Cognitive, Intrapersonal, and Interpersonal Competencies

Cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies, according to learning scientists, form the foundation of communication and thought. Learn about these highly prized, workforce-competencies.

Cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies, according to learning scientists,

  • are the primary competencies required to learn, think and communicate
  • are composed of clusters of competencies, some of which are interdependent
    • For instance, conscientiousness (the ability to work hard, to preserve in the face of critique and obstacles) is both an intrapersonal and an interpersonal competency
  • are malleable
    • and learned by exposure to declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge
    • and developed in response to rhetorical situations (life!) and knowledge domains
      • For instance, Research Methodology is a Knowledge Domain. Definitions of what are acceptable Research Methodologies varies across contexts: different methodological communities, academic disciplines, professional organizations use different research methods.

From this perspective, a writer’s cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies determine how well a writer thinks and communicates with others.

Synonyms: 21st century literacy; Workforce Competency; Deeper Learning

Literacy, as defined by the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) community is an amalgam of many competencies, skills, knowledge, and dispositions.

In Education for Life and Work (2012), The National Academies of Sciences theorizes that human thinking and communication are made possible by a cluster of three core competencies.

  1. Cognitive Competency
  2. Intrapersonal Competency
  3. Interpersonal Competency.

These competencies are composed of multiple, interdependent clusters of competencies. Competencies coalesce to form clusters of competencies that people access when confronted with particular rhetorical situations:

  1. The Cognitive Domain includes three clusters of competencies: cognitive processes and strategies, knowledge, and creativity. These clusters include competencies, such as critical thinking, information literacy, reasoning and argumentation, and innovation.
  2. The Intrapersonal Domain includes three clusters of competencies: intellectual openness, work ethic and conscientiousness, and positive core self-evaluation. These clusters include competencies, such as flexibility, initiative, appreciation for diversity, and metacognition (the ability to reflect on one’s own learning and make adjust- ments accordingly).
  3. The Interpersonal Domain includes two clusters of competencies: teamwork and collaboration and leadership. These clusters include competencies, such as communication, collaboration, responsibility, and conflict resolution (Education for Life and Work, p.4).

The Academy views cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies to be deeply interrelated and interdependent. In the illustration below, note the Academy places reasoning/argumentation and communication at the heart of their literacy construct.

Perhaps most importantly, the Academy views cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies to be dynamic properties (as opposed to static, fixed traits) that evolve as we develop as individuals, face new rhetorical situations, and engage in deeper learning and literacy practices.



Critical Thinking




Appreciation for Diversity



Intellectual Openness


Positive Core Self-Evaluation

Teamwork & Collaboration

Intellectual Openness

Work Ethic
Positive Self Evaluation

Why are Intrapersonal & Interpersonal Competencies Important?

Traditionally, schools have been chiefly concerned with measuring students’ cognitive abilities (e.g., ability to recall knowledge over time and reason logically). In the U.S., educational policies such the No Child Left Behind Act focus primarily on cognitive competencies. College-entrance exams like the SAT and graduate-entrance exams like the GRE also primarily assess knowledge and cognitive reasoning. Often school grades are designed to assess cognitive performance on individual tasks.

Recently some assessments of U.S. students’ reading and math skills have found that U.S. students are doing poorly in comparison to their counterparts at other nations. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a test of 15 year old’s reading, science, and math skills. In 2015 the U.S. ranked 18th out of 34 participating countries in adult literacy rates, and in another study of adult literacies, U.S. students ranked 29th out of 30 countries in its reading abilities, sentence processing, comprehension, and vocabulary (OECD, 2015). At the post-college level, millennials (i.e., 1980+) with the highest educational attainment rates scored lower on literacy competencies than similarly educated millennials in 15 of the 22 participating countries on the PIAAC (Coley et al., 2015). Disconcertingly, only 24% of graduating college students scored at proficient levels for writing (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012). And at the high school level, 40% of high school students who took the ACT in 2016 lacked the writing proficiency to complete a college-level writing class and 57% of SAT takers also did not qualify as college ready (College Board, 2013; NAEP, 2016).

As a consequence of these findings the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation and Department of Education is interested in better understanding how intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies are developed and how those skills relate to cognitive competencies and success in school settings.

