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. 

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