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 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, so it’s not surprising that so many students struggle in multiple disciplines when they haven’t first learned to write.
This blog series is aimed at understanding the college-ready writing problem and exploring solutions. It discusses the research establishing 1) what college-ready writing is; 2) why so many students come out of high school unprepared; and 3) how best to teach writing so that students entering college are ready for college-level work.
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. 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.
As for solutions, we have a number of recommendations, all of which are built into College-Ready Writing Essentials—an online, classroom resource that guides students step-by-step through the composition of an authentic, research-supported academic essay. We did our best to translate the high-level competencies identified by research into practical instruction. Our goal is to help bridge the gap between high school and college writing, so that more students have the competencies and experience they need for success from the moment they first sit down in a college classroom.