Critical Thinking is Central to College-Ready Writing

Critical Thinking is Central to College-Ready Writing

College students are expected to demonstrate critical thinking in their compositions, by insightfully analyzing and evaluating information, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and by contributing ideas, arguments, and solutions of their own. 

Much of secondary-school writing instruction, however, emphasizes formulas and surface features over disciplined inquiry and rigorous analysis. Standardized testing in particular tends to focus secondary school writing instruction on form at the expense of content. As a result, many students come to believe that correct form and mechanics, more than substance, constitute good writing.

The Key to College Success

This misconception can be a major impediment to success for new college students. As Marlink and Wahleithner write, “By privileging form over an exploration of ideas and analysis, the formulaic approach to writing stands in direct opposition to the type of writing expected in the post-secondary world.”[1] In higher education, writing is understood as more than a means for demonstrating command of form and language: it is itself a method of learning, an occasion for complex problem-solving, a tool for discovering and refining one’s own thinking, and for contributing meaningfully to conversations within a discourse community. As Dolores Perin notes, “College instructors routinely assign writing not for the purpose of teaching writing skills, but to promote students’ development of knowledge and ideas.” [2]

Condon and Kelly-Riley identify with some precision the form critical thinking takes in college-level writing:[3]

  • Identification of a problem or issue.
  • Establishment of a clear perspective on the issue
  • Recognition of alternative perspectives
  • Location of the issue within an appropriate context
  • Identification and evaluation of evidence 
  • Recognition of fundamental assumptions implicit or stated by the representation of an issue
  • Assessment of implications and potential conclusions.

Students benefit from understanding prior to beginning their college careers that academic writing will be a primary means for demonstrating not only their language skills and mastery of form, but also the depth of their knowledge and the quality of their thinking. Pre-college writing instruction, therefore, should equip them with this understanding.

If students are to become critical thinkers, they must be given writing assignments that encourage them to develop and demonstrate those skills. That’s why it’s so important that they get the chance to work on authentic, extended, research-supported academic essays. 

For much more information, visit

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 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] Marlink, Jayne, and Juliet Wahleithner. “Improving students’ academic writing: Building a bridge to success.” Berkeley, CA: California Writing Project (2011).

[2] Perin, Dolores. “Best practices in teaching writing for college and career readiness.” Best practices in writing instruction (2013): 48-72.

[3]Condon, William, and Diane Kelly-Riley. “Assessing and teaching what we value: The relationship between college-level writing and critical thinking abilities.” Assessing Writing 9.1 (2004): 56-75.

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

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 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.

Creativity and Critical Thinking

Creativity and Critical Thinking

Creativity and critical thinking sit atop most lists of skills crucial for success in the 21st century. They represent two of the “Four Cs” in  P21’s learning framework, for example (the other two being communication and collaboration). They rank second and third on the World Economic Forum’s top ten list of skills workers need most (complex problem solving ranks first).

The various lists of 21st-century skills grant creativity and critical thinking such prominence in part because they are human abilities that robots and AI are unlikely to usurp anytime soon. The picture of the near future that emerges from these compilations is one in which people must compete against their own inventions by exploiting the most human of their human qualities: empathy, a willingness to work together, adaptability, innovation. As the 21st century unfolds, creativity and critical thinking appear as uniquely human attributes essential for staving off our own obsolescence.

Like many things human, however, creativity and critical thinking are not easily or consistently defined. The Hewlett Organization’s list of  “Deeper Learning Competencies,” for example, identifies creativity not as its own competency but as a tool for thinking critically. Bloom’s Taxonomy treats the two as separate educational goals, ranking creativity above critical thinking in the progression of intellectual abilities. Efforts to pin down these skills are so quickly muddled, one is tempted to fall back on the old Justice Stewart remark regarding obscenity:  “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that yardstick isn’t much help to teachers or students. 

Definitions of creativity tend toward the broad and vague. One of the leading researchers in the area, Robert Sternberg, characterizes creativity as “a decision to buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.”  While this is itself a creative definition, it is not one easily translated into a rubric. 

