Behaviors & Awareness Are Part of College Writing Success


The array of research on college readiness agrees that students need not only content knowledge and cognitive skills, but also certain noncognitive and metacognitive competencies for college success. The California Center for College and Career boils the content of some 12 college and career readiness frameworks down to four common areas of competency: knowledge; skills; productive dispositions and behaviors; and educational, career, and civic engagement.  These frameworks recognize and validate the fact that productive dispositions, behaviors, and engagement are necessary if students are to put their knowledge and skills to effective use. 

Non-Cognitive Competencies Necessary For College Success  

Noncognitive competencies needed for college readiness, according to one group of researchers, can be grouped into five categories: “academic behaviors,” “academic perseverance,” “social skills,” “learning strategies,” “academic mindset.”1 The college-readiness frameworks tend to identify such competencies as “productive dispositions and behaviors,” while the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” includes them within “habits of mind.” We can think of them generally as behaviors needed for college success.

Metacognitive competencies include the ability to reflect on oneself—e.g., one’s thinking, motivations, objectives, performance—and to recognize the social, cultural, and institutional contexts in which one is operating. In the college-readiness framework, the major metacognitive emphasis is on the ability to “navigate” higher education. The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” encourages students’ ability to examine and analyze their own writing processes, texts, and choices. In general, we can think of metacognitive competencies in terms of awareness: students’ awareness of themselves as learners, and their awareness of the institution and society around them. 

Here’s a useful way to think about the noncognitive and metacognitive competencies when it comes to writing. It’s part of our College-Ready Writing Essentials Competencies Framework:

BEHAVIORS (noncognitive competencies)

  • Personal behaviors

Students put forth a high level of effort in the interest of advancing their academic knowledge, skills, and behaviors:

  • Their work is thorough and demonstrates thoughtful effort;
  • They persistently review, revise, and edit their work in an effort to improve its quality;
  • They make efforts to advance their knowledge and skills beyond the minimum required for course completion;
  • They demonstrate determination to improve their performance over time.
  • Social behaviors

Students put forth a high level of effort for the benefit of others in an academic community:

  • They contribute to the community ideas and perspectives that enrich discussion and promote critical thinking;
  • They thoughtfully consider the work of others and provide thorough critical feedback that is intellectually and socially constructive;
  • They make contributions to their academic community beyond the minimum required for course completion.
  • They meet their deadline obligations to others.

Students show respect for others in an academic community.

  • The tone of their exchanges with others is respectful.
  • The content of their exchanges with others is respectful.
  • The focus of their exchanges with others is relevant and on-task.
  • The overall impact of their exchanges with others is supportive of the efforts of individuals and of the academic goals of the community.

Students learn and productively use the language and concepts of an academic discourse. 

They accurately incorporate key academic writing terms into exchanges with others (e.g., “argument,” “ethos,” “credible”).

They demonstrate an understanding and effective use of key writing concepts (e.g., meeting the expectations of an audience; supporting a position with evidence and reasoning).

AWARENESS (metacognitive competencies)

  • Self-Awareness

Students thoughtfully assess the quality of their own effort and performance.

They strive to improve their effort and performance in response to their self-assessment.

They recognize that they are responsible for their own intellectual engagement, for discovering and pursuing their own academic interests, and for determining their own academic motivations and goals.

They thoughtfully reflect on their own motivation and readiness to do college-level academic work. 

  • Social Awareness

Students recognize that becoming an academically educated person entails learning and practicing the modes of communication and meaning-making that are accepted and valued within particular educational communities.

They recognize that the agency of individuals—their capacity for advancing their own perspectives and goals—depends on their ability to communicate and make meaning in ways that are accepted and valued by the communities in which they operate.

They recognize that their relationship to their educational communities— classrooms, schools, discipline—is structured in part by their own background, identity, experiences, and values. 

The studies of middle and high school classroom practices suggest that noncognitive and metacognitive knowledge and skills such as these are missing from pre-college writing instruction.2 Accordingly, a great number of students are not equipped with the full array of competencies needed for successful writing in college. What they learn in high school is not aligned with what is expected of them afterwards.

Spelling out noncognitive and metacognitive competencies in this way allows them to be intentionally folded into writing instruction. And if intentionally taught, then they can be elicited from students in their writing exercises and classroom interactions, then evaluated by teachers. In this way, they can help teachers, parents, and administrators make evidence-based claims about the college-readiness of their students.

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

Dr. Bryant has created College-Ready Writing and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free and paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart and Curmudgication 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 on his American-Educator blog. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Works Cited

  1. Nagaoka, Jenny, et al. “Readiness for College: The Role of Noncognitive Factors and Context.” Voices in Urban Education 38 (2013): 45-52. ↩︎
  2. Cf., Kiuhara, Sharlene A., Steve Graham, and Leanne S. Hawken. “Teaching writing to high school students: A national survey.” Journal of Educational Psychology 101.1 (2009): 136. ↩︎