What Students Need for College Writing Success

What Students Need for College Writing Success

In the 1980s, a highly influential new model of writing arose from researchers Linda Flower and John R. Hayes.1 It described the process of composition in terms of cognitive functions: the mental processes by which writing decisions are made, ideas are translated into written language, long-term and working memory are engaged, etc.—in essence, all of the things that go on in a person’s head as they write. 

Cognitive Competencies

In this “cognitive model,” writing competencies develop according to a natural progression as students mature. Individuals may progress at different rates, but the cognitive process is pretty much the same for everyone. Instruction therefore need not concern itself with differences in students’ identity or background; it need only focus on developing a collection of skills.

By the 1990s, the cognitive model of writing was shaping instruction across primary and secondary education, and it continues to be predominant in pre-college instruction today.

In higher education, however, the cognitive theory of writing has been challenged and supplemented by sociocultural theory. This theory accounts for the fact that, whatever cognitive processes are at work in the production of text, writing is always shaped by the particular social and cultural contexts in which it takes place. The writer is always situated within a discourse community, which has its own governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and behaving. Learning to write, then is largely a matter of getting socialized into particular discourse communities—such as the discourse community of the college classroom. 

That’s not to say that cognitive functions aren’t still recognized and emphasized in college writing instruction, however. They’re still found in the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” for example, where they are identified as “skills and knowledge” (in contrast to “habits of mind”).

Specifically, the Framework identifies: 

  • Writing process skills
  • Rhetorical knowledge
  • Critical thinking
  • Knowledge of conventions. 

If these, according to research, are the cognitive competencies students need in order to be successful college writers, how do pre-college instructors ensure that students get a chance to develop them before heading off to college?

The best way, in my view, is by making sure students have opportunities to work on composing authentic, extended, research-supported essays. This is the kind of writing that develops and demonstrates these competencies; not by coincidence, it is also the kind of writing students are asked to produce most often early in college. 

Extended essay assignments provide a way to translate the high-level cognitive competencies identified in the readiness framework into specifics that can be demonstrated in student writing and evaluated by instructors. For example:

Writing Process Competences: Students successfully use planning, drafting, revising, and finalizing process strategies to compose their extended, research-supported academic essay.

Rhetorical Knowledge: As students compose an academic essay, their considerations and decisions are guided by a thoughtful understanding of the writing task, their purposes for writing, and their audiences. They use modes of expression and reasoning that are valued and persuasive within college academics. 

Critical Thinking: Students demonstrate an ability to insightfully analyze and evaluate ideas, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and to contribute their own well-reasoned ideas, arguments, and perspectives in turn. 

Knowledge of Conventions: Students understand that academic discourse communities expect texts to adhere to established conventions of form, style, and presentation. Their writing demonstrates an ability to adhere to the conventions associated with an extended research-supported academic essay, by exhibiting correct grammar, mechanics, and formatting; effective organization; and appropriate tone and style.

Research suggests that students must develop specific cognitive competencies to be successful writers in college. The best way to develop those competencies is to practice composing authentic academic essays. Pre-college writing instruction therefore should include opportunities for students to begin learning how to produce extended, research-supported compositions. 

For much more information, visit collegereadywriting.com.

William Bryant, PhD is the President and Co-Founder of BetterRhetor Resources, an educational publishing & services company he and his wife operate headquartered in Prescott, Arizona.

Dr. Bryant has created collegereadywriting.com and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free & paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart, Curmudgication, and Bright Magazine. and worked for a decade at ACT Inc., lastly as Director of Writing Assessments.

In addition to college readiness, Dr. Bryant writes about education, equity, democracy—and how they fit together. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


Works Cited

  1. Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “A cognitive process theory of writing.” College composition and communication 32.4 (1981): 365-387. ↩︎
College Readiness & College-Ready Writing: A Crosswalk

College Readiness & College-Ready Writing: A Crosswalk

By this point, the college-readiness gap is well documented. The majority of students entering college are not ready for college-level work: nearly three quarters of 12th-graders fail to meet standards of academic proficiency; more than half of all students entering college need remedial coursework; almost half of all students who enter college fail to complete their degrees.

In the case of writing—our special concern here—less than 30 percent of 12th-graders write at a level considered “proficient,” according to The Nation’s Report Card.  

The lack of college readiness is made all the more frustrating by the fact that we have a pretty good idea of what students need to know and be able to do if they’re going to succeed in college. Evidence-based frameworks for college readiness abound. There’s also a knowledge and skills framework for successful college writing. 

It hasn’t been easy to translate these frameworks into practical, hands-on instruction (though, in the case of college-ready writing, I have given it my best effort: see the online resource I’ve developed, College-Ready Writing Essentials). Nevertheless, the necessary knowledge and skills have been identified, and that’s an important first step in addressing the college-readiness gap.