Definitions of critical thinking don’t fare much better. According to one group of researchers, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Again, a curiously self-demonstrating definition, but not one ready-made for the classroom.

Generally speaking, creativity is associated with generating ideas, while critical thinking is associated with judging them. In practice, however, the two are not so easy to separate. As parents and teachers know well, creativity without critical judgment tends toward the fanciful, the impractical, the ridiculous. “Creative thinking” becomes a nice way of saying that someone’s ideas have run amok.

At the same time, critical thinking gets short shrift when reduced to making a judgment, since, at its best, critical thinking is also a way of making a contribution. It is fundamentally creative in the sense that its aim is to produce something new: an insight, an argument, a new synthesis of ideas or information, a new level of understanding. 

Our grasp on creativity and critical thinking is improved when we see them in symbiotic relationship with one another. Creativity benefits from our recognizing the role of critical thinking in ensuring the value of novel ideas. In turn, critical thinking comes into clearer focus when we recognize it as a creative act that enriches understanding by giving rise to something that wasn’t there before. 

What does this symbiotic relationship look like in the classroom? Here are a few educational contexts in which creativity is disciplined by critical thinking and critical thinking expanded through recognition of its creative function:

  • Writing. Creative writing only works when the writer’s critical judgment is brought to bear on the product of her imagination. However richly imagined, a story’s success depends on the skill with which its author corrals and controls her ideas, crafting them into something coherent and cohesive. Storycraft is accomplished by writers who discipline their own creative work by thinking critically about it.

    Successful academic writing—argumentative, expository—requires not just critical analysis but also creative invention. Academic writers enter into conversation with their readers, their instructors, fellow students, other writers and scholars, anyone affected by or invested in their topic. As in any conversation, a successful participant doesn’t simply repeat back what others have already said, but builds upon it, asking critical questions, fine-tuning points, proposing solutions — in short, creating and contributing something original that extends and enriches the conversation.
  • History. History classes lend themselves readily to creative exercises, such as imagining the experiences of people in the past, or envisioning what the present might look like if this or that historical event had played out differently. These exercises succeed only when imagination is disciplined by critical thinking; conjectures must be plausible, connections logical, the use of evidence reasonable.

    At the same time, critical analysis of historical problems often employs invention and is (or should be) rewarded for its creativity. For example, a student analyzing the US mission to the moon in terms of the theme of the frontier in American mythology is engaged in an intellectual activity that is at least as creative as it is evaluative.
  • Math. Creative projects can generate engagement and enthusiasm in students, prompting them to learn things they might otherwise resist. In this example, a middle school math class learned about circuitry on their way to creating a keyboard made of bananas.  Projects like this one demonstrate that creativity and critical thinking are reciprocal. A banana keyboard is unquestionably creative, but of little utility except insofar as it teaches something valuable about electronics. Yet, that lesson was made possible only by virtue of the creative impulse the project inspired in students. 

The skills today’s students will need for success are, at a most basic level, the skills that humans have always relied on for success — the very things that make us human, including our creativity and our capacity for thinking critically. The fact that our defining qualities so often defy definition, that our distinctive traits are so frustratingly indistinct, is just another gloriously untidy part of us that the robots will never understand.

For much more information, visit

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 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.

What Is College-Ready Writing?

What Is College-Ready Writing?

Why are so many entering college students unprepared for college writing?

Each year, most students graduating from high school go on to attend college, yet the majority are not college-ready. They do not have the writing skills and experience they need for success.

The consequences are significant. Unprepared students often are required to take remedial courses that they don’t receive credit for. Many can’t get past their general education requirements because they don’t have the fundamental literacy skills. They can’t proceed to higher level courses, so fall behind schedule for earning their degrees. Too often they grow frustrated and drop out.

Writing is the skill most linked to college success.[1] It’s therefore not surprising that so many students struggle in multiple disciplines when they haven’t first learned to write.

Features of College-Ready Writing

We have a good idea of the competencies needed for college writing success. Three of the most authoritative voices on college writing—the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project—produced a Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing establishing the knowledge, skills, and abilities critical for college writing.

