What Do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

At NCTE’s Connected CommunityJoseph Robertshaw posed the question: What do college composition instructors want from incoming high school graduates?

The essence of this question has been at the center of my work as a teacher for over three decades—18 years as a high school English teacher in rural upstate South Carolina, two years as lead instructor for the summer institute of the Spartanburg Writing Project, and my current position that in part includes teaching writing-intensive first year seminars and a small administrative position as Faculty Director, First Year Seminars.

Let me start with a caveat about teaching with the next phase of formal education in mind.

Justifying classroom practices in the context of future educational expectations can be very dangerous because I have witnessed too many teachers implementing bad pedagogy because they justify those practices as “what students will need next year.” For example, when the SAT added the writing section in 2005, the one-draft and prompted sample essay as well as the return of isolated multiple-choice testing of writing changed classroom practices, as Thomas Newkirk warned in “The New Writing Assessments: Where Are They Leading Us?”:

[The 2005 addition of writing on the SAT] and the other state-mandated writing assessments are also intended as a message to high schools about the importance of writing instruction. It is worth asking, then, what kind of message these assessments will send. What kind of writing will they promote? (English Journal, November 2005, p. 21)

However, having an awareness and critical insight into future expectations for students does provide both teachers and their students grounding for better preparing students to be self-actualized and autonomous learners. Recognizing expectations for students as writers (even when those expectations are misguided) helps foster student empowerment so that they control their learning instead of education happening to them.

To address well what college professors expect from recent high school graduates in terms of those students as writers, we need to consider both learning experiences provided for students and the quality of student writing artifacts.

Now to the opening question.

College-bound high school students need to understand that writing is central to all disciplines—not something students do in English courses only. Many colleges have expectations that writing will be assigned and directly taught across the disciplines (for example, interdisciplinary first year seminars replacing traditional English 101/ composition courses). Thus, students need experiences with and understanding of both universal characteristics of effective writing and disciplinary conventions of effective writing (see Writing for Specific Fields).

When I was teaching high school, students often complained because I stressed the use of present tense verbs when analyzing literature and the U.S. history teacher required past tense verbs for writing about history. Those students wanted one rule.

But, students viewing writing as bound by rules is the results of classroom practices that foster that perspective. Instead, students need to understand the conventionality of writing and that those conventions are discipline- and purpose-based.

An excellent avenue to helping students move away from seeing their writing within the “one rule” context is to foster genre awareness [1] instead of genre acquisition:

GENRE ACQUISITION [is] a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way….Using well-established pedagogies, practitioners follow a teaching/learning cycle as students are encouraged to acquire and reproduce a limited number of text types (‘genres’) that are thought to be basic to the culture (Macken-Horarik 2002).

A quite different goal is GENRE AWARENESS, which is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts….After my many years of teaching novice tertiary students who follow familiar text templates, usually the Five Paragraph Essay, and who then fail when they confronted different types of reading and writing challenges in their college and university classrooms, I have concluded that raising genre awareness and encouraging the abilities to research and negotiate texts in academic classrooms should be the principal goals for a novice literacy curriculum (Johns 1997). (pp. 238-239)

At its core, promoting genre awareness is an alternative to setting students up for what Scheele labels “the good student trap”—students who have received high grades and praise as good students based on their ability to comply with highly structured assignments (such as answering an essay prompt, conforming to a rubric, or tapping out a five-paragraph essay).

To offer a negative to the opening question, just as art professors at the college level do not want students who have done only paint-by-number, college professors who ask students to write do not want students who can write only canned essays and students who believe “never use ‘I’” or “don’t start sentences with ‘and.’”

And here, I note, is the key quality college professors want from students in all aspects of academics (and life), including writing: Students who are purposeful, thoughtful, and autonomous. Too often the best students approach professors with “What do you want?” instead of having the background and confidence to make their own informed decisions.

As writers, then, students need ample experiences in high school with choice—choosing what texts they read and then choosing what types of writing they produce. Those choices need to be monitored and supported by the expertise of their teachers guiding them to greater and greater genre awareness grounded in the varied expectations of the disciplines: What is an Op-Ed in a newspaper and how does that differ from a Supreme Court Justice’s dissent on a ruling? What makes a poem, a poem, and how is that distinguishable from a short story? And why are there so many different citation styles?

This approach to teaching writing and increasing student agency is particularly challenging if English teachers are the primary or even sole writing teachers in a high school (teaching writing across the curriculum should be a hallmark of secondary education). But the goals noted above grounded in choice and attaining genre awareness across the disciplines do suggest English teachers must consider balancing the types of writing students produce (less literary analysis, more genre and mode/form variety) as well as moving away from teaching MLA (the citation model preferred in the humanities) only and toward raising students’ awareness of the conventionality of citing across disciplines (Why are there no citations in journalism and only hyperlinks in Web-based writing, but students have to cite for academic settings?)

