Fit for the future: assessing skills for the 21st century

By Sheradan Miller
Published 11 Aug 2022

Sheradan Miller considers how qualifications can assess the skills students need for the workplace today and in the future.

Students take our qualifications as a passport to the next phase of their lives, whether that means continuing their education or entering the workplace. But to what extent can these students evidence the competencies required by employers? And do they have the tools they need for independent study in further and higher education?

In media and policy circles, we often hear these highly valued skills referred to as ‘21st century skills’. Questions of how and if to teach and assess them is an ongoing point of discussion. We set out to see what the research evidence has to say on the topic.

There have been many attempts by researchers to define and systemise the 21st century skill set into frameworks*. By comparing and analysing these, we found that the six most-cited 21st century skills were collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, digital literacy and problem solving.

As we began exploring the research, we identified specific teaching styles and examples of assessments for these skills – most of which included a performance-based element. A key issue is that the skills are hard to separate as they are generally multidimensional and interdependent. While this makes teaching and assessment more difficult to design, we can’t ignore this interrelationship.

To illustrate, let’s take the example of collaboration, which involves both communication and problem solving. Of course, students work in groups all the time, but there is no evidence that simply engaging in more group work improves collaboration skills. When it comes to assessing collaborative activities, there are particular challenges. Analysing group dynamics is already complex, so a requirement to assess individual performance adds an additional layer of difficulty. This is something that our team has previously explored, specifically in relation to collaborative problem solving, and we’ve produced resources to support group activities in schools.

Certain skills, for example critical thinking, are better suited to teaching and assessment. But do students need a dedicated course on critical thinking, or is it a more generalised skill? AQA used to offer A-level Critical Thinking as a separate qualification, focusing on established theories and practices to develop skills such as reasoning, decision making and formulating clear arguments. However, much of the research evidence suggests that the teaching of critical thinking principles can be integrated across disciplines. For example, argument analysis, whereby students are asked to analyse and critically evaluate arguments, is already a key element of many subjects.

Other skills are more difficult to teach, assess and even define clearly. Creativity is one example. In teaching, it may intersect with other skills – such as in the case of creative problem solving, where students are asked to think of novel solutions to a problem. When assessing creative works, one technique that may effectively measure creativity is ‘consensual assessment’, where experts in a particular domain independently rate the comparative creativity of different pieces of work, arriving at a consensus view. While research suggests that this method results in a high level of agreement between experts, it has significant practical and cost implications.

Accepting that these skills are intertwined makes teaching and assessment challenging. However, if we think of project-based learning, there are opportunities to incorporate several 21st century skills – eg communication, problem solving, digital literacy and critical thinking. In fact, students may already be engaged in this sort of activity through participation in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award or by taking the Extended Project Qualification.

The knowledge we’ve gathered so far from the research literature provides us with a strong understanding of the landscape for 21st century skills. The next step for us will be to work with colleagues in our curriculum team to further identify where some of these skills are already incorporated into our qualifications and where there may be gaps.

We’ll also be speaking with students and teachers about the extent to which they think AQA qualifications prepare young people for employment and higher education. AQA recently conducted a survey, in England, of 2,032 individuals aged 18–25 years and 500 recruiters to explore their views of different ‘life’ skills. The full report from that study will be published in the coming months.

The future of work is changing with automation and the continued importance of technology. If we can identify these 21st century skills and integrate them into our assessments, engaging closely with schools, we can help students to be as well equipped for the future as possible.

*As well as focusing on the frameworks summarised in Chalkiadaki’s (2018) literature review, we also looked at a UK-specific framework, the Skills Builder Partnership.



Dr Sheradan Miller

Dr Sheradan Miller

Research Fellow

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