Many other knowledge and skills frameworks have been produced around college readiness in general, including one from ConnectEd, College and Career Readiness: What Do We Mean?, that distills a dozen or so other compilations, and adds the perspectives of economists, educators, researchers, and policy organizations.

Taken together, these frameworks give a clear picture of the competencies required for success in college. They include not only cognitive but also noncogitive and metacognitive competencies. That is, the frameworks recognize that students must have fundamental academic skills but also must demonstrate behaviors that lead to success (such as persistence and a willingness to cooperate with others) and the ability to think critically about their own learning and their relationship to the school and society around them.

We can think of this collection of competencies as 1) writing knowledge and skills; 2) social and personal behaviors; and 3) self and social awareness.

Identifying these competencies provides some guidance for how best to teach writing to college-bound students. We know, for example, that students do best when prior to entering college they have experience composing extended, research-supported essays—since that’s the kind of writing they’ll be asked to do most often in their college courses.

The research also clearly recognizes that students must know how to function within the social environment of college academics and must develop the habit of thinking critically about their own goals and performance, as well as about how they as individuals are situated within the communities in which they learn and work.

Studies show that high school writing instruction generally is lacking in all three of these areas.[2] Students aren’t gaining experience with extended writing, and there is little overt instruction around academic behaviors and awareness. Little wonder then that so many students arrive at college without knowing what is expected of them or how to meet those expectations.

A number of factors contribute to this gap between high school and college. State standards play a major role, as do standardized tests. In addition, the modes of instruction differ, the theories of composition aren’t aligned, and there’s a big difference in the emphasis placed on critical thinking compared with the surface features of writing, such as spelling and punctuation.

This chart shows some of the major differences between high school and college writing instruction.

In my distillation of the research on writing instructional practices, the problems can be grouped into two primary areas:

1) Students do not get enough instruction and practice in authentic academic composition prior to college;

2) Pre-college writing instruction too often is not aligned with college-level expectations.

Not Enough Authentic Composition

The studies of middle and high school writing instruction conducted in recent years are consistent in finding that students do not get sufficient practice at composing. A report issued by the National Commission on Writing in 2003 stressed the importance of increasing the amount of writing students do,[3] but that increase has not happened: the vast majority of classroom assignments require little generation of text and no critical thinking. In contrast, college coursework typically requires extended compositions in which students analyze, interpret, and construct evidence-based explanations and arguments.[4] 

An abundance of research thus indicates that most students’ writing experience prior to college is not rigorous enough to prepare them for the demands of college-level academic work. They are not getting enough experience at authentic academic composition and the interpretive reading, analysis, argumentation, and other higher order skills that go with it.

Whatever forces outside the classroom are working against them, this lack of rigorous writing experience is a major disadvantage to students entering college, since, as one study found, “the academic intensity of the student’s high school curriculum still counts more than anything else in precollegiate history in providing momentum toward completing a bachelor’s degree.”[5]

Myriad causes underlie the absence of composition in middle and high school instruction. Classrooms are overcrowded, making it impractical for teachers to assign extended projects that require them to read and respond thoroughly to a large volume of student prose.[6] 

Standardized test preparation tends to drive classroom instruction toward short, inauthentic writing assignments, at the expense of writing that requires invention, sustained engagement, research, multiple drafts, and other dimensions of authentic academic work.[7]

Writing, especially argumentative writing, is a difficult skill to teach, even under the best of circumstances.[8]  Many composition teachers feel unprepared, and there is a widespread lack of confidence among them that their approach is in synch with how their students will be asked to write in post-secondary classrooms. [9] 

In addition, available instructional resources, despite claims of alignment with college-readiness standards, often do not support the competencies actually required for college success; nor do they conceptualize or contextualize writing in ways that convey to students the important work that writing accomplishes within and beyond academics. [10] 

There is no universal definition of college-ready or college-level writing, in part because there are such wide differences in the academic demands of postsecondary institutions, from open-access community colleges to highly selective universities.[11]

Nevertheless, the large number of sources seeking to define competencies needed for college writing success agree that postsecondary students, whatever their institution, must be prepared to produce extended pieces of writing that critically engage with source materials and other perspectives, and that conform to academic conventions of style and presentation.[12] 

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing states that college writers should demonstrate rhetorical knowledge, critical thinking, a knowledge of writing processes, and knowledge of conventions, as well as habits of mind such as engagement, persistence, and responsibility.[13] 

The competencies needed for successful academic writing are acquired through direct instruction and practice. Students who do not have an opportunity to begin learning and practicing such skills prior to leaving high school consequently are unprepared for college-level work after graduation.

