areas though.

  3. Per the research referenced, it looks like anxiety and extraversion are the two personality traits easiest to affect via intervention. I would guess that this is because anxiety can make it difficult to speak up, therefore, reduce anxiety = increase communication. Makes sense. It also makes sense the trait openness could be improved within an environment where there is “permission to fail” and mentors (aka teachers) who model this trait.
    Frankly, it’s rather mind blowing for me to think these personality traits could be malleable…

    • I agree, Anna.. mind-blowing based on what I was taught. Recently, I have been looking into this and here are just of few of the resources I found that support malleability. Hope this is helpful.

      Hudson and Fraley point out, changing patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving can eventually lead to permanent changes in different personality traits.

      Hudson, N. and Fraley, R. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), pp.490-507.
      Non-clinical interventions impact marked changes in personality measures.
      In young adulthood – (Neyer & Asendorpf, 2001; Robins, Fraley, Roberts, & Trzesniewski, 2001).
      In middle age – (Hill, Turiano, Mroczek, & Roberts, 2012)
      In old age – (Mottus, Johnson, & Deary, 2012)
      People become more confident, agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable with age – (Roberts. Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006)

  4. It’d be great to see a crosswalk across all SEL-related taxonomies, including the Big 5 personality framework and the CASEL core competencies. It’s unclear to me that the Big 5 as a *personality inventory* is the best to capture SEL. I’d suggest the project of SEL is in building skills and mindsets, not personalities as such. But I see value in that taxonomy and am open to it! 😉

  5. I wonder if you know of any ways that schools are using technology to address social emotional learning? No doubt that if our students aren’t getting their basic needs met, it will make it awfully hard to pay attention in class and participate in the learning process.

    The Otus Student Performance Platform is designed to unify school systems around a common teaching and learning platform removing the need for tools that are typically disconnected from one another: classroom/learning management systems, assessment management platforms, and data analytics systems. We’ve recently partnered with Thrively to fills an interesting gap by supplementing all of the information teachers know about a student’s school life, with their true purpose and passions. You can learn more here https://otus.com/otus-and-thrively-team-up-to-help-k-12-students-identify-personal-strengths-interests-passions-and-purpose/

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