Aligning College Readiness Research with College Ready-Writing Research

It’s reasonable to wonder, however, how well the research on college-ready writing aligns with the research on college readiness in general. That is, does the guidance offered by the writing framework conform to the broader vision of college readiness proffered by the college readiness frameworks? This seems an especially appropriate question, given the importance of writing to overall college success.

To answer that question, I did a comparison of the two frameworks, a “crosswalk” to see where they might overlap, contradict, or complement each other. 

For overall college readiness, I used the ConnectEd report, “College and Career Readiness: What Do We Mean?.” It combines a digest of some 12 college- and career-readiness frameworks with the perspectives of leading economists, educators, researchers, and policy organizations. The report provides a comprehensive, high-level description of knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed for success after high school. 

The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” was produced by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, three of the most authoritative voices on college-ready writing. This framework identifies the skills needed for early college writing success, in alignment with the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition.”

Together, the “Framework for Success” and the “WPA Outcomes Statement” are intended to “help establish a continuum of valued practice from high school through to the college major.” After first-year composition, students are expected to be prepared to learn how to write in their disciplines. 

Unsurprisingly, the two frameworks align well, though I note a comparative under-emphasis on metacognitive skills in the writing framework, as discussed below. 

The frameworks in many cases use differing terms and categorizations to express the same or similar concepts. “Persistence,” for example, appears in the writing framework as a “habit of mind,” but in the college-readiness framework under “productive dispositions and behaviors.” For the purposes of the crosswalk, it’s useful to categorize elements of both frameworks in terms of cognitivenoncognitive, and metacognitive competencies.

I like “competencies” as a term that can encompass the “knowledge,” “skills,” “dispositions,” “behaviors,” “strategies,” and “habits of mind” found in the frameworks. In practice, these attributes often are inseparable from one another, especially in the writing domain: in the actual production of a successful academic essay, many of the abilities a writer must employ call upon intermingled knowledge, skills, and behaviors. 

Cognitive competencies include the mental skills and knowledge employed in the production of a successful academic essay: for example, the ability to plan and research, produce a draft, and revise in response to feedback. The college-readiness framework refers to such competencies as “core academic knowledge and skills.”

The cognitive competencies found in the writing framework can be viewed as the “core knowledge and skills” that pertain to academic writing. They include “rhetorical knowledge,” “process skills,” “critical thinking,” and “knowledge of conventions.” 

Noncognitive competencies are behaviors and dispositions needed for academic success. In education research, these often are enfolded within the category of “social and emotional learning” (SEL) skills, though that term is not used by either of these frameworks.

In general, the college-readiness framework identifies noncognitive competencies as “productive dispositions and behaviors,” while the writing framework includes them within “habits of mind.”

I feel confident in calling this group of competencies “noncognitive,” since many of them are identified as such in other studies. Nagaoka, et al., for example, identify five categories of noncognitive college-readiness factors: “academic behaviors,” “academic perseverance,” “social skills,” “learning strategies,” “academic mindset.”

These categories match many of the “productive dispositions and behaviors” and “habits of mind” found in the two frameworks. 

Metacognitive competencies include the ability to reflect on oneself—e.g., one’s thinking, motivations, objectives, performance—and to recognize the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which one is operating, including the processes and systems that structure knowledge and agency within education. In the college-readiness framework, some metacognitive competencies are named as skills and behaviors.

The major metacognitive emphasis, however, is on the ability to “navigate” higher education, the world of work, and civic life. 

The writing framework encourages students’ ability to examine and analyze their own writing processes, texts, and choices, but does not stress a broader awareness of the function of writing in academic, work, and civic realms. This appears to me a missed opportunity, since a strong metacognitive grasp of writing is of aid in each of these contexts.

The table below illustrates my alignment of the ConnectEd college-readiness framework with the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, using the cognitivenoncognitive, and metacognitive competencies categories. 

What we gain from this exercise is an ability to see how college-ready writing competencies fit into the overall picture of college readiness.

One of the biggest takeaways, to my thinking, is how thoroughly we should be integrating noncognitive and metacognitive competencies into writing instruction.

For much more information, visit collegereadywriting.com.

William Bryant, PhD is the President and Co-Founder of BetterRhetor Resources, an educational publishing & services company he and his wife operate headquartered in Prescott, Arizona.

Dr. Bryant has created collegereadywriting.com and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free & paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart, Curmudgication, and Bright Magazine. and worked for a decade at ACT Inc., lastly as Director of Writing Assessments.

In addition to college readiness, Dr. Bryant writes about education, equity, democracy—and how they fit together. Connect with him on LinkedIn.