Misalignment between pre-college instruction and college expectations

A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented.[14] According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford University, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college.”[15]

Efforts by many states to integrate instruction from pre-K through college via collaborative “P-20 Councils” have proven difficult to sustain and have lost momentum in recent years.[16] 

High school graduates themselves recognize large gaps in their preparedness: only one in four reports that their high school set high academic expectations, while over 70 percent say that, knowing what they know now about the expectations of college and the work world, they wish they had taken more challenging courses in high school.[17] 

Even though writing is the academic skill most essential to college success, rigorous writing is among the fundamental areas of disjuncture between high school and college instruction.[18] Indeed, the majority of college students themselves feel that their writing does not meet expectations for quality.[19] 

As one group of writing researchers states, “the distance between high school and college is not just another step up some academic staircase but instead a chasm.”[20] 

Not enough authentic composition happens in pre-college classrooms, but when composition is taught, in what ways is it at odds with what students encounter in college? Standards play a role, as does standardized testing. In addition, the way teachers and students interact is different in high school writing classrooms, compared with college.

Attention to noncognitive and metacognitive skills also differs between high school and college.

But one of the most important differences, in my view, is in the theory of writing operative in each venue. How we conceptualize writing determines how we go about teaching it, so if high school teachers and college instructors hold fundamentally different assumptions about what writing is, there’s no surprise if their methods of teaching are misaligned.

Understanding the nature of the misalignment is a necessary step in designing a better approach.

For much more information, visit

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 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] cf. Achieve, 2014; Attewell, Heil, & Reisel, 2011; Barry & Dannenberg, 2016; Briggs, 2009; Conley, 2007; Conley, et al., 2006; Shapiro, et al, 2017; Shulock & Callan, 2010. 

[2] cf. Applebee & Langer, 2011; Bridge, Compton-Hall, & Cantrell, 1997; Graham, et al, 2014; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Palincsar & Klenk, 1992; Perin, 2013; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Troia, 2007.

[3] National Commission on Writing, 2003.

[4]  Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009, p. 151.

[5] Adelman, 2006. Also see Attewell & Domina, 2008; Long, Conger, & Iatarola, 2012

[6] Applebee & Langer, 2011; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; National Commission on Writing, 2003; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.

[7] Applebee & Langer, 2011; Council of Writing PRogram Administrators, et al., 2011; Hassel & Giordano, 2013; Hamp-Lyons, 2002; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013.

[8] Lunsford, 2002; Prior, 2006

[9] From their national survey of high schools, Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken (2009) report that “seventy-one percent of all teachers indicated that they received minimal to no preparation to teach writing during college” (p. 148). See also Graham et al, 2014; Kirst & Bracco, 2004; Marlink & Wahleithner, 2011; Read & Landon-Hays, 2013; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013; Venezia & Voloch, 2012.

[10] Council of Writing Program Administrators, et al., 2011; Hassel & Giordano, 2013; Perin, 2013; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013.

[11] Marlink & Wahleithner, 2001; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006

.[12] cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2003; Harris, 1996; Sparks, et al., 2014.

[13] Council of Writing Program Administrators, et al., 2011.

[14] cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013; Venezia & Kirst, 2017.

[15] Venezia, Kirst, and Antonio, 2003.

[16] Perna & Armijo, 2014; Rippner, 2017.

[17] Achieve, 2014.

[18] Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2007; Denecker, 2013; Hoppe, 2014; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Tsui & Gao, 2006.

[19] Achieve, 2014.

[20] Sullivan, Tinberg, & Blau, 2012 (p. 28).