Within the groundings above, then, here are some experiences that high school students need before entering college as young writers:

  • A balance of prompted reading and writing with choice reading and writing.
  • Numerous and extended experiences with writing workshop and multiple-draft essays that receive both teacher and peer feedback. Students need to expect feedback, to embrace drafting, and to know how to respond to feedback in the revision process.
  • Experiences with a wide range of research-based writing that incorporates a variety of citation styles (including hyperlinks as a form of citation).
  • Experiences with writing beyond traditional text-only communication (images, embedded video, etc., with academic purpose).
  • Awareness of the larger concepts of effective writing (coherence, for example), of a sophisticated understanding of the “essay” form (beyond the five-paragraph essay and the narrow thesis sentence), and of the conventionality of grammar, mechanics, and usage (beyond seeing surface features as “rules”). I recommend Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Williams and Bizup) as an effective resource for these broader and more complex approaches to writing and language.

Purposefulnessrichness, and variety are the key concepts that guide me as I seek ways to prepare students for successful college writing. So for one of the initial sessions of my writing-intensive first year seminar, I ask students to brainstorm “rules” they learned in high school that they cannot do in essays, and then we unpack that list (for example, no fragments or never use “I”) to discover that many writers in fact do those taboo things. I help them begin to see that, for example, when a student’s writing is marked for a fragment, the problem is often that the student was unaware of the fragment, had not used the fragment with purpose or intent.

But we also need to confront the negatives—both what students should not do and what expectations college professors have for students that we likely would prefer they did not have.

When students have experienced mostly or almost exclusively writing for A.P. literature exams or literary analysis, they fall into bad habits, such as seeing all texts as a source of identifying literary technique. When they have had their writing mostly corrected and graded (and have not received feedback designed to prompt revision), they see writing as an act of trying to avoid making mistakes.

These, for example, are bad habits that inhibit student success in college as well as presenting to professors qualities often rewarded in high school but discouraged in college.

Another foundational exercise I do with first year students in my writing seminar is identify behaviors that students do that are unlike how people behave outside of school, and then I narrow that discussion to how do students as writers act in ways unlike how professional writers act (and concurrently, we compare “the student essay” with an “authentic essay”).

I then explain to them that my first year seminar is about learning not to act like a student anymore, but to become a writer, and specifically, to become a scholar who writes.

I believe students can begin to learn this lesson before college, as well, and I also think students must be armed with an understanding of the expectations they’ll face in college that are, to be blunt, misguided.

What do college professors want from incoming high school graduates? Too often, professors want students to already know and be able to do those things that many of us would argue are still the job of professors to teach—and in the context of writing, college professors often want students to be grammatically finished before they enter college.

There remains in higher education a narrow and misguided attitude toward surface features and “correctness.” Of course, high school teachers need to address surface features (grounded in the students’ writing), but students as writers will continue to grow in that awareness throughout college and their lives. To be direct, grammatical awareness is simply not something a human can “finish.”

Students need to develop a healthy understanding of language, but also have an awareness that many people continue to judge others based on grammar, mechanics, and usage (see Weaver’s table on status marking, pp. 112-114). Ultimately, and as a college professor myself, I would argue that college professors want students who appreciate and love learning and language, students who have had rich and varied experiences as readers and writers. Students who have confidence in their own voices and ideas along with a balancing humility that they have much left to learn are a joy to teach and are likely to thrive in college.

But I end by noting that high school teachers must not feel burdened to do everything and high school students cannot be expected to be “finished” as prerequisites for entering college. What work left to be done, I think, is a better coordination between high schools and colleges in terms of what it means to be a writer in academic settings, which, I think, is the goal both levels share.

For me, I would prefer dropping the need to ask students to set aside lessons learned about writing in high school as part of continuing in college their journey as scholars and young people who write. And above are some of they ways in which we can all make that happen.

[1] See also Genre Study.

11 thoughts on “What Do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?”

  1. “Purposeful, thoughtful, and autonomous” = students that are clear, objective thinkers. “Purposefulness, richness, and variety” = genuine creativity which of course is dependent upon the above. “Surface features and “correctness” (as you use the term) are not necessarily very human. “Appreciating and loving learning and language” (or any discipline) should be the aim of all education at any grade level – great article – thanks!

  2. Excellent post. One of my favorite English professors complained that students took the life out of writing because they were, as you say, writing like students instead of as writers or as scholars who write. As a student, I don’t think I figured out how to write an academic paper with life until I was in graduate school. As a third-year high school English teacher, this post gives me what I need to know about what I want my students to get out of my class. Even though we’ve only got a few more weeks in this school year, you’ve given me some ideas about writing activities to give my seniors this year! Thanks!

  3. The public school district in California where I taught for thirty years implemented writing across the curriculum—and that also included PE and sports—back in the 1980s and it wasn’t an isolated incident. It was an across the board, popular improvement in education that included workshops for teachers of all subject areas, suggested teaching methods including the use of rubrics so students would get feedback from every teacher. Following writing across the curriculum came the portfolio project centered in English classes but designed to hold all of a students writing for all of their high school years with annual returns to that portfolio for students to assess their writing and pick out work to revise and improve.

    This didn’t happen in just one public school district in California. Even though I retired in 2005, I still know younger teachers who are still in the classroom and according to them, writing across the curriculum is very much alive.

    1. “…grammatical awareness is simply not something a human can ‘finish.'” I completely agree. I love the online debates and cartoons that continually challenge me and teach me to improve my grammar, punctuation and usage. Oxford comma? Possessives and plurals? Text-speak to certain audiences in certain circumstances? capitalizing when on a cell phone? Language is continually evolving and our awareness is ever changing.

      Well written piece. Will definitely share with ALL our high school teachers.

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