In Education for Life and Work, the National Research Council concluded cognitive competencies have been found to be only marginally correlated with success in school and work. To put it more prosaically, some people have Mensa-level IQs, yet they can’t get off the couch, can’t click away from Netflix, or would just prefer to be left alone so they can read a book, play music, or do some art work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Life is short and ideally people have agency—the power to direct their lives as they wish.

Subsequently in a follow up report to Education for Life and Work, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2017 concluded in Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies that

  • Schools give too much emphasis to cognitive competencies.
  • Schools need to focus more on developing students’ intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies because these competencies
  • Intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies are more predictive of success in school and the workplace than cognitive skills
  • Cognitive, Intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies are needed for success in the 21st century workplace.

21st Century Literacies & Writing Studies

Writing Studies is an academic discipline grounded in the humanities and education rather than STEM. Some theorists and researchers in Writing Studies have shared the STEM community’s curiosity about the role of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies in writing processes.

Back in the 1980s, for instance, writing theorists such as Robert Boice wrote beautifully on the psychology of writing. And the creative writing community has long since been fascinated with the writer’s character, or psyche. Since the 1950s, the The Paris Review, has published numerous interviews of writers, asking them to talk about ways they leverage self-regulation, emotion, and experience.

Cognitive Competencies

Cognitive competencies involve thinking, reasoning, and related skills.

When asked to reflect on their composing processes, professional writers often say that writing is a powerful tool for learning:

  • Writing and learning and thinking are the same process.  William Zinsser
  • Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers. Isaac Asimov
  • For me writing is foremost an act of thinking and when it works well, an act of discovery. Joseph Epstein
  • How do I know what I think till I see what I say? E.M. Forster

At first glance, it’s pretty obvious to just about everyone that success as a writer is largely shaped by cognitive competencies. For instance, writing requires a combination of (1) domain knowledge about Writing Studies and (2) reasoning skills. Knowledge of writing and reasoning competencies are intertwined organically as writers

  • identify a thesis or research question
  • recognize when claims need support (anecdotes, theories, empirical data)
  • conduct strategic research
  • synthesize data and literature, etc.
  • appeal appropriately to logos, pathos, ethos, kairos
  • weave sources into your text to support claims

But how does thinking work?  How can you become more effective thinker?

Reasonable experts in Writing Studies would most likely answer this question differently given that writing is such a complex, organic, recursive, rhetorical, psychosocial process. 

That qualifier aside, we believe language and writing are interwoven; that writing is thinking. 

Knowledge of the domain of Rhetoric plays a King Kong-sized role in critical thinking. Whether you want to sell a used car, write a federal proposal to obtain $5M in funding, or pitch a business case study to get a job at McKinsey, a consulting firm, you need to analyze the rhetorical situation, conduct pertinent research, craft appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos, organize the document to emphasize your thesis or research question, to shape your focus and research methods.

Intrapersonal Competencies 

Being a successful writer involves more than intelligence and knowledge. You also need to develop your intrapersonal competencies, including

  • hard work and persistence;
  • a growth mindset;
  • metacognitive skills;
  • self-regulation skills.

The great news here is that writing both requires and strengthens intrapersonal competencies

And! And! And! Writing enhances your agency as a human being. . .

Here, by agency we are referencing your personal power. By this we don’t mean the idea that you will be a Machiavellian sort of character who bends other people to your will nor do we mean you’ll always get what you want. Rather, we mean that by knowing your inner self you are in a better space to know what you want with your life.

Writing requires intrapersonal competencies
To complete writing tasks, writers need the behaviors and dispositions that constitute intrapersonal competencies: 

  • Growth Mindset
    Rather than assume that writers are born and not made, empower yourself by adopting a positive attitude about writing.
  • Metacognition
    When writers are revising documents or planning ways to get the work done, they are engaged in metacognition–thinking about thinking. To evolve as a writer, to filter through critical feedback, you need to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Openness
    Being open to new knowledge, diverse opinions, and new composing strategies are important dispositions and strategies, particularly if you are engaged in collaborative work or working with clients/readers who have different values, priorities, and goals.
  • Resilience
    Writing well is founded on hard work and persistence. Researching, weaving sources into the text to support your position, and prioritizing critical feedback can be extremely demanding–timewise and personally. Getting tough feedback can be emotionally draining. Plus, you may work really hard on a task and still fail, despite  your best evidence. So, you have to learn from failure, to make lemons into lemonade.
  • Self-Regulation
    Ultimately, just as we are born alone and die alone, we write alone. You are the architect of your success or failure as a writer (see Work Ethic & Project Management).

Whether U.S. employers are justified in their impression that college graduates lack strong intrapersonal competencies is certainly open for debate. These sorts of competencies are extremely hard to assess (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017)). That said, it is our view as teachers, researchers, and writing program administrators in college and university settings that many of our students possess deep intrapersonal competencies.

Even so, we acknowledge there are cultural forces that impede self-reflection and the development of intrapersonal competencies, including the 24 hour news cycle, social tools like Twitter or Instagram, and the lack of long-form writing in high school and university settings.

In summary, writing regularly presents ample opportunities to develop your intrapersonal competencies. Writing daily is like going to the gym every day: it strengthens the grit within you, the capacity to face obstacles, to recognize that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome, one day at a time.

Interpersonal Competencies 

“Interpersonal competencies involve expressing information to others”
(National Research Council 2012).

Okay, so writing is thinking. Nothing helps develop your cognitive competencies so much as working through a complicated problem in writing (or using mathematical symbols or musical symbols to solve math or musical scores). Regarding cognitive competencies, we explored how it’s useful to distinguish declarative knowledge from procedural knowledge

Second, we affirmed the role of intrapersonal competencies. Writing is invariably challenging and emotionally exhausting. Other people and life experience may endeavor to wear you down. Invariably writers face adversity (e.g., the difficulty of expressing complex concepts, expressing ideas in ways readers can understand, and dealing with the negativity of critics). Hence, we have argued you should embrace your birthright: 

you are a creative, smart person.

By adopting a Growth Mindset, you can maximize your potential. Now, this doesn’t mean we can all be William Shakespeare, but it certainly means that we can be expressive, creative, smart, competitive.

Now, we aim to address the third and perhaps the most important 21st century competency: interpersonal competencies.

So, why do view interpersonal competencies to be so important?

One cynical answer is that everyone is smart in the knowledge economy. If you are smart, presumably, you can compete with others around the world. Cognitive skills are assumed as prerequisites in the knowledge economy. Likewise, the ability to set goals, to have grit in the face of adversity (i.e., intrapersonal competencies) is a presumed pre-requisite competency to be competitive..

What isn’t necessarily presumed is a somewhat new, emerging competency: the ability to work with teams, often virtually. 

The modern-day workplace has supplanted the ingenuity of the individualist pioneer. Nowadays, rather than Sergio and Page working away in their garage to create Google, there are teams of engineers, program managers, designers, and creative people working in team settings on new technologies. Presumably, right now the big arms race is 5G.

Here, we are not saying that the will of the individual is no longer important. Rather, we are saying the will of the individual is actualized, turbocharged, by collaborative tools that enable the individual to speak from the one to the many.

Based on our experiences as teachers, we are familiar with the groans of students who complain about group projects. Until recently, well, ok, even now, our society has prized individual performance. At least in the U.S., test scores and individual grades, not contributions to the teams, define access to opportunity.

Nonetheless, the future is collaboration. Hence, Collaboration at Writing Commons explores

  • the competency to provide and receive critique in productive ways;
  • the competency to make decisions and work as a leader;
  • the competency to negotiate Peer Review processes;
  • The competency to coordinate work in teams, i.e., Project Management

Education for Life and Work represents a major effort on the part of STEM scientists, cognitive-development theorists, and learning theorists to develop a competency-based model of 21st Century literacies.

Education for Life and Work was researched and written by experts from the National Research Council, the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Board on Testing and Assessment; Board on Science Education; Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills. The community of researchers followed publication of Education for Life and Work with numerous additional publications, including Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies in 2017.


National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. J.W. Pellegrino and M.L. Hilton (Eds.), Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, Center for Education, Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral Sciences

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017). Supporting Students’ College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies. Washington D.C.: National Academic